Invocations at Secular Events

A friend writes:

I have been asked to say grace at our company’s anniversary dinner.  It is a secular Canadian company.  The people who will be attending the dinner come from different cultural and religious backgrounds.  I felt awkward about this and asked for the rationale behind it.  The person in charge of the program simply says she wants this to be an opportunity for us to give thanks for the success we have enjoyed in the past 70 years of our company’s history.  And besides, she says, she has had no complaints when other people said grace in our company’s previous annual dinners.

What is your opinion on this?  Is there a way I can do it in a winsome way or does this violate the spirit of respect in a pluralistic society?

I have been through this issue myself, in several modes. I was asked by our varsity basketball coach to pray before our games during my last year of high school. I did as I was asked, praying the usual athlete’s prayer for safety, good refereeing, our best performance, and the like. But I was surprised to be asked. Northern Ontario in the mid-1970s was already pretty secularized and most of my teammates didn’t go to church.

A few months later, at our graduation dinner and dance (the equivalent of our “prom”), the president of the student council asked me, with about a minute’s notice, to offer a prayer before the dinner began. I was class valedictorian as well as leader of the only Christian group at the school, so I didn’t feel I could refuse, so I prayed a generic prayer to “God” and asked for the most general of blessings–but my qualms were growing.

And that’s the last time I’ve said yes. The University of Manitoba asked me a few times to pray at their convocation, as did the University of British Columbia when I came out here. And by then, I’d made up my mind. Prayer is a wonderful thing, and too wonderful to be a sort of vestigial gesture to Canada’s past or a way of adding a bit of extra solemnity to a secular occasion.

Worse, it marginalizes a lot of people: people who don’t believe in God, people who don’t believe in the particular kind of deity being prayed to, and people who do believe in God of that sort and don’t like the idea of an all-purpose prayer on behalf of an institution that otherwise pays no serious attention to God’s Word in its operations–such as the University of British Columbia, or my high school basketball team, or my friend’s company.

So no, I wouldn’t agree to pray. Prayer is too great to be sprinkled on a secular occasion. That’s why I’m against formal prayers also in Canadian legislatures, city councils, school boards, and the like.

There’s no comfort to be had, furthermore, in “no one objecting.” We Christians need to object: It’s our sacred rite that is being exploited to vaguely “dignify” a secular institution.

And it’s inhospitable to subject other people to a rite they don’t share. Do you want to have to stand quietly through a Sikh or Mormon or Hindu prayer if you work for a secular company that happens to be dominated by those sorts of believers? Of course not. Let’s model the kind of neighbourly citizenship that we hope our neighbours will extend to us whenever and wherever they attain the cultural power we have previously enjoyed.

0 Responses to “Invocations at Secular Events”

  1. Tracy

    “Do you want to have to stand quietly through a Sikh or Mormon or Hindu prayer if you work for a secular company that happens to be dominated by those sorts of believers? Of course not.”

    Before getting to this part of your post, I had actually thought, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like I’d object if they asked a Sikh to pray instead of a Christian; it would be a good learning experience to observe how people of other religions pray, and might even open up dialogue on the subject of prayer.” Notwithstanding your other points about the trivialization of a sacred rite, is it a bad thing to be open to learning from prayers addressed to other deities?

    I’m actually more uncomfortable when non-religious family members ask me to pray before meals – if one can assume that they’re not praying along with me, then it feels a bit like a religious performance.

    • John Stackhouse

      As you know, Tracy, I’m not at all opposed to learning about other faiths, particularly since I teach courses on World Religions! My point instead is that the situation in question isn’t supposed to be a “learning situation,” but a group ritual to celebrate a common cause–the company’s success, the graduation of university students, or whatever–and it simply isn’t that.

  2. David Baldwin

    Do you consider your position here an example of obeying Jesus’ command: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample then under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

    • John Stackhouse

      I hadn’t thought of it that way, David, although in some extreme cases it might be. I think it’s better to see it as simply inappropriate–the wrong sort of ritual for the occasion.

  3. Alex

    Interesting thoughts, Dr. Stackhouse. So, I take it you would never accept an offer to give an inaugural prayer for a US president?

  4. robahas

    Hi John – For an alternate view, I think that we have a very solid basis for accepting such invitations, which is the fact that whether those present know it or not, the God to whom we pray is the God and creator of all things. It is therefore completely appropriate to thank him for all the good things people have experienced while living in his world. We are his representatives to that world, so I we ought to jump at the opportunity to represent him.

    • John Stackhouse

      I’m happy to represent that God any chance I get. And part of representing him in this situation, I think, is not to subject other people to an inappropriate ritual–a ritual that is supposed to celebrate a common enterprise that is not undertaken in God’s name (e.g., a secular university convocation, a secular business’s year-end success).

      I myself, or Christians involved in that institution, might meet for corporate prayer to thank God for his blessings. But a general invocation is just the wrong kind of ritual: it’s incoherent with the nature of the institution and the nature of the occasion.

  5. matero

    I think it is silly to lead people in prayer who are not praying with me.

    I’ve done it, but I wouldn’t wax to eloquent over the deed, unless, of course, you want to bite the bullet and pray that people would be rescued from hell as a consequence of the gathering.

  6. Tracee Sioux

    FYI Mormon prayers sound the same as most Christian denomination prayers. They could pray right now and you wouldn’t know they were Mormon, except for the odd 19th century quality of their current use of “thou” and “thy.”

    At the Texas Democratic Convention there were at least 5 prayers from the podium. It was like a United Nations (religious equivalent) of prayer.

    I thought that was kind of cool. It was fascinating to hear the diff. ways cultures and religions pray. I also happen to believe their addressing the SAME God I am (as opposed to other deities), so it’s in no way offensive.

    That said, I’m not a fan of public praying. I don’t like to do it.

    • John Stackhouse

      I do know that about Mormon prayers, having lectured at Brigham Young University, among other Mormon experiences I’ve had. But if one knows that it’s a Mormon praying, and that’s the case I’m mentioning, one knows that some of the same words have very different meanings.

      And, again, I’m all for learning about how other people pray–although most of them won’t thank you for the opinion that we’re all praying to the same God, since they’re pretty sure they’re not. But learning about other forms of prayer isn’t the point: having the appropriate rituals is the point, right?

  7. Dan Stringer

    Two questions:

    1) Do you feel all Christians should take the position of declining such invitations, or is this merely the path you feel personally compelled to take?

    2) Should the practical consideration of who the inviter’s “second choice” might be play any role in one’s decision to accept or decline?

    For example, let’s say I was asked to give a blessing before a low-key office potluck lunch of 11 people because my co-workers assumed that as a practicing Christian, I would be comfortable praying aloud before a meal. Let’s say it was safe to assume that if I declined, they would likely ask the only other religious person in the office, a less-than-tactful believer who I knew would probably allow his “inner street preacher” to come through.

    Even if I wasn’t enthusiastic about accepting the invitation, would it be justified to spare those gathered the awkward squirms resulting from my co-worker’s antagonistic mini-sermon?

    • John Stackhouse

      My language in the original post doesn’t indicate anything about what I think is just my own individual vocation, does it? It’s a categorical point I’m making: Prayer is the wrong thing on this occasion, no matter who does it.

      As for the lesser of two evils, sure, if you know that the second person will spray the crowd with gunfire, better to pray instead. But when are we ever in that stark a situation? We might instead refuse to pray AND briefly suggest to the inviter why we’re refusing, and thus why no one ought to be asked to pray. We might let the untactful person pray and pray, silently, that by God’s grace he or she will accomplish something good despite doing something we think isn’t a good idea. Or we can see what happens when the other person prays: perhaps a conversation will ensue during which our refusal to pray will connect us with someone else who thinks all Christians are like the second person.

      So there are indeed alternatives, and we should select the one that will make for the most shalom.

      • Dan Stringer

        As a regular reader of this blog (dare I say a “fan”), it’s been quite some time since I’ve disagreed with one of your posts. I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. 🙂

        In the meantime, I’ll continue to accept the occasional invitation to give thanks before a meal (with sensitivity and tact) even if non-believers are present.

  8. Cam West

    John, thanks for your insights on this.

    As a chaplain in the military, however I find myself (sometimes surprisingly) taking a different angle on this.

    Like robahas (#5) I see public space as a legitimate place for making theological truth public. It’s becoming cliched to refer to Acts 17 all the time, but isn’t this what Paul did at the Areopagus. If this can be done through preaching, why not also prayer?

    I’m painfully aware of the pitfalls of ‘sanctioning’ non- sub- or even anti-Christian behaviour with Christian presence and activity. But I’m also aware that labelling any shared space ‘secular’ shouldn’t lead to our vacating it, or inhabiting it an uncontested way.

    I’m glad that you articulated some of my concerns about official Christianity, but I’m still thinking through how to make best use of the opportunities in my military mission field.

  9. John Stackhouse

    The meeting on Mars Hill was dedicated to the exchange of philosophical ideas. So of course Christians should participate in it, just the way we participate in universities, or talk shows, or opinion media.

    The crucial difference here is that public prayer of the sort in question is a ritual meant to express a single sentiment on behalf of a unified group to a God they all wish to petition. It isn’t part of an exchange of views, nor is it a form of communication in which one offers mere opinion–as Paul did on the Areopagus. It is, instead, a form of speech offered on behalf of everyone present to an audience (God) whom everyone wishes to address. When that situation does not obtain, as I aver it certainly doesn’t in secular organizations–such as universities, companies, or military groups–then prayer is simply incoherent: it doesn’t make sense.

    It would be like holding up a photograph of your mother and saying, “I’ve got Mom on speakerphone now, so let’s all tell Mom how much we love her as our mother and how we hope she’s proud of us for what we’ve done at university/work/war.” People would look at each other and then at you and think, “You’re crazy. She’s not our mother, and we didn’t do it for her.”

  10. Glenn Runnalls

    i have had occasion to work in the foster care system both as a practioner and also as part of the provincial and national governance of foster family associations. a number of provinces have explicitly Christian modes of foster care options and even those that are run entirely by the province have created space for both Christain and “traditional native” spiritual expression. for many (if not all) it would be unthinkable to have a meeting with first nations groups without giving opportunity for some spiritual expression to those grops, it would also have been unthinkable for many not to also include opportunity for broadly Christian expressions like grace before meals. whenever i was called on to lead in these expressions, I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t invoking my “mother” but the Creator and sustainer of the universe. I expected to be treated with the same respect from those persons who led the groups in “traditional native” experiences and found that to be almost always the case.


  11. Jeff Loach

    John, I always wondered why Widdifield did so well that year. 😉

    Thanks for the food for thought.

  12. James

    I know you are not a huge Hauerwas fan but this is how he responded when he was asked to say a prayer at an event honoring Reynolds Price at Duke where he was instructed to pray vaguely:

    Addressing the God Who is not the ‘Ultimate Vagueness’

    God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we perfer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some “ultimate vagueness.” You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of some of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty and stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into service that glorifies you. Amen. (From ‘Prayers Plainly Spoken’ Intervarsity Press, 1999)

    My hunch is that a prayer like that probably would go down a little better in North Carolina than here. Nevertheless, Hauerwas says he was never asked to pray for another event at Duke.

    Actually you and Hauerwas might actually agree on the inappropriateness of prayer in a public place. Of course his main reason against it would be his critique of civil religion whereas you seem to also have apologetic reasons. You and Hauerwas are so much alike.

    • John Stackhouse

      Brother Stanley and I agree on a great many things. Indeed, I expect we agree on most of the important things in life. And he has performed a number of valuable services to the church over his eminent career.

      Yes, we have our differences, and I enjoyed your teasing me about that fact. But you are also right: We are so much alike, not least in our regard for Texas barbecue (the best in the world).

      In fact, should I ever break bread with Brother H. in this life (and I haven’t had the privilege yet), I hope it is cornbread . . . alongside brisket, beans, new potatoes, perhaps a little fried okra, with peach cobbler for dessert.

  13. James

    When I said ‘prayer in a public place,’ I meant a secular event. I realize that your critique of prayer in this context does not extend to all things public.

  14. Matt McCoy


    I almost kissed you when I saw you at school today, but felt my expression of gratitude belonged here instead. I have grown weary of spraying “Jesus Air Freshener” around the room in the form of a prayer at events when neither the organization nor the members express our faith, and have been regarded as crazy for thinking it out of place. Thank you for this post.

    • John Stackhouse

      You’re welcome. I’m sure many, many people who saw me at school today had to resist the urge to kiss me, and it’s well that all did.

  15. tim e

    i could not agree with you more!! keep up the good blogging!!

  16. On public prayer « The Center Way

    […] context is slightly different than here in the U.S., but not that different. Read the whole thing here. Prayer is a wonderful thing, and too wonderful to be a sort of vestigial gesture to Canada’s […]

  17. Jeff S.

    I live in a province where students once recited the Lord’s Prayer every day at the start of school. I’ve heard Christians say that we should work to bring it back. I don’t think it’s a good idea. My town starts every council meeting with the Lord’s Prayer. I wouldn’t like to see it removed for symbolic reasons, as it would demonstrate one more example of the removal of Christianity from the public square. But if our town didn’t start their meetings with prayer, I wouldn’t fight for it. I don’t think these are issues Christians should go to the wall for. But, when someone or some group asks me to pray, when someone who may not be a follower of God at least recognizes the existence of God enough to acknowledge that prayer at their event might be a good thing, I think it is a good thing to respond affirmatively. I work in a ministry to teenagers, and every year the local high school asks me to give the invocation. I see it as an acknowledgment of their appreciation for our work in the school. I see it as their desire, however weak, to acknowledge Christian tradition and that having someone asking God to bless their graduating students as being a good thing. I see it as an opportunity to pray a prayer of blessing upon 150 students and dozens of teachers who may have never had a prayer of blessing prayed over them before! And that’s what I try to pray every year. I try not to “preach-pray”. I try to avoid anything controversial. I simply ask God to bless the students and teachers. I do tell them when they ask me that as a Christian minister, I’m going to pray a Christian prayer, and so far, no complaints. Although, I acknowledge the point made about making people feel uncomfortable — one year the valedictorian came from a Jewish background, and I did feel bad afterward about praying in Jesus’ name at his grad. So I see your point to some extent. But as long as I or anyone else isn’t demanding to pray, as long as I can pray respectfully yet freely, as long as it is they who ask me, and as long as it gives me an opportunity to pray God’s blessing over teenagers, it’s something that I feel comfortable continuing to do. There may be other contexts where I would feel less comfortable, but I think I would handle each one on an individual basis.

  18. Reta M

    I think that any time you can help “the world” turn their thoughts towards God is a good thing. It might be the seed that sets them on a new path or even helps them to be aware of your stance should they ever decide to look deeper.


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