When Is It O.K. to Pray in Public?

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If someone asked you to lead in prayer at a public school assembly, what would you do? What if it were before a public high school football game? That’s easy, you say; if someone asks me to pray, then by goodness I’m gonna do it! Didn’t Paul tell us to pray without ceasing? Isn’t such a prayer a form of witness to Jesus Christ?

But hold up there a minute, cowboys and cowgirls; you might want to think about one or two things before you accept that invitation. Obviously, a lot has been written from a legal or constitutional standpoint on this subject of public prayer. I have no expertise with which to join that side of the conversation, and I hence I’m not going to try. What I am going to attempt is to think with you about some of the specifically Christian issues involved when a follower of Jesus stands up to pray in such a situation.

The first thing to do is ask what kind of public gathering we’re talking about. In the first example above—a public school assembly—the question is whether a branch of the government has mandated, expected, or encouraged attendance. If that is the case, then here’s what’s at stake for Christians:

  1. A branch of the state (the public school) has used the state’s authority to endorse (however mildly) a religious act. The individual’s acceptance of the validity of this religious act depends, however partially, on the coercive power of the state, rather than the free exercise of the individual’s conscience. The state has thus usurped a portion of that sovereignty over the individual conscience that belongs to God alone.
  2. More importantly, Jesus calls all Christians to follow him by taking up the cross. While the way of the cross requires us to suffer on behalf of our faith, it forbids us to cause someone else to suffer, however slightly, because of our faith. If a child of another religion or no religion is confused or troubled by that prayer, we have departed from the way of the cross.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about a politically correct desire to avoid giving offense. The New Testament tells us that the gospel is an offense and a scandal. But neither does the gospel allow that offense to be based in any way on coercion. Using our status as the nation’s religious majority to dictate that prayer will be said in a gathering where people did not voluntarily come together for prayer is a form of coercion. This is true regardless of how “innocuous” or “generic” the prayer seems to us (a response I frequently hear from Christians who defend these kinds of prayers). And come to think of it, since when is entering into conversation with the Sovereign of the universe “innocuous”?  Or at what point did we start serving and worshiping a “generic” God?

Which brings us to the second example above, prayer before a high school football game. Unlike the school assembly, this is a voluntary gathering; everyone gets to choose, without penalty, whether they will attend or not. You’d think, therefore, that leading the prayer at the beginning of the game would be no problem, right? But think about this for a second:

  1. In the Bible, when God’s people pray together it is with the expectation that they will emerge from that prayer changed: blessed, convicted, commissioned, forgiven. Prayer involves entering the presence of God with an open and questing heart, seeking communion with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
  2. But let’s be honest: the purpose of the prayer before a football game, or the Rotary Club, or the state legislature session is to get God to shine upon (or at least benevolently neglect) our planned activity. Its intent is not to align our will with God’s, but to kindly dispose God’s will to ours. We don’t come asking that our hearts be strangely warmed; we just want to have a good time.

This represents a trivialization of prayer. Uttering a little feel-good incantation before a sporting event or political rally bears poor witness to the transforming power of God in Jesus Christ. It may not harm, but it certainly does not help.

So how about an alternative? How about we abandon our fruitless obsession with Christians getting to pray at public gatherings, and focus instead on praying for these events, and the institutions that sponsor them. Our decades-long fight to restore or institute prayer in the public square while neglecting to actually pray for the public good represents a staggering act of faithlessness.

In the early Christian centuries the desert fathers and mothers went out into the wilderness in order to devote their lives to praying for the world. They did so because they genuinely believed prayer to be the most potent force in the universe. Some churches (but not enough of them) devote the Sunday before the school year begins to praying for teachers, students, and parents. In state capitals there is usually at least one church that spends the day before the opening of the state legislature in earnest and prolonged supplication that God’s will be done during this legislative season. And yes, there are always some Christians (generally mothers of the players) praying for the football game.

Should we pray individually and in groups, in churches and on street corners, genuinely and sincerely seeking God’s guidance, blessing, correction, and protection, all for the public welfare? Or should we lead in public prayer among apathetic, distracted, or hostile participants?

Which kind of prayer do you think God prefers to hear?

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