Although I believe in prayer, I may quit asking for prayer requests in the Bible study class I teach. The same people always dominate our requests, and they mention lurid details that are not appropriate. How can I redirect this important aspect of our faith community?
You described why many Baptists quit attending Wednesday-evening prayer meeting and why others skip prayer time during Sunday school: The weekly recitation of gall bladder removals, knee replacements and hemorrhoidectomies.The gross—literal and figurative—over-sharing of private information. The mind-numbing, plot-twisting prayer petitions of those who feel compelled to contribute to the prayer list, even if it’s a stretch, for “my neighbor’s second-cousin’s co-worker’s granddaughter, whose hamster died.” And the malicious gossip disguised as prayer requests.
Oh, the memories.
To be sure, most Christians—Baptists included—believe in intercessory prayer. We cherish the commiseration of caring sisters and brothers. We take hope from laying pain, need and sorrow on the altar of prayer. We lean into the assurance of God’s love and power to bless. But prayer requests sometimes resemble a mash-up of Bad Theology 101, supermarket tabloids and a Freudian brain freeze.
How do we “redirect” this mess? It’s hard. But here are some ideas, presented in escalating order of intensity:
• Set the tone. Invite prayer requests, but remind participants the information they share does not need to be explicit and detailed. The Lord knows all the details, so we don’t need to.
• Apply the Golden Rule. As you open the prayer time, note one of Jesus’ most-quoted teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Ask participants to consider how they would want prayer solicited on their behalf, particularly the level of detail they would want reported. Urge them to respond accordingly.
• Lay down the law. Tell class members about HIPAA—the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. While the reach of this law might not strictly extend to the confines of your Bible study, Christians should desire to follow the spirit of the law. Its Privacy Rule seeks to ensure the proper protection of individuals’ health information.
• Establish ground rules. Specifically state the kinds of prayer requests—or the level of detail of requests—appropriate or inappropriate for your group. If medical details should not be disclosed, say so. If the details of relationships, job status or family situations should not be divulged, say so.
• Take the bull by the horns. Or, in this case, the prayer-requester by the ear. If, after taking all these steps, your class still is plagued by problematic prayer-requestors, speak with them directly. Although not designed specifically for this situation, Matthew 18:15-17 provides a Christlike template for directly appealing for changed behavior.
And, of course, pray the offending parties will wise up, grow up or shut up.
Marv Knox, Editor
If you have a comment about this column or wish to ask a question for a future column, contact Bill Tillman, consulting ethicist for “Right or Wrong?” at firstname.lastname@example.org.