Why do we pray in public? When and where is public prayer inappropriate? Are there too many restrictions on public prayer? Too few?
By “prayer” one should mean an open and ongoing conversation with God. The conversation involves formal veneration of and supplication to God, but in Paul’s words prayer is “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) which gets at the everydayness of it. As such prayer will become for its practitioners almost second nature whether or not it is demonstrative. (Understand a “practitioner” to be someone who has worked and worked at it — prayer requires work.) Some people believe one should pray only in a church service or building. But that’s like believing one can eat only seated at a table. The venue is not the function nor is the function limited to a venue.
Because Christians believe prayer is also a means of helping or serving others (2 Cor. 1:8-11), petitionary public prayer gatherings are often organized in response to crises or threats (real or perceived), such as the nation going to war or healing from a tragedy, though regrettably this gives the impression that prayer is essentially an emergency flare or group therapy. Still, it is a privilege of American citizenship that these gatherings don’t have to be confined to church properties only. And yet, when Christians pray in public it should be prayer not protest or other forms of insistent statement-making. Nor should it obtrusively draw attention to itself even if noticeable (Jesus spoke to this memorably in Matthew 6).
So the family holding each other’s hands and bowing heads together for a few seconds of grace at the restaurant table, as they do at home, is noticeable. Should that same family stand on their chairs making loud pronouncements to God for everyone to hear, that’s obtrusive. The church that wants to gather on the courthouse steps at midday to pray for civic leaders is noticeable. The church that does this with accompanying placards and a bullhorn is obtrusive. Most Christians aren’t seeking to be obtrusive with noticeable public prayer.