Public Prayer and Implications of Agreement

December 30, 2007 at 6:09 pm 24 comments

Men praying over mealWhy do people make a big show of praying before meals in public, at restaurants? This is one thing about dining out with my family that makes me crazy. As a recovering former Evangelical I find the public prayer thing about as comfortable as when people embark on public displays of affection at the “get a room” level. Restaurant prayer is like a piece of performance art. If it was really just about the prayer itself and the need to appeal to God before dining surely it could be done silently and to oneself.

Given that this little ritual seems to be quite popular in some circles, it becomes important to consider what to do with your status as a conscientious objector when the time arises. How should you conduct yourself if someone in your dinner party assumes that it’s time for public prayer and does the “grab hands bow heads start reciting” thing in your presence? There is substantial peer pressure to participate. Yet, I really want to not participate.

At some basic level, I postulate that it relates to another issue which I find is quite pervasive in my family of Evangelicals. There is a tacit assumption that everyone in the room always agrees. There are a set of suitable beliefs, including megachurch-style Evangelical Christianity and a deep admiration for George Bush, and everyone is expected to have these beliefs. The participation in public prayer is just another of the unwritten behavior rules that govern the pack. Nod your heads, don’t question, vote as you are told.

I find the assumption of agreement quite surprising. My professional self would never assume anything about a room of people in terms of their religious or political beliefs. I tend to be quite cautious approaching these subjects except with my closest friends–and I mostly know their views on sensitive subjects.

This implies one of two things, either my relatives assume that we do all agree, or they know we don’t but they are purposefully ignoring the deviation. Is it simply that by saying these things as statements instead of questions, as definitive conclusions instead of open topics, that they are trying to reinforce the idea that their mores are incontrovertible truths? Is there some message they are sending each other about their Christian-ness by participating in the public prayer ritual? Or are they trying to demonstrate to the waiters and waitresses at the restaurant that they are pious? If so, why? What good does it do?

The fact of the matter is that the public prayer thing makes me twitch. I don’t really admire our current president. I have some real problems with the views of my family members especially as concerns this particular sect of Christianity. I value diversity of opinion and enjoy and encourage lively discussion. I believe in the validity of a conclusion to “agree to disagree”.

When dealing with my blood relatives, I feel under tremendous pressure to agree with them, including the enthusiastic participation in public prayer. And I don’t know how to stand up for my beliefs in the midst of this sort of pressure.


Entry filed under: ExEvangel. Tags: , , , .

Time Is on My Side Who, really, is a Christian?

24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. yinyang  |  December 30, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I find myself in situations like yours very rarely, but what I always do is this – hold hands but don’t bow my head or close my eyes. It shows some respect for the people you’re with, but also distances you from what’s happening a little.

    Or, not that I think it’ll do a whole lot of good, you could bring up Matthew 6:5-6. “”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.”

  • 2. the chaplain  |  December 30, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    ExEvangel asked: Why do people make a big show of praying before meals in public, at restaurants?

    Many years ago, I was a member of an evangelical musical group. We did not merely hold hands, bow our heads and pray in restaurants. Oh no! We sang our grace so that everyone throughout the placing, including those in the kitchen, would be able to hear us praising God and thereby be blessed by our witness. I think the same thing goes on in a smaller scale when people pray in public. They’re declaring their faith and challenging others to do the same.

  • 3. LeoPardus  |  December 30, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    I never have liked praying in public. That’s probably just further proof that I was never really ‘saved’ in the first place.

  • 4. oakenthief  |  December 30, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    Once, while working at a food bank in Detroit (the second most religious city is Detroit, so of course its full of some of the most oppressed people in the U.S.), a volunteer grabbed my hand and everyone joined in a circle and ‘amened’ as he shouted one hell of a baptist-style sermon. Jesus Jesus Jesus! I was so shocked I just stood silently, holding two strange hands with a gaping mouth. I was taken aback by the assumption that everyone would be Christian, and would know the lines, so to speak. D’oh!

    It feels sort of like a violation when every one around you silently wills you into compliance. They were all so happy about it! There have got to be better ways to feel connected to a community. Gah.

  • 5. Marc  |  December 30, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    I too feel the same animosity during the “saying grace” ritual.

    The notion of divine sanction of supper is not only incredibly bizzare and repugnant, but also the idea that a group of otherwise reasonable individuals can undertake moments of “group sorcery.”

    Addressing imaginary friends en masse by such terms as “heavenly father,” wrapped in all the tribalistic vocabulary of the Lord’s Prayer, shrouds the rest of the meal in an ugly veil of incantation and soothsaying. Watching respected family members piously exchange their reason and dignity for a moment of soothsay in such a public manner is awkward, embarrassing, and… rather pathetic.

    Family events are wrought with enough animosity and disaffection; “saying Grace” before meals with family is about as sane as the “real presence” of the Eucharist – believing that magic words, empowered by hands joined in a circle can somehow “bless” the food before them.

    I find the practice morally questionable. Publicly making an egoistic show of yourself in front of others, with others, demonstrates to me little more than one’s willingness to succumb to cosmic dictators and overlords; you know, “The Guy In The Sky Who Gives You Pie When You Die.”

    I just want to lean over to one of them and say:

    “Who the hell are you talking to?”

    Even with hands joined, I intentionally held my head up high, rather than make a show of submission.

    I have decided to excuse myself from such dinnertime voodoo, I suggest others liberate themselves, wash their hands of the supernatural ceremony, and do the same.

  • 6. JustCan't  |  December 31, 2007 at 12:11 am

    This was happening to me every day for awhile — in my own house. I finally, politely, said that if it was in fact a “personal relationship with Jesus”, then there was no need to insist on my participation in the ritual. Grace/prayer could be done in one’s own head (“what, God can’t hear it? I thought you told me…..”) without being such an all or nothing thing. “For that reason”, I said, “I will no longer be participating in rituals at meal time any more than you (the evangelical) would go to a lecture with me about Evolution.” I also mentioned something about me being the bread winner and the bringer of the bacon — so why not just pray to me then?

    I haven’t had to worry about that one since, unless with other people (I do the hold hands thing but no speaking, no bowing of the head, no closed eyes. If asked to say grace I say something like, “No sir, I wouldn’t do it justice. I must insist YOU do it.”)

    This is a scarier issue, I’m sure, if your family does not know of your disbelief.

  • 7. TheDeeZone  |  December 31, 2007 at 12:29 am

    We pray before meals yes even in restruants. However, there are several guidelines we follow.

    In our home we always pray. We only hold hands if family members and only family members are present.

    In a resturant. If it is our family we or we are with a group we know are Christians we pray quitely. If we are with others who do not share our practice or beliefs we pray silently.

    In someone elses home: We follow their lead. If no prayer is said we say a private silent prayer.

    General guidelines for mealtime prayer: This is a simple prayer of Thanksgiving. It is not the time to catch of one one’s prayer life. The K.I.S.S. rule applies (Keep it simple stupid). Prayer time isn’t for show and that one is straight from the Bible.

  • 8. oakenthief  |  December 31, 2007 at 4:14 am

    The guy in the sky who gives you pie when you die?!

    Heeee heee hee!

    I have a feeling that I should have heard that one by now…

  • 9. HeIsSailing  |  December 31, 2007 at 11:26 am

    LeoPardus says:

    I never have liked praying in public. That’s probably just further proof that I was never really ’saved’ in the first place.

    Don’t worry. You were a Christian – you just happened to remmeber the words of Jesus, which many Christians seem to forget while in public:

    “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

    There is only one reason I can think of for ostentatious public prayer – as a show of one’s own self-righteousness. A gang of us used to head to Denny’s after every Thursday night church service. We would all bring our bibles in, pray loudly, and I know looking back that it was all for public display. It was all for show.

  • 10. The de-Convert  |  December 31, 2007 at 1:11 pm


    I agree. We did the same public display of our faith and it was for the show. However, we did think we were “not being ashamed of the Gospel.” I look at folks doing that now and realize how stupid we looked and no one was at all being “witnessed” to.


  • 11. exevangel  |  December 31, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    This is exactly what puzzles me. Who started the rumour that there was some benefit to others who saw people engaged in public prayer? Clearly this is part of the idea, since most do seem to be aware that they are doing it for the purpose of a demonstration of something to other people. Who decided that this was a good idea? Especially, as pointed out so eloquently above (thanks yinyang and HIS), that it is non-biblical???

    I think sometimes that my parents do the public restaurant prayer more showily these days because *I* am there and they are trying to make a point. They know that I am not in the born again fold but I think they hold out hope that I’m still much closer to it than I actually am. They are always trying to drag me to church with them under some weak premise. I guess that does make it even more important for me not to get sucked into the tacit agreement of bowing the head and participating in the ritual, but thus far I have not been bold enough to do so.

  • 12. TheDeeZone  |  December 31, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    HelSailing, The de-Convert and Exevangel.

    I am a Christian who prays in resturants but I am uncomfortable when people make a show of praying loudly or flaunting their faith. Why? First, it is a missuse of prayer. I pray many times throughout the day & yet rarely would anyone around me even know because prayer is very much a private act. Prayer before mealtimes in my opinon should be a SHORT prayer of thanksgiving (I mean less than 3 sentences). Second it just makes me uncomfortable to pray louldy in a public resturant. I have been told by some Christians that is because I am ashamed of the Gospel. No I am not & will openly share my faith. Third many of these same people also are very rude to servers and tip poorly. Isn’t ironic that a group headed to or from a bar tips better than a group from a church. Oh, don’t even get me started on the people who justify leaving a poor tip because they left a tract and that will provide eternal riches.

    To me it is a better example of a Christian to pray discretely or silently. Then treat the server with the upmost respect and tip well. If the service is very good ask for a manager so that I can compliment the server. After all, I am treating someone the way they want to be treated & according to Jesus the 2nd Greatest commandment.

    That is just my opinion but my conenctration in Seminary was ethics & I concerned about how I treat others & doing the right thing.

  • 13. Rob  |  December 31, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    I have been of the view for some years that Evangelical Christianity, like many other faith-based groups, are more of a subculture than they would care to admit. I mean subculture in the sense that that there are, as the post above has stated very well, norms which remain unwritten. This of course precludes them from having anything at all to do with sacred texts, and less to do with the person of Jesus. This is not a value judgement on my part. I don’t think there’s anything odd about it. Every group has unwritten and understood assumptions and modes of conduct. But, most don’t tell you that everything they do is based on the Bible.

  • 14. TheDeeZone  |  December 31, 2007 at 5:51 pm


    You make a good point. I also think some Christians are afriad to ever state something as their own opinion (That would mean actually thinking, oh horrors). Others seem that they always have to be spiritual about everything, that it somehow makes them more Christian. Ok maybe I’m just opiniated and have at least one opinon on every subject.

  • 15. Rob  |  December 31, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    Hi DZ,

    One of the main burdens lifted off of me when I finally cut my ties to Evangelical Christianity was not having to worry about ‘God’s plan for my life’. Taking any kind of action, expressing certain thoughts, or even reading certain books caused me great anxiety. Most of this came out of what other people were going to think of me and my ‘walk’, as if I were involved in some sort of beauty contest. To be fair, I put the pressure on myself, driven as I was to please others, and to adhere to my idea of the person of God. But this was in reaction to the underlying, and unwritten, social norms that dictated that I was not to go my own way, but ‘God’s Way’. The flaw in that was that “God’s Way’ or ‘His Plan For My Life’ was never really fleshed out by anything I could access, and was never really explained as something I could really know, unless I prayed a lot (but … what should I pray for?). It was only when I realised that God’s plan should only be about using the resources given to me to make the best decision I could. It is surprising, within the context of the subculture (to which I now commonly refer to it as) how long and hard a journey this was.

    The reason it was hard is simple, I guess. Independent thought is dangerous to collective thinking, and therefore dangerous to everyone within that collective who is bound together by common ideas, good or bad. Social norms used to minimize or even eliminate this tendency is usually based on fear of loss – security, power, and a sense of greater meaning outside of one’s self, even if it’s imagined. A lot of people I know, and myself to a certain extent, have been sacrificed on that particular alter enough for me to know its true nature. And after a while, you begin to realise that anything spiritual or meaningful cannot be so rooted in insecurity as that.

  • 16. exevangel  |  December 31, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    your comment about “God’s plan for my life” really resonates with me; I’m always amazed by people that express such certainty about these things. I had a very long, very passionate arguement with a Quaker once, about how anyone could know what God was leading them to do. It had to fit in with a set of rules (i.e. be good and Godly) and the more uncomfortable it was the more likely you could convince someone that it was God’s will and not your own idea. But I have never been able to come around to a view where communications with any deity were actually sufficiently 2-way that you could ascertain truely any information about God’s plan for your life or God’s will for what you do.

  • 17. karen  |  December 31, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    A gang of us used to head to Denny’s after every Thursday night church service. We would all bring our bibles in, pray loudly, and I know looking back that it was all for public display. It was all for show.

    Yeah, I hate to admit this, but I did this too and I think we were all suffering with a “look at us and see how holy we are” complex. It’s embarrassing to think of now. At least we didn’t sing, like the chaplain did. 😉

    Now, when we have “grace” at someone’s house or we have Christian guests and my husband wants to say a prayer, I stop what I’m doing but I don’t close my eyes or bow my head, or say “amen.” My own small conscientious objector status, I guess.

    Happy new year, all!

  • 18. Rob  |  December 31, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Hi Exevangel,

    During my time in the church and when I went to Bible College (!), there was a significant amount of hand-wringing over the idea of ‘God’s will’. It went to extremes of course, with some people espousing that when we pray, we shouldn’t ask for things that we want – like a safe journey on an icy road for a friend coming to visit – as it may be God’s will for that person to die on the road. In my mind, even then, it made prayer a rather tricky undertaking as we were meant to “pray in God’s will”. How to do this was less defined then expressing the idea of it.

    Getting back on the topic at hand (sorry for all of my ramblings, guys!), I always found it uncomfortable to pray in a restaurant under the guise of saying grace. I find it interesting that Jesus’ statement that Christians shouldn’t pray in the streets like the hypocrites isn’t acknowledged in this context. Maybe Jesus didn’t mean Denny’s? Where’s the verse in the Bible about Denny’s, again?

  • 19. locomotivebreath1901  |  December 31, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    “…Praying before meals in public -…This is one thing about dining out with my family that makes me crazy.”

    Sounds like a personal problem to me.

    I don’t give a hoot one way or another if folks pray or not. It’s a private ritual. A personal preference. Mind your own business!

    I would no more be bothered by it or ask they refrain than to ask them not to speak in a foreign language, or not drink alcohol or ban their children from the room.

    If it is the consensus of a party I joined for dinner, and I objected, I would politely refuse then let the majority perform their little ritual. Or be more aware of the company I keep and make alternative plans accordingly.

    In short: get over it!

  • 20. exevangel  |  December 31, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    Well, yes, locomotivebreath1901, dealing with one’s family *is* a personal problem, of course! Dealing with one’s devout Evangelical Christian family when one is de-converted is particularly tough. But the point of this post went far, far beyond the prayer thing.

  • 21. TheDeeZone  |  December 31, 2007 at 11:17 pm


    You have some interesting plans about God’s will. Reminds me of a story one of my profs told. A devout Christian young lady got on the elvator. She punched all of the buttons & then moved to the side. She rode to the top & then punched all the buttons again. Rode to bottom & punched the buttons. This continued for a long time. Finally, someone asked if she needed help. She replied I waiting for God to tell me which floor to get off & which foot to start with. God has a will for our lives but expects us to use common sense as well.

    Karen, guess you know which Christians are actually being “good” Christians & keeping their eyes closed.


  • 22. JustCan't  |  January 1, 2008 at 12:23 am

    locomotivebreath1901: “In short: get over it!”

    I understand this perspective, and used to abide by it. I didn’t care. But when it is done as a show, or it interrupts other peoples’ meals, or it is done to make the non-believer feel a certain way — well, no I won’t get over it. That is abusive behavior (at least some of it is) and it is also being very antagonistic. And yes, rude too.

    When it was done with me at the table, it was done with all eyes on me to see how I’d react. If some particular saying seemed to raise my blood pressure, they’d be sure to repeat it the next time, only in more detail. There’d be little smirks of the “Ha! Look how uncomfortable we’re making him….. Let’s go on for 3 more minutes!” variety. Yes, that’ll bring the atheist into the fold — let’s show him how downright pushy we can be. Let’s make someone who doesn’t think like us feel unimportant and singled out. After awhile, I couldn’t just get over it, but I wished they would.

  • 23. TheDeeZone  |  January 1, 2008 at 1:44 am


    I agree with you on this one. Their motives for praying are wrong. I am a Christian and that makes me uncomfortable. Praying for 3 more minutes? How long is the mealtime prayer? At out house if someone says a mealtime prayer that is long there might not be any food left when they finish. We pray before meal times. Short and 2 the point.


  • 24. Quester  |  January 2, 2008 at 2:16 am

    Taking a different tack on ExEvangel’s original post, I’d like to respond on the assumption of shared paradigm. I don’t think this is really all that rare, nor necessarily manipulative in intent. I know that I am too often caught off guard by the realization that someone sees reality in a different light than I. In the example you state, I know that if I were asked to lead public prayer in thanks for a meal, and the group joined hands, I might easily be surprised that a person in that group would be sitting there, expecting me to note their discomfort, guess the reason for it, and do something about it. I tend to work on the assumption that if someone is bothered by what I do, they would tell me. If they do not, I tend to assume nothing is wrong.

    I still do this, sometimes; even after countless examples of people who expect me to assume they are bothered by what I am doing, but for whatever reason refuse to say something to me.

    Other things you say reduce the likelihood that this is what your family is doing, but when it comes to assumptions of agreement, I think this problem is widespread, if not universal. Perhaps, though, I’m just assuming a commonness of experience which does not, in fact, exist. *grin*

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