Prayer in Public

A few days ago Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today wrote about Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and how his practice of “taking a knee in silent devotion” before a football game has both attracted national attention and revived the “prayer-in-public debate.” Grossman does a nice job of pointing out that Tebow is far from the only professional athlete to “bend his neck to a Higher Power.” She goes on to quote, Tom Krattenmaker, author of Onward Christian Athletes, as saying “that big-time sports is ‘one of the most outwardly religious sectors of American culture.'”

I had not necessarily thought about it being one of the more outwardly religious sectors of our culture, but I certainly have seen many professional athletes (1) make a public gesture toward heaven, (2) assume the posture of prayer, (3) cross themselves before or after a key moment in the athletic contest, (4) give audible thanks to God and/or Jesus Christ during an interview or speech, or (5) all of the above. I think Grossman is also to be commended for including the observation from a spokesman from Fellowship of Christian Athletes who said that it is not necessarily that there is more prayer among professional athletes so much as more attention to their prayers because of the publicity they receive.

One thought comes to mind for me as I consider this issue. Does the attention given to public prayer (or other demonstrations of faith) by professional athletes (or other celebrities, for that matter, though it seems less prevalent among actors and musical artists) tend to help or hinder the cause of Christ? And honestly, I don’t know. On the one hand, I find it hard to think that it could hinder, because every public profession or demonstration has the potential to bring someone to an inquiry about faith and possibly through that bring them to the Lord. On the other hand, given that many of these public prayers or professions are offered up by individuals who do not seem to consistently demonstrate their faith in other areas or at other times, I have to question if there is not a similarity between these prayers and those of the Pharisee on the corner loudly praying for the attention of others but then living the rest of their lives in a manner that completely misses the point. And, as I said, I just don’t know.

I cannot know the heart of others, and I certainly am guilty of living or acting in ways that are not always consistent with my faith in Christ. Does that mean I should not pray publicly or testify of my faith? No, I don’t think so. I think what is important to keep in mind is what Christ said about those public prayers; in Matthew 6 He said that those who “love to stand and pray…that they may be seen by others” have received their reward already. Their reward is the attention of men. Jesus goes on to encourage private, non-attention-seeking prayer, noting that God will see it and reward the pray-er accordingly. So I guess it comes down to this: is the motive of the professional athlete or other celebrity who prayers or otherwise demonstrates his or her faith in such a public way doing so to attract the attention of others to him/herself, or to point others to Christ? I have no way of knowing…but God knows.

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