By Rev. Howell Scott, senior pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Alamogordo, NM. This article originally ran on his blog, From Law to Grace.
By now, many have had the opportunity to watch Pastor Joe Nelm’s ”prayer” at last weekend’s Nationwide Federated Auto Parts 300 race in Nashville, TN. Since his unusual invocation at the July 23 NASCAR event, Helm’s prayer has received over 1.8 million views on YouTube.
While I had read a little bit about Nelm’s and the uproar caused by his prayer, I had not taken the time to watch the video of the prayer until Sunday night. There is no question that Pastor Nelm’s prayer has stoked a debate about the appropriateness of such a prayer directed to Almighty God. Whoever posted the prayer on YouTube dubbed Nelm’s missive as “the best prayer ever.” Others, like Dave Miller at SBCVoices, found the prayer“tasteless and profane,” but allowed commenters to answer the question posed by the YouTube video, “Best Prayer Ever?”
Before providing my own answer to that question, I want to direct you to a spot on analysis of the prayer controversy surrounding Pastor Nelm’s NASCAR invocation. While I don’t always agree with him on every theological jot and tittle (although we probably agree on more than we realize), Jared Moore, who I have gotten to know through our mutual contributions to SBCVoices, has written a great piece at his blog.
Entitled, “What if the NASCAR Preacher Had Sung the National Anthem Irreverently?” Moore answers that question by comparing the reaction of the American public to the butchering of the National Anthem by Roseanne Barr to their reaction to the irreverent “prayer” given by Joe Nelms. Amazed at how many — including many Christians — are defending Pastor Nelms’ prayer, Jared asks a penetrating question:
“So, I have a question for Christians that are defending the Nascar Prayer: Why is it wicked to irreverently sing the National Anthem, but it isn’t wicked to irreverently pray to the Creator of all things? Is it not worse to trample our only Savior and God underfoot than to trample men and women underfoot?”
While Jared did not answer his own question, I’ll take a stab at it. During a Bible study on the book of Revelation that I was leading Sunday night, we got into a discussion of the coming judgment of God upon a rebellious world. In the midst of the discussion, we agreed that most people — even many who call themselves Christians — simply do not have a “fear” or reverence for God. That may be sporadically or most of the time.
When we do not revere God, then we allow ourselves (and others) to do that which ought not to be done. When we pray, we are not praying to be heard by the crowd — as Nelms’ apparently was — but we should be praying to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the One who spoke the Universe and World into existence. No matter how one wants to spin it, to approach a Holy and Awesome God in a way that does not communicate a proper reverence for God is by very definition irreverent. Unless one to employ Orwellian definitions, then there should be no question that Pastor Nelms’ prayer was irreverent.
That Pastor Nelms has tried to defend his prayer only complicates the matter.
“I never rehearsed any of the prayers that I’ve done. I don’t know, I just got up there and let’er rip, I guess. I knew that I wanted to do something different. Every time, I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do the cookie cutter prayers that everybody does.’ I wanted to make an impression on the fans. (emphasis added) I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know it would be that until I got on the stage.” (full article here)
There’s just one problem with that justification: the only One that we are to make an “impression” on in our prayers is God. Jesus had something to say — and it was negative — about those who would stand on street corners or at NASCAR events and pray so that they could be heard by others. Those at the NASCAR event were not the audience for Pastor Nelms’ prayer, no matter how sincere he was in his desire to reach the masses.
That Nelms does not recognize this can be seen through his apparent belief that God Himself used his prayer to bring others to church. (God also spoke through a donkey once.) And, for that, Pastor Nelms is not apologizing. In fact, it sounds like he would do the same thing if given the opportunity (which no doubt he will be afforded):
“ I wouldn’t apologize for doing it. I would do the prayer again because of what it’s done. Some of the emails that I have gotten from people have said they’ll be at church on Sunday, not necessarily at our church, I’m talking about people from Arizona and Utah and Washington and all of these different places that say they’ll be at church because of that. That’s amazing to me that I had that kind of impact, that the Lord used just a little humor to show folks that Christ can be fun, too.”
So, for Pastor Nelms, the ends justify the means. That’s exactly what he is saying when he tells us that he would do the prayer all over again “because of what it’s done.” I suppose he is talking about the folks who have emailed him, telling him that they are getting back into church. Well, if that is the standard, then why not turn church worship services into entertainment venues where motorcycles and cars are driven onto the platform by the “cool” pastor of the church? Or, luring the unchurched to visit by promising to talk explicitly about sex? Oh, that’s right. This is already happening.
When we do not fear or revere God, then any and everything is possible. It is not surprising that so many Christians have simply laughed off Pastor Nelms’ prayer as nothing more than humor. I’m pretty sure God is not laughing!