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What kind of prayer is that?

August 13, 2011

Well, it is not often the pre-race prayer at a NASCAR event monopolizes the headlines over the race itself but Pastor Joe Nelms of Lebanon TN managed to do that a few weeks ago on a Saturday night.  In what has to rank as one of the most unusual prayers I have ever heard, Pastor Nelms gave thanks for, among other things, “GM Performance Technology” and “Sunoco Racing Fuel.”  As he moved through his prayer he got personal and thanked God for “his smokin’ hot wife, Lisa” before closing with “in Jesus’ name, boogity, boogity boogity, amen.”  As one might expect the prayer has become an internet and media sensation.  If you haven’t seen it you can easily find it all over the internet.

What are we as Christians supposed to think about such a prayer?  There might be some who feel the prayer is trivial or even sacrilegious.  Others might hear some of the laughing on-air commentary from pundits and think it brings shame or discredit to the church.  Well, perhaps, I don’t know.  My first reaction was elation however.  I work with a number of NASCAR fans and I knew they would have heard it.  I also knew that I would be kidded about it at work, which I was.

Should we be upset with the unusual prayer that made us as Christians look a little strange?  The important thing to remember is where was this prayer given and who heard it?  It was at a Nationwide series race deep in NASCAR territory.  So who might have heard it and how might they have responded?  The answer is clear from the video, it was heard by racing fans and they loved it.  For many, it may be the first time they ever paid attention to the pre-race prayer, or any prayer for that matter.

I don’t know Pastor Nelms but I do know two things.  For one, internet traffic to his church’s web site has skyrocketed.  The site, with a clear declaration of faith, is being seen.  Secondly, for many, probably for the first time in a long time, they are thinking about what we Christians believe.  Who is to say what comes from it?

Frankly, Pastor Nelms’ prayer did nothing to move me personally closer to Christ.  But I was not his witness target in the prayer.  I suspect it may have been a great prayer to open a few doors to discussions of spiritual matters, just not my door.  I have little doubt that, were he to be invited to give the opening prayer at a meeting of UNC academics, (if you can imagine that) his prayer would be different.

The principle here is clear.  In evangelism, in forming relationships with unbelievers, we need to go where they are and relate to them in ways that they can understand.  In doing this it means that the approach will vary from person to person and culture to culture.  And sometimes that approach will look odd to others.

Does that sound familiar?  It should, it is the evangelism philosophy of the Apostle Paul.  In I Corinthians 9:22 he says “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”  I suspect that Pastor Nelms was doing just that on that Saturday night.  He knew who he was trying to reach and spoke to them in ways that they could understand.  Here is the principle:  While our message never changes, our methodology to deliver it is entirely flexible.

Frankly, more often than not, the best evangelists don’t look like evangelists at all.  They may be covered in grime as they help a neighbor fix his car; a busy mom taking time to minister to a neighbor or friend; or any number of ordinary people extending gentle grace in countless ordinary ways.  And the best evangelism may not be standing on a soapbox giving sermons.

So what about the guys I worked with?  Yes, I got kidded about Pastor Nelms’ prayer.  But one of the jests was this one – “Does your pastor say ‘boogity, boogity, boogity’ in his prayers?”  To which I replied “Well, not so far, but if you agree to come to church on Sunday I’ll ask him.”  I’ll let you know Pastor Ken if he plans on coming.

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