The Common Good

Should Christians Pray in Public?

We rarely went out to eat when I was a kid. Meals were enjoyed at home. We began and ended each mealtime with prayers and a reading from the family Bible.

Couple praying at mealtime, Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com
Couple praying at mealtime, Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

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In a rural setting, you could actually do this three times a day, kind of like Daniel. Even in the city, we prayed together during the week at most breakfasts and suppers.

Today, people are lucky if their busy families can gather for even one meal a day. But praying before meals remains a holy rite for many believers I know. A good practice.

As we began to eat out more often, however, my family had to figure out how to fit in this holy habit. Full-fledged family devotions were not really feasible in a restaurant environment.

Our Roman Catholic neighbors in Chicago nailed it by making a quick sign of the cross before meals in public. But we settled for the ritual of together bowing our heads and each person offering a brief, silent, personal prayer before entrées arrived. I recall Rev. Jack Rhoda in a sermon coining the nomenclature the “Dutch duck.”

Somewhere along the line, we started praying out loud. I remember first witnessing the Presbyterians doing this in restaurants on the East Coast when I was in seminary. Woah! I was impressed by their courage. These Presbyterians were light-years ahead of our Dutch ducks!

Eventually, most Christians I hung out with had evolved to offering out-loud prayers and feeling pretty good about it. This act makes for a pleasant moment of fellowship with the others around the table, and those in the restaurant near you would certainly be impressed, or convicted. We don’t just dig into our meals like pagans. Take notice, we pray!

Praying out loud had almost become a telltale sign of who was a true Christian and who wasn’t. To this day, I’m not sure (with levity) that you can get served in some parts of Dallas or Grand Rapids if you don’t pray before your meal.

I’ve been pondering this practice for a couple of years now, ever since Tim Tebow’s rise to fame. After touchdowns, he would get down on one knee, bow his head and pray. That gave way to a national phenomenon, “Tebowing,” defined as “to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.”

Some Christians cheered Tebow for his Tebowing — a bold, fearless demonstration of his faith before millions. He was not ashamed of Jesus. No siree!

On the flip side, some wonder why Peyton Manning doesn’t get with the program, since he also claims to be a Christian. But the superstar Super Bowl quarterback doesn’t feel the need to display his piety. What’s up with that?

Ultimately, the world was not so impressed with Tebow’s style. And Jesus, to whom we Tebow, seems not to be a huge fan either.

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 others. Truly I tell you, 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 (Matt. 6:5–6).

Ouch. So is it possible that praying in restaurants might not be the “Dare to Be a Daniel” moment we envisioned? In fact, might it be a sign of (gulp!) a hypocrite? Should we really feel guilty for praying in restaurants?

To put Matthew 6:6 in today’s language for public dining: “Before you go out to eat, go into your bedroom, close the door and pray to God who is unseen to bless the upcoming food and fellowship.”

Of course, not all restaurant prayers are inappropriate. Pray if you like, but also feel free to leave your prayers at home. Including your Dutch ducks. Try just going out and praising God from whom all blessings flow by enjoying his good gift of a meal with your friends.

H. David Schuringa serves as president of Crossroad Bible Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Image: Couple praying at mealtime, Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

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