Question: I met a friend for lunch at a restaurant and he asked if we could pray before we ate. Assuming that meant bowing our heads in silent prayer, I quickly agreed… but he prayed aloud and it made me feel a little uncomfortable. I am not ashamed to show my faith publicly, but am wondering if this is the best way. Any advice?
Answer: Your question reminds me of my days at seminary. Whenever a group of us went out for lunch, someone would ask, “Should we pray reformed or puritan today?”
To pray according to the Dutch Reformed tradition meant to bow in silent prayer and to pray according to the English Puritan tradition meant for one person to lead the group in a vocal prayer of thanks. We regarded both traditions as completely biblical options and alternated our practice.
Since you are probably not as interested in understanding various traditions as you are in understanding what the scriptures teach, let me suggest two main points for your consideration:
Seeking the Praise of Men – The only passage in the Bible that speaks directly to your question is found in Matthew 6:5, “When you pray, do 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.”
Jesus’ main point here is obvious: When people pray in order receive attention from those around them, their prayers never make it past the ceiling. Having received their vain attention from men, they receive nothing else.
In order to guard ourselves against such hypocrisy, Jesus counsels us to keep most of our prayers private, saying, “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.”(Matthew 6:6)
Sending Men a Message – Those who prefer to make more public prayers might here object, “Jesus was addressing hypocrisy in that passage, not the question of public vs. private prayer. As long as we are not seeking the praise of man, our public prayers can be a powerful public testimony.”
I agree completely. Any outward demonstration of our dependence upon God can be a powerful testimony to others and we ought to make use of every opportunity we have to shine as lights in this dark world.
Nevertheless, all of this begs the question: Are vocalized prayers an inherently more powerful witness than silent prayers with a bowed head?
One might argue that vocal prayers are a more distinctly Christian witness because silent prayers might be directed to any god. “How will the people at the next table know we are praying to the true God?”
The solution is simple: Make sure that you speak loudly and clearly during the beginning of your prayer so that everyone hears that you are praying to “God the Father” and be sure to close your prayer with an unmistakable “in the name of Jesus.”
Uh oh… we have just begun to pray in a manner that is designed and intended for the ears of men rather than for the ears of the Almighty.
Obviously, there is no quick or uncomplicated answer when it comes to the question, “Which is more appropriate in a public setting: To pray aloud or in silence?”
I hope the scriptures I shared serve to facilitate an interesting (and hopefully edifying) conversation between you and your friend next time you meet for lunch.