Friday, April 18, 2008

Popcorn Prayer

I used to feel comfortable sharing off-the-top-of-my-heart prayers out loud with others. It wasn't always that way - my comfort only grew with the example, encouragement, and practice time the members of my Protestant Bible study and youth group meetings provided. But verbal "free" prayer (not memorized or ritualistic) brought me into a new intimacy with God and with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I thrived on that spiritual closeness.

Somewhere along the way someone told me that allowing a small group of people to pray out loud as the Spirit leads them is called "popcorn prayer" because the prayers POP at random when the kernels are ready. I liked the idea of it - no one is expected to pray in turn or even at all. But all prayers are welcome.

When my involvement and ministry transitioned from interdenominational to strictly Catholic during my senior year of college, I was eager to encourage my more reticent Catholic brothers and sisters to open their hearts and their mouths to God. Popcorn prayer seemed a great way to do it. When I led prayer groups, small groups, and youth ministry meetings, I often incorporated popcorn prayer into our time together. Sometimes the participants got engaged - other times silence dominated. I tried to take it all in stride.

Well, today I read a post about "The 'Pray if you feel led' Prayer" over at Stuff Christians Like (a witty new blog I'm reading these days). In item #159 writer Jon Acuff reflects on the stereotypical experience of those involved in what I refer to as popcorn prayer.

For example:

"Suddenly, there's an expectation. In less than a minute that opening prayer is going to be finished and you'll be faced with an incredibly difficult decision. Do I pray? Do I feel led? When do I pray? When is the 'Closer' going to speak up and put an end to this prayer? How do I not start praying at the same time as someone else? So many questions, each fraught with danger and intrigue."
If you're interested, read the rest of the post (and the comments). Then come back and help me with my new dilemma: for the love of the people I serve (especially the super-self-conscious youth), should I vow never to inflict this torture on others again? Is "pray as you feel led" a problematic endeavor all around, or is there still merit to inviting others to voice their praises and petitions in the intimacy of a small group of friends?

PS I would SO loved to read a "Stuff Catholics Like" blog - I'm not witty, though, so I'll leave that for someone else.

Edited to add: It exists!! Looks like Stuff Catholics Like just began this month.


Devin Rose said...

I used to be an Evangelical Protestant, and spontaneous prayer was the only kind of prayer we ever did, aside from one Our Father during the Sunday service; My friends and I did "popcorn prayer", too, and there are some Catholic groups I have been involved with that do it, too.

I don't like it because I get distracted by all the things you mentioned that some people think of; also, there becomes an expectation that everyone will say at least one prayer, and when it gets down to one person being left who doesn't feel led to pray anything, he feels uncomfortable because everyone expects him to say something since he is the only one who hasn't, etc.

That being said, I think it can work in a small group that is close knit; once the group gets too big, I usually start thinking, "I'm not going to pray just so this doesn't go on for another 10 minutes"...not the most pious thought, but it shows how mundane, practical annoyances can, for some people, make the experience less than worshipful.

Frances said...

Thank you, Devin. You highlight even more ways that "spontaneous" prayer in groups can make people uncomfortable. I will definitely do well to consider the particular needs and personalities in the groups I plan for in the future. I am reminded, though, that working through my discomfort with vocal prayer (aided by others' encouragement and example) led me to a closer relationship with God. Intimacy with Christ is worth the challenges we face in any type of prayer experience. Thank you for helping me to remember these things.