They used to have a rule in the church my parents attended, that prayers should follow the ABC rule. They should be Audible, with no mumbling; they should be Biblical (with no weird deviation into prophetic territory), and Concise, because frankly God has places to be. A church at the fairly conservative end of the spectrum, it had little time for rambling, self-indulgent prayer, and if you ever prayed something that wasn't entirely in line with their super-orthodox theology, someone else would quickly pray a 'corrective' prayer to make sure God didn't send down a lightning bolt or something. For a young person it wasn't hugely conducive to developing a genuine friendship with Jesus, but hey, at least the services ran on time.
While that might sound slightly oppressive however, it did at least create an environment where prayer made sense. Which is more than you can say for some churches. At the other, more liberated end of the prayer spectrum you find a very different phenomenon, where Christians who are much less concerned about the ABC rule fill their prayers with an array of strange culture-specific words and phrases, making them a bit hard to follow, especially if you're an outsider. In the longer, passionate prayers of the more charismatic evangelical wing of the Church, the increased word count and shared love of jargon can send us reaching for a strange shared language register which we all joke about and subscribe to in equal measure. And while that's of course something we can all enjoy a little smile about, it does contain a problem: it can make faith look a bit weird to the uninitiated. Here's a few examples of what I mean:
"Just" - The king of verbal prayer crutches, this is the word so many of us insert into prayers when our mouths are running faster than our brains. Like a word you've stared at too long though, its total over-use in charismatic prayer has caused its meaning to completely disintegrate. We mean it to suggest we're really serious; which is weird when it's actual definition is to lessen the impact of what is being said. But that's not the end of the story...
"Really just" - because when we need a bit more time to think, or when we're wanting to add a sort of redundant emphasis to our prayers, we can slip in another word and create a brilliant oxymoron. So we pray something like: "Lord we really just want to just thank you Lord just for everything you've really just done in our lives", which sort of makes sense in the context of the subculture. But imagine if you translated that approach to communication to your everyday life, like say a visit to the doctor. "Hi Doctor, I'm just really just having a problem with just my bowel movements. I really just, Oh Doctor, I just wondered if you could just give me just some pills Doctor?" He'd really just think you were odd.
"Hedge of protection" - One of a range of gardening metaphors* to find their way into our prayers, this phrase is a very visual description of how the pray-er would like God to 'surround' the pray-ee. It's not without biblical precedent: Job 1 includes a moment where the phrase is used to describe God's protection of the soon-to-be-devastated main character, although worryingly it's actually coined by Satan. Literally then, this is the Christian phrase from hell.
*See also 'rooted', 'good soil', 'bearing good fruit' and (genuinely) 'prayer trellis'.
"Travelling mercies" - This is a phrase that is absolutely only used by Christians and people in the Old West in 1879. When someone is about to go on a journey of some sort, these words are a great shorthand to ask for safety, no delays and a decent vegetarian option on the plane. Perhaps this felt more fitting when people were travelling by stagecoach and steamboat; now it just sounds like a half decent name for a Christian Country & Western band.
"I just want to echo that" - Often the first line of a prayer, this sounds like an affirmation of what someone else has just prayed; in fact it's an admission that the previous person just said everything that you were planning to. Christians love to echo each other in meetings too, for much the same reason. This sits on the dangerous intersection between Christian vocabulary and management-speak, which opens up the worrying scenario that we might start asking God to 'action' our prayers.
"We're crying out for more of you / we just need more" - Now, don't misunderstand me here. I'm not suggesting for a moment that we don't all need more of God in our lives, or that we couldn't all become more transformed into a closer likeness of Christ. The problem is when we keep asking for / crying out for / being desperate for more of God's presence and power, and then not really putting any of that into action before we come back the following Sunday and cry out all over again. An over-use of this kind of phrase can end up turning us into batteries that never leave the charger.
I've prayed pretty much everything on this list, even the weird hedge thing. And of course, we shouldn't beat ourselves up about the words we use when we pray, or get legalistic about what we can and can't say to God, lest we're back at that rather restrictive ABC model. But it's good to think about the words we use when we pray, not only because they might sound weird and alienating to new people, but also because they can reveal that we're on autopilot. In truth, God just wants to hear from us; like any good parent he just loves it when we turn our attention to and spend time with him. That's just the heart of prayer. Really just.