Early in my teaching career, I owned a T-shirt that said, “I broke a rule, I prayed in school.” Ignorant of the truths about prayer in school or even of the ways in which the Bible instructs us to pray, I boldly modeled my T-shirt every chance I had. Today my perspective on the topic of prayer in school is very different; I hold a stronger understanding of our nation’s protection of freedom of religion and the biblical perspective on prayer.
What’s So Wrong with Prayer in Public School?
The answer is twofold. The first answer is that there is nothing wrong with teachers and students engaging in private prayer. The government has no authority over your heart or mind. One of my favorite books to read to my kids is Am I Praying?, by Jeannie Taylor. This book illustrates how we can engage in conversation with God throughout our entire day. Prayer does not have to be a dedicated moment in time, it does not have to be with eyes closed and hands folded, and it does not have to be out loud or in groups. Prayer can simply be engaging with God throughout the moments of your daily life.
I believe the second answer addresses the question that people are really asking—only it’s missing two important words, and they begin with the letter C. What is really being asked is, “What’s so wrong with corporate Christian prayer in public school?” The problem with adding “Christian” to the question is that it illuminates exactly what our forefathers safeguarded us against, a universal religion or “The Church of America.” Through the First Amendment, citizens have the right to believe or not believe in any religion. As a Christian, it seems like life would be simpler if we all just believed in the one true God. But that’s not how He set things up. We have free will; we live in a free country. These truths are at our core. Consider this: What if the majority religion in our nation shifts? Would you still want corporate prayer in public school?
The Bible on Prayer
The Bible has a fair amount to say about prayer, and if I wanted to prove that public prayer was advocated for, I might quickly turn to 1 Timothy 2:8. However, using the verse or even the entire chapter in isolation takes it out of context. This article helps explain that what Paul is teaching the people is that the physical structure of the temple, the place where God would dwell among His people, no longer existed. With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, each person has become a living temple. Prayer, therefore, can take place wherever a follower of Christ resides. If I wanted to argue against all demonstrations of prayer, I might go to Matthew 6:5–6, where Jesus speaks of public demonstrations of prayer as hypocritical and self-serving. And yet, the Bible clearly advocated groups of believers joining in prayer. Acts 2:1–47 is an example of the power, strength, and encouragement that the disciples received as they prayed together.
So how does this help us discern if Christian prayers should be spoken in public schools? To me the answer is simple. Prayer is one of the acts that brings us into a closer relationship with our heavenly Father. Therefore, as believers, we should be engaging in this gift as often as possible both personally and with other believers. But our prayers are not to be demonstrations for others to watch, nor should they be forced upon anyone. Private prayer does not force a nonbeliever to participate. Corporate prayer does. When we impart our beliefs on others, their act of submission does not imply acceptance. It merely makes us feel better by allowing our minds to live in the illusion that we are securely positioned in a Christian nation. Maybe this sheltered perspective is partly responsible for the decline of the US Christian church. If this is true, then we as a body of believers, in one faith, need to pray. Together let us ask that God show mercy on our nation, on our communities and our schools. Let us pray without ceasing, knowing that God promises to hear our prayers and answer them according to His gracious will.
Are you looking for a great resource for your prayer life? Check out the Lutheran Book of Prayer from Concordia Publishing House.