NASCAR, Prayer & an Irreverent Baptist Preacher

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!


About Howell Scott

I have been a Southern Baptist pastor for the last fourteen years. Before entering the ministry, I was a practicing attorney in my homestate of Florida. I have been married to my wife, Brenda, for 18 years and we have three sons, Stephen, Jacob, and Andrew.
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15 Responses to NASCAR, Prayer & an Irreverent Baptist Preacher

  1. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Howell,
    Let’s see if I can cite my disagreement with your article without endorsing Pastor Nelms prayer. While I agree with you that we are to revere God and that such a prayer as was prayed at the NASCAR event was a bit, shall we say, irreverent. I am not sure I can agree with your total assessment of this event. As a BI guy, I am strong on showing reverence toward God and especially when one prays. As a matter of fact, Jared would not be in the same ball park with me on my understanding of God and His holiness. And your post here points to exactly what I am saying. Jared used the Roseanne singing that triggered an emotional outburst against doing such a thing again over the Star Spangled Banner. By doing such he relegates Praying to God and the people that are upset over the way the pastor did it to a performance by a TV star and how she sings. Is this not showing irreverence by placing prayer on this level to illustrate a point?

    Two points I want to make here. First, Pastor Nelms should not as a man of God or anyone pray to God in such a way. I love humor as much as the next person and am known to practice much humor in my ministry. However, when it comes to prayer one should not joke in prayers to God–including during the time of praying before the meals. At some gatherings at the convention the people have started eating before the “official” prayer is offered and the person begins the prayer by saying; “bless the food including all that is within me.” Second, Praying this prayer the way he did was wrong. There is not any need whatsoever to do a “look at these people” to make your point valid. Praying a prayer to God is not even close to singing the National Anthem. Rosanne can sing to her heart’s content on that and it would never offend me. As a matter of fact I would sign up again to defend her right to sing that song the way she desires. Oh yeah, I would sign up again to allow Pastor Nelms, regardless of how much I disagree with him, to pray that prayer again. That is what is great about living where we live.


    • Jared Moore says:

      Tim, did you read my full article?

      • Tim Rogers says:

        Brother Jared,

        No, I have not read your article. I probably am not stating this in an exact way. However, let me try again. I am not in disagreement with you that the reactions to Rosanne’s singing and the irreverent prayer certainly show a disengagement of society as to the importance of country and the lack of importance of God. I am saying that your associating the two adds to this disengagement as you have placed prayer in the same category by using the illustration. Your argument is that if we are going to be outraged at the singing of Rosanne, we should show as much outrage as the prayer. I am saying that we should be absolutely astounded that we have Christian/Pastors defending this type of behavior. Also, we have a YR&R pastor in Seattle that is known for using profanity in the pulpit along with encouraging “anything goes” in the bedroom for married couples that included sodomy. The Christian world responded to this how? They affirmed him in his position and even charged some of us who publicly disagreed as being out of touch with the younger generation. Now, I know your next response to me is that the pastor apologized for his profanity in the pulpit. However, if what is being pointed to is an apology then either I do not understand apologies, or others do not understand debasing language.

        Thus, it is amazing to me that some of the very ones that defended this young pastors position on the use of such language along with his debasing message concerning intimacy within the marriage relationship, find a pastor speaking about his “smoking hot wife” and ending his prayer with “boogity, boogity, boogity” as being irreverent.


    • Howell Scott says:

      Bro. Tim,

      Thanks for the comments. I would certainly not equate praying to God and singing the National Anthem nor would I place them in the same level. That’s not what I got out of Jared’s post and I don’t think that that was his intent either. His juxtaposing Roseanne butchering the National Anthem and the reactions she got with Pastor Nelms’ prayer and the reactions that he got served as a good illustration of how many people in America — particularly those who are culturally Christian — view these kinds of things. At least that’s how his post spoke to me. I had refrained from even commenting on Nelms’ prayer, but I thought Jared’s illustration and observation was spot on. As to Roseann’s and Nelms’ “right” to sing or pray, I would certainly not argue with you there. They have every right to make fools of themselves (in Roseanne’s case) or to pray what many would consider irreverent prayers (in Nelms’ case). Thankfully, we live in a country that allows us to sing or pray or worship or write blog posts that others might not agree with or like. For that, we are blessed. Hope you have a wonderful week and God bless,


      • Tim Rogers says:

        Brother Howell,
        I think I expressed to Brother Jared the things I wanted to express in my comment to you. Therefore, I will not, as they say in Texas, chew my cud twice. 🙂 Suffice it to say that I find using the analogy adds to the issue that we have people appalled at the singing and the same people are not appalled at the prayer. It is like, if these people would have come out as equally appalled at the prayer then that is good. I am saying there should have been no one appalled at either. These two people will stand before God. We have a Brother Pastor that has used his national platform to promote his “smoking hot wife”, his children he calls “The Little E’s”, and ends his prayer with “boogity, boogity, boogity”. Why should I be appalled that God allowed him to walk off that stage. God could have struck him dead right then and there.


      • Howell Scott says:

        Bro. Tim,

        I can understand your concern expressed to Jared regarding the hypocrisy of some who would call out Pastor Nelms’ for his irreverent prayer, but would fail — largely because they agree with his theology — to call out the Seattle pastor for using inappropriate language in his sermons. Nothwithstanding the fact that the Seattle pastor and others have apologized for some of that language (the cussing), you still have sermon series in major evangelical and Southern Baptist churches which are devoted to an explicit exposition of the Song of Solomon on a Sunday morning. Not that we cannot preach on Scripture that deals with sexual topics, but our intent should not be to use the topic of sex to “draw a big crowd.” And, particularly in a diverse crowd on a Sunday morning, I think we could refrain from preaching explicitly on sexual themes. Surely a small group Bible study would be a more appropriate venue for some of this stuff. You definitely are right when you mention those (and I would not put Jared in this category) who feign righteous indignation over Pastor Nelms, but remain silent about other profane, irreverent, and silly stuff that takes place in America’s churches every week. Thanks and God bless,


  2. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Howell and Brother Jared,

    By no means do I want to imply that Brother Jared is one that feigns righteousness indignation over this particulare incident.


    • Jared Moore says:

      Tim, do you think it’s fair to judge my article based on 1 quote from Howell? I don’t see how in the world you can get your assumption from my article. You have unfairly judged me based on limited knowledge. My article is very short; and it would take you a minute to read it. I have not placed the illustration side-by-side with prayer as you suggest.

      Not only this, but then you spout off stereotyping me with other young reformed pastors concerning Driscoll. I agree with much of what Driscoll says; however, I disagree with his use of vulgar language, illustrations, etc. from the pulpit. I’ve written about this briefly on my own blog and on sbcvoices as well.

      You owe me an apology; although I seriously doubt you’ll apologize.

  3. Holly Ward says:

    Hello All,

    I for one totally agree with the (I believe) intended jist of the article. I believe the prayer was irreverent and offensive, but totally within the man’s rights to pray of course. I feel it makes a joke of God in a huge way because this was a large platform reaching many, many people. In fact, in some ways I am not sure I would call this a prayer since the pastor stated this was meant to make an impression on PEOPLE, not GOD. I feel this gives many (another) way to mock Christianity…..a colleague who is not Christian stated “See, even the Baptist preachers don’t really care about being all holy”…..this is not a great image to portray our love of God to others. Yes Christians have fun, but this was tooooo much.

    As for the argument of sorts depicted in the responses here, I absolutely feel Mr. Moore was in no way comparing the actual prayer to the actual singing of the anthem, but he was clearly writing about reaction to the two. There is a big difference there and reading the article in entirety makes this clear.


    • Howell Scott says:


      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment tonight. I appreciate your perspective, particularly how this “prayer” affected a colleague of yours in a negative way. Of course, Pastor Nelms has the “right” to pray however he feels led, but that does not mean that his very public prayer is immune from scrutiny. He admits that his prayer was not really aimed at God (which is the only One for whom prayer should be “aimed”), but rather for the people in attendance at the race. Perhaps in his zeal to reach people for Christ he mixed up prayer and evangelism. Like you, I did not read Jared’s post as in any way equating Roseanne’s singing of the National Anthem with praying to God. In fact, I though his illustration — which highlighted people’s reactions to the two — was spot on. Thanks again for stopping by. God bless,


  4. Holly Ward says:

    I have enjoyed learning more about how others view this incident….to each his own.

  5. Mr. Scott,

    No doubt you’re familiar with my blog, Baptist Spirituality, since you’ve quoted me before. Thanks for this article on the Nascar prayer. Do you mind if I reprint it on Bapt. Spirt.? Of course, I’ll direct folks to your website if they are interested and append your name to it.

    Rev. Joe LaGuardia

  6. Pingback: NASCAR prayer calls into question the integrity of public witness « Baptist Spirituality

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