Public prayer is once again in the news with the rally that Glenn Beck held last week. At its surface, a public display of prayer sounds like a nice and religious thing to do. Yet often Missouri Synod Lutherans do not participate in these events, especially if “serial prayer” (prayer with multiple denominations and/or religions) is offered. If and when they do, there’s often quite the divisive criticism given by some. I suppose, if refusing to participate were as public, there would probably be quite the loud criticism given for that action.
Most pastors that refrain from participating in “public” prayer (and I’m not talking about the prayers in the congregational worship services) give differences in theology as the primary reason for their lack of participation. For instance, if a Rabbi, an Imam, a Mormon, and a Christian were to all pray, one after the other… or “with” each other (as Beck called for), who exactly are they praying to? As Christians we ought to take seriously Christ’s very own words, “no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) The Jew, Muslim, and Mormon, all have different definitions as to who Jesus is, and thus who God is than Christians. Unless one were to think of ‘god’ in a Christless, generic sense, praying with our Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon neighbors really undermines our confession of “Jesus is Lord”, and it also is quite demeaning to our neighbors’ beliefs as well.
I however offer another reason why I do not choose to lead prayer for civic events or participate in joint/serial prayer. When Jesus teaches about prayer He says:
5“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)
I take this seriously as well. Prayer is not meant to be some kind of show. It isn’t a “witnessing opportunity”. Prayer is that Word inspired petition to our loving God and Father. Prayer is a good thing… but to call on personalities to “lead” prayer to make a show out of it simply strikes me as going against the very thing that Jesus was talking about.