An invocation prayer is a way to give greetings to God. Typically, it invites and welcomes God's presence at an event or ceremony. The prayer may also ask God for help; for example, that the decisions you're about to make be good ones. It's possible to use invocations for all occasions, such as graduations, city council meetings and religious ceremonies, but what works in one setting is often not the right choice in another.
You don't have to be a religious leader to offer an invocation prayer. America has a long history of religious faith, so it's common to open many events with some sort of religious invocation. Along with religious gatherings, prayer takes place at school events, congressional events and club meetings.
An invocation prayer at government and school events is often described as purely ceremonial rather than an expression of religious feeling. In a Christian religious setting, asking God to be present is a far more serious matter. Similarly in Islam, prayer is a direct, unmediated connection between the worshippers and Allah.
A ritual invocation in a church, synagogue or mosque may have to be done formally, according to the rules of the faith. If you're making an invocation before a business or club meeting, you don't have to worry as much about following an exact religious formula.
You may feel that a prayer made up in the moment is better than writing it in advance. Some religious traditions place a high value on spontaneous prayer as coming from the heart. However, if you're opening an important meeting with every eye on you, you run the risk of fumbling, blanking or saying something unwittingly offensive.
One pastor put it this way: If you were submitting a petition to a king or president, you'd want it polished, edited and practiced first. From a religious perspective, that's what you're doing when you offer an invocation prayer. It's also important you not ruin the event for others; for example, by giving a bad invocation speech at graduation.
You don't have to create an invocation prayer completely from scratch. Humans in all the major religions and sects have been praying for centuries. There's no shortage of sample prayers for different occasions published online and in books of religious advice; if you're part of any organized religion, you can probably find suggestions and guidance there too.
If you do want to write your own, keeping it simple is probably wise. You can build your invocation prayer around a simple formula, for example:
- Address God as appropriate for your beliefs.
- Talk to God. This is where you ask for what you need: a blessing on those in need, a request that God guide your decisions or support when everyone's exhausted.
- Wrap up. A formal conclusion such as "Amen" ends things nicely. You don't want to start floundering after everything else has gone well.
- Whatever you say, keep it short.
- Use "we" rather than "I." At a group event, you're speaking on behalf of everyone there.
If you've been asked to make an invocation prayer in your local house of worship, you can be confident everyone there shares a common bond of faith. If you're making a prayer or invocation speech for graduation or some other upcoming event, your goal should be to include people of multiple different beliefs.
- Don't preach. Secular government or business events aren't meant for converting people to your views or faith.
- Avoid using sectarian or specifically religious language. Prayers at government events that invoke the name of Jesus have often provoked objections from non-Christians. Prayers that invoke Yahweh or Allah by name would run into the same problems.
- Accept that you may not be able to include everyone. Even a well-written invocation speech for graduation may not work for every religion or for atheists. That's not an excuse to ignore or offend them, but if you accept the responsibility of writing a prayer, you'll have to live with disagreement.
A big difference between giving a speech or prayer at a private business function and a school event or local government meeting is that government-connected meetings have to comply with laws about freedom of religion. There's a long history of legal battles over the issue, and a correspondingly lengthy list of Supreme Court precedents.
A 2014 Supreme Court ruling established that opening local government with an invocation prayer doesn't violate anyone's freedom of religion, even if the prayer is specific to one sect or faith. To be legal, the prayer cannot advance or disparage a particular religion and residents mustn't be pressured into sitting and listening.
That hasn't ended lawsuits over the practice, though. In 2019, a Texas attorney recruited a religious-freedom group to file suit over a judge's practice of opening courtroom sessions with prayer. The attorney said he felt coerced into participating for fear it would bias the judge against him otherwise.
The 2014 Greece v. Galloway ruling, known as Galloway for short, did set some limits on what's legal. At time of writing, these are still lines government invocations can't cross:
- Invocations that denigrate religious minorities or nonbelievers.
- Invocations that threaten damnation or call on listeners to convert.
- The government leaders call on the public to participate.
- Leaders single out dissidents and criticize them.
- The government body threatens that its rulings might be shaped by whether you join in the prayer or not.
The goal of a good invocation prayer should be to solemnize the occasion, nothing more.
Catholic or Protestant private schools are free to hold any prayers their faith calls for. In public schools, not everyone shares the same beliefs and freedom of religion is an issue.
Coercion is a bigger problem in K-12 schools than in government meetings. Students may not have the freedom to leave, and youth and inexperience may make them susceptible to peer or teacher pressure. Courts have taken a tougher line on what's acceptable.
As a result, most prayers at school events are student-led rather than by adults. If you're asked to give an invocation speech for graduation or a prayer for another event, it should be completely non-sectarian.
If you're asked to give an invocation prayer or speech but you aren't a religious believer, you can still assume the responsibility. Atheists and secularists have given invocations at local government meetings, state government and other events. Like religious prayers, you can find examples online, though it may take a little more research to find one you like.
An atheist invocation might focus on the importance of freedom of religion or on the shared humanity of everyone in attendance. Like a religious prayer, the invocation can call on everyone present to exercise good judgment and compassion toward each other.
Atheist invocations that actively criticize religion or religious believers will have a tougher time getting heard. In a 1998 Murray, Utah, incident, the city refused to allow one atheist to deliver an invocation criticizing the role of religion in government. The atheist, Tom Snyder, took the city to court but lost, then lost again on appeal.