The Lost Art of Prayer: The Danger of Praying in Public Places

   

Walking into the unfamiliar restaurant, I was extremely excited to meet this close friend to whom I looked up to pastorally. The air wifed of fresh-baked breads and Italian aromas. After discovering that he had taken the liberty of getting us a booth, I sat down eager to catch up and talk ministry and church.

Now I have to confess, I am not a huge “public prayer” kind of guy.

Not because I am ashamed of following Christ, by no means—though no doubt many of you are thinking that right now. I just find it obnoxious.

We were having an awesome conversation, at an appropriate volume, and had given pause to order our food. Once our dinner had arrived, my dear friend said, in an instantaneous transmutation of gargantuan proportions, spoke in a deep pastoral tone with a hint of old English—”let us pray.” I was taken by surprise by the new-found powers of vocal projection, speaking several decibels higher than the music, conversations at adjacent tables, and the clattering of the kitchen combined.

I have to say, I was not focused on being thankful for my food during his inordinately long prayer—with a similar uncomfortable feel that one might have while attempting to sit through the four-hour long extended edition of “the Lord of the Ring.” I suddenly realized, when the prayer was half-over that the occupants of the tables around us were gawking in disbelief. I have to commend our waiter for waiting so patiently to fill our drinks while this invocation for blessing was finally being rapped-up.

Rather than focusing on what God has provided, I found myself wondering how often this waiter has had to stand aside waiting while people offer-up their prayers at the dinner table.

All of this reminded and confirmed in me a renewed devotion to not pray in public.

Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to the man upstairs. I just find the holding of hands, arguing over who will give thanks, and the showy nature of praying in a restaurant to be distasteful. It smacks of self-righteousness.

I can see it in the faces of our waiters. I can see it in the eyes of our restaurant neighbors. “They think they are so holy.” They may be right. We Christians are better, and are doing it right. You people who don’t pray before eating your meal must not be thankful. I’ll pray that you don’t choke on that chicken bone. And you, waiter, I hope you work out, cause your going to hold all those drinks until our prayers are said.

Are those loud prayers just to make the people around them uncomfortable and to make them feel guilty, or do we need to speak-up, over the cacophony of the restaurant, so that God can hear our prayers?

I can’t help but wonder, if Jesus had come today in our world instead of the ancient, what would he have said of this practice.

Jesus had a lot to say to people who pray in public. And he condemned them for it.

Jesus hated the way that the pharisees, the religious elite of Judea, prayed for all to see. He used such people as examples on how not to pray. He said,

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus condemned those who pray on the street corners, no doubt loudly proclaiming their devotion to God. I am sure that people at the time balked, “but they are just being good witnesses, showing all people that they should pray!” But prayer is not a missionary tool—it is an intimate communion between man and God. This is why Jesus instructs that we go to our room and close the door—so that we can communion with God alone and in solitude.

Too often people get dogmatic and even preachy about praying in public—around the dinner table and in restaurants. Whenever I try to eat before grace is given, looks of death descend upon me as if I had just clubbed a baby seal and had drunk it’s blood. What a grievous sin I had committed.

But when it comes to intimate, secret time spent with God in communion, these same people fall depressingly short.

People insist on praying over their meal, but neglect and ignore the kind of prayer that Christ insisted upon—private communion with God. Christians tend to see prayer at meals and before bedtime as “good enough.” But they miss the true power of meeting their Father in the solace of their soul.

Prayer truly has become a lost art.

We are a busy people, rushing about doing this and that.

I am guilty.

I work. I write. I think. I teach. I read. I watch. I network. I eat. I sleep.

I have little time for prayer.

But in reality I do, just as you do too.

Prayer is not some tool for ministry or some practice meant to be belted out loudly in a crowded restaurant. Prayer is communion with the creator of the universe. It is a sacred and holy thing, worthy of respect and reverence—not some quick words shot-up to the man upstairs and you’re squared.

Next time you sit down for a meal with friends at some public place or restaurant, think twice about why you might pray aloud. Not that you should be ashamed, but whether it is truly a communion between you and God or a self-righteous show put on for your waiters and restaurant neighbors.

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  • I think the most important point you hit on was the absence of intimate prayer in most people’s lives. It’s tough to get into it because of our culture. I have found that prayer and loving God in general require a real hunger for God – the kind of hunger that isn’t satisfied with what the world has to offer.

    I’m not sure if it’s always wrong to pray in public, but it certainly can be wrong. And I totally agree that not having a private prayer life is infinitely worse than eating before meal time prayer. You have a great knack for sniffing out these painful pseudo-Christian traditions.

  • I absolutely don't have a problem with praying in public in principle. I have and often do pray in public. I think people, including myself, have trouble meeting God through prayer because we feel we can't connect in this manner.

    Talking is no longer enough. And it's no longer the age of the letter. We want speed. We want the sexy, technologized communication. Faster. Easier. Clearer. And direct.

    Many don't get this sense from a one-sided conversation.

  • MEL

    Great article. Thank you for this.

  • Gord

    "Prayer is not a missionary tool—it is an intimate communion between man and God." is going on my list of favourit things said/written.

    Jesus prayed out loud on several important occassions, including meals and very intentionally before raising Lazarus. In those cases he was drawing people's attention to the fact that it was the Father's power through him that was conducting miracles. Jesus prayed aloud as an expression of humility, not pomp.

    ~G

  • Tom

    I think it is sad that Christians have adapted so much with their culture that some don’t think they should pray in public because they are worried it may inconvenience others.

    John 6:10-11
    “Tell everyone to sit down,” Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone outnumbered 5000.) Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted.

  • Well put Gord. It is not the act of public prayer that is problematic but the heart of why we do it.

  • Jesse

    i stopped praying before I eat because it was a repeated prayer every time that I had said for about 10 years! What's the point, I'm not fooling God. I feel relieved now and I am working on my private time prayer with God. Pray for me! ha…

  • Jonathandkeck

    Aaha. Well Jesse, I am glad that this was blessing. I pray over meals at times—more often for my daughter's sake since she is the most spirited, passion filled prayer I have ever heard. But your right, it is totally a waste of time if our prayers are done our of monotony and duty. God wants nothing to do with such prayers. I am praying for you…NOW.

  • In my family we bow our heads for a few seconds and pray silently in restaurants. Even the people sitting at the table with us who do not pray often don't notice. The long prayers like your friend's are showing off.

  • Jonathandkeck

    Thanks for you input Pat. It's tricky business praying in public. There is no universal yes or no or "this is how it should be." Prayers of thankfulness seem more about a general spirit of gratitude than a formulated physical expression—at least for me. It truely is a lost art.

  • Peter

    I hate that I can sit back and judge other christians, the way they pray, the way they act, talk, ect. No doubt I do it. I guess in the end only God knows the place there heart is in. This article was good in reminding me how judgmental I can be and how I shouldn't be.

  • Jonathandkeck

    If I'm not mistaken Peter, that was a backhanded slight. That is okay. We do need to be careful most certainly, but it is foolish to say that we don't judge. We are constantly judging everyone and everything. This is good. This is not good. I like that. I don't like this. Judgement. And we are judges of those within the church as Paul said to the church in Corinth. The true warning is that we should not judge others by a standard that we ourselves are not willing to face ourselves. When we cast judgement on others, we do so against ourselves as well. That is why church leaders need to have their junk together. Thanks for reading and giving your thoughts Peter.

  • Why not pray before you eat in public? Sure I get that in this instance it was awkward and drawn out, but when a group of friends went out to eat this past weekend, it was great to pray together before the meal. There’s a sense of community in praying together that doesn’t come in any other way.

  • I agree Tanner. I also think that it can be dangerously pompous and a showboating of one’s spirituality. Christ seemed far more interested in praying privately and even commanded others to do the same. I am not making a universal condemnation but warn us all to search our motives and hearts.

  • Oh yes, I completely agree that it’s important to not set ourselves so apart as Christians as to seem ‘above’ others. I just think that it’s important that we don’t become so worldly that we seek to blend in to the point of not living out our faith in the world around us.
    I really liked this post sir!It’s given me a lot to think about today. Thanks for sharing!

  • Cariroorda

    Thanks for this! I struggle with this topic and never had done it before (though I pray often throughout the day on my own…even when I go with a group of people and the mood changes and gets all serious right before prayer…then back to the same old. I honestly sit quietly but don’t join in. I have too many times witnessed that then to watch the same people go back to gossiping or mistreating the waitress and I can’t go there…

  • I feel you Cariroorda. We must be careful. So often prayer becomes some ritualized, formalized obligation to be spoken over a meal half-heartedly. I honestly think God is far more pleased with the humble thanks from a quiet heart than the public and verbal declarations of food becoming holy out of ritual and tradition—because grandma said I would choke on my meal if I didn’t pray first.

  • Pingback: Treating God Like A Cosmic Vending Machine: Rethinking How We Pray : THEOLOGY21 | Renovating Theology for a New Generation()

  • October24th

    I googled “praying in restaurants” looking for information to show to my guy, who insists on doing it always.  I pray a lot, so I don’t feel the need to do it out loud in the restaurant.  Thanks for making my case for me.  Well said.

  • Roslyn Rhea James

    Judge not, lest ye be judged. Did you forget that one? And if you were bowing your head and giving grace in thankful reverence, you wouldn’t have been looking the room to see who was noticing. Not to mention the fact that you also think you can read people’s minds. Just because they’re looking doesn’t mean they are judging the way you are.
    Also, even if some people do pray more formally, it doesn’t mean that they’re not praying with their heart. While Jesus did not favor the public praying of which you spoke, it was not because it was in public, but because those to whom he referred were ONLY praying for the public knowledge of their praying. And only God or Jesus can see into another’s heart and know what they are truly feeling when they are praying, not you.

    It does my heart good to see a father or mother take their children’s hands and bless their meal regardless of whether it is around their kitchen table or in a restaurant. Just as my mother did, and her mother before her and still do. Not for show, or as a way of looking down on others, but in genuine, honest, grateful, spiritual thankfulness for his bounty. My grandmother lived through the Depression and learned to be thankful for God’s provision. My mother raised us through good times and bad and was a constant example to her daughters of a good Christian wife, mother and woman. And both of them pray daily, together and separately. My grandmother spends a good portion of her day and sometimes nights praying for her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, her great-great grandchildren, her church, our country, our leaders, and all the lost souls in the world. My mother prays for her mother, her sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, cousins, and the rest of her family, her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren and her church, community, and lost souls. Believe me, you won’t hear them across a busy room. They are not praying to preach to anyone, but they do pray. And if you feel you need to stand in judgement of them if you can hear them from the next table today, well, then I’m sure tonight you’ll be one of those lost or misguided souls they will be praying for tonight, too. As for the waiter, he can go wait on another table and come back to refresh our drinks when we’re done giving grace.

  • If I may I would like to respectfully disagree. My husband and I usually pray before our meals, whether in private or in public. In this way, praying in public is not a pompous show, but rather just an extension of our everyday life and rhythms. We don’t do it loudly and they’re usually short and sweet, but I find that for me, saying a prayer makes me pause, just for a minute, and recognize God’s provision in my life. I won’t pretend it’s not exceedingly uncomfortable at times. I feel eyes (real or imagined) boring into my bowed head. But I think meals are important symbols of God’s grace, and recognizing that with a prayer is a good thing–whether in private or in public.

  • Roberta

    During a lunch as soon as the first course arrived on lady interruped me in conversation with another that we had to pray. I felt it could wait until the lady had quite talking. It was new of her son who was quite ill. Again the other lady interrupted with beligerence this time that we had to pray. Because of her age (83) I said nothing but I shall ask her to read Mathew 6:5,6. Thank you for showing me that. She and her husband don’t mind keeping the waitress waiting. My father taught us that if we chose to pray it could be done in the car either before or afterward, that we not make a spectacle. He respected everyone and tried to instill that in us.

  • Roberta

    Tom, when Jesus gave praise that was at a religious gathering. A restaurant is not considered a religious gathering place. Why is it Christians want the respect of others yet are not willing to consider whether their attempt at turning a restaurant into a temple of worship makes others uncomfortable.

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