A psychologist friend of mine once told me, mid-conversation, that the ‘mmmmm-ing’ I was emitting and the ‘mmmmm-ing’ she was reciprocating with actually had official psycho-babble (my term, not hers) names: they were minimal encouragers.
Minimal encouragers, I thought, that makes sense. You know how it goes: a parishioner needs a pastoral chat, a co-raconteur is regaling you with a tall tale, a colleague is offering up their latest evangelistic idea, and you find yourself ‘mmmmm-ing’. Perhaps without knowing it, you’re urging them on to tell you more, anticipating the next nugget of news, humouring them so that silence won’t discourage them, agreeing with the overall sentiment of what’s being said (or, at the very least, agreeing that they agree with the overall sentiment of what’s being said).
And it’s not just the one-to-one, in-the-flesh conversations in which the minimal encourager makes its presence felt. Think of the multitudinous phone calls you make to various agencies and companies that require a transaction of information. If we haven’t given, we’ve certainly gotten.
(Indeed, whether branded as such or not, minimal encouragers are most likely the bread & butter of telemarketers; minimal enough to not be a nuisance but not feeble enough to give you an out, leaving lots of room for the all-important pounce upon the sympathetic buyer to whom it’s just occurred that yes they do need a new mobile phone and yes they would like to change gas & electricity providers… but I digress).
All of this gets very interesting when we come to the presence of ‘mmmmm’ in corporate prayer. I’ve been in enough corporate prayer meetings to hear (and give) my share of mmmmm’s. Why do we do it? Are we just applying the same minimal encourager modus operandi to yet another verbal transaction, or is there something more to it? Don’t we risk drowning out the tail end of a prayer by offering up a pre-emptive mmmmm?
What’s the volume ratio – loud guttural outbursts for the really-agreeable and pipsqueak hums for the somewhat-agreeable? Who is our audience – God whom we think should hear our muffled agreement, or our praying sisters and brothers whom we think should hear our muffled agreement? Is this about vicarious praying, ie. employing the same amount of emotional force to the post-prayer mmmmm as though we ourselves had prayed it? Are we enacting Romans 8:26 and the Spirit-inspired “groans that words cannot express”?
In times past, I have occasionally been an ‘mmmmm counter’. A what?!, I hear you ask. An ‘mmmmm counter’: one who mentally notes the amount of mmmmm’s emitted and received by each respective pray-er. I know, I know, pathetic isn’t it? Apart from being a little bizarre (what was I planning to do with my results anyway – publish a weekly ‘most-mmmmm’d prayer tally’?), the obvious hiccup is that it renders one completely unable to actually listen to the prayer, thus hindering any encouragement one can give or receive. So I’ve endeavoured to stop.
But lest I sound flippant, there are other dangers to unthinking mmmmm-ing. There’s a temptation to mmmmm only to the prayers said like you’d say them; perhaps the ones starting with ‘as it says in your Word…’ or the ones littered with ‘by the power of your Holy Spirit’ or the ones that end ‘for your glory’s sake…’ scratch your itch.
There’s the inherent temptation for those of us who seek human praise to seek a vocalised mmmmm’s instead, customising our prayers according to what will achieve maximum agreement. For a well-practiced ‘mmmm-ing’ praying group, there’s an unspoken exclusion at work when a visitor doesn’t mmmmm. And then there’s just the ambiguity of what’s actually going on when anyone mmmmm’s, sometimes leading to misunderstandings aplenty. Who hasn’t heard a grunt-sized ‘mmmmm’ after someone prays humility for someone else?
I realise, however, they are called minimal encouragers for a reason. There’s nothing intrinsically sinful about ‘mmmmm-ing’ at all, and like all communicatory gifts from our Lord, it can be used for godly or godless ends (hello Facebook). What strikes me as I position myself as a public pray-er more and more is that God looks at the heart (not surprisingly), so He’ll know if I am concentrating or counting.
What’s more, He knows the hearts of my fellow pray-ers, so He sees what motivates their agreement, He sees what they’re resonating with. Further, how can He not be honoured by a group full of Christians vocalising their shared passion for Him?
Personally, I know the countless times this has achieved its end: I’ve walked away uplifted by the praises of the people of God. And in the end, how can I judge or begrudge someone worshipping the Lord with every fibre of their being, and it just happens to sound like a whispered post-prayer ‘yes Lord, praise you Jesus’?
The preacher who wrote the letter to the Hebrews stops me short of de-mmmmm-ing my prayer life altogether.
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness… Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb 3:13, 10:25).
Rob Imberger is a rookie minister who prays & is prayed for by the good folk of St. John’s Diamond Creek. For the record, his more frequent encounters with the phrase ‘mmmmm’ involve Homer Simpson and a donut.
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