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The National Day of Prayer gets a bad rap. But here’s a defense of public prayer

Members of Twelve Tribes gather for a sunrise prayer before the start of Together 2016, a Christian revival on the Mall on July 16, in Washington, D.C. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

I was 10 years old when I attended my first prayer meeting in the library of our small Connecticut church, sitting in a circle on avocado-green vinyl chairs that emitted tiny squeaks every time my too-short legs swung beneath me. Such prayer meetings became a way of life for me. Now in my 30s and living in Massachusetts, I still spend Wednesday nights bowing my head and lifting my prayers to God alongside other members of my church.

For many Americans, Thursday’s National Day of Prayer with its God-and-country emphasis can feel strange, irrelevant or even distasteful. Christians unfamiliar with the weekly prayer meetings and lengthy prayers from the pulpit that shaped my own childhood often view prayer as a purely private activity. And a call to prayer emblazoned with American flags often seems regrettably nationalistic even to Christians accustomed to praying together.

But corporate prayer has always been central to the Christian faith. During the prayer meetings of my childhood, we first discussed topics for prayer — the exaltation of Christ, the work of foreign missions, the plight of the persecuted, the sick and needy church members — and then we spent an hour praying together. One after another, the assembled Christians prayed aloud while the others added their “Amen” of agreement. People who share a common savior, common concerns and a common community have always been those who come together to pray.

The German pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “It is in fact the most normal thing in the common Christian life to pray together.” These words may seem strange to a generation where 10 percent of self-identified Christians believe that their spirituality is an entirely private matter, according to a recent study by the Barna Group. Fully 83 percent of the people in this population report that they regularly pray, but 0 percent of them participate in any faith group. Similarly, University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith documented that young Americans frequently believe that “religion need not be practiced in and by a community.”

Nothing could be further from what we see in the Bible. As early as the book of Genesis, we read: “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26). From the first generations of the newly created world, the people of God have held prayer meetings. And, throughout the rest of the Bible, gathering for prayer was clearly a normal activity. Old Testament figures like David, Ezra, Daniel and Esther all called for corporate prayer, and the prophet Isaiah and Jesus both defined the temple as “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17, Isaiah 56:7).

In the first-century church, too, praying together was featured prominently. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, we learn that his disciples gathered and “all these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Later, as the church grew throughout the Roman world, its members prayed regularly together.

When those Christians from my childhood circled their chairs in the church library, when the mothers at my children’s school get together on Friday afternoons for prayer, when the pastors in my city meet on Tuesday mornings, when the children in my church pray together during Sunday school, they are carrying on the practice of the early church. And when the citizens of our communities come together to pray on Thursday, they will be doing what followers of Jesus have always done.

Of course, the National Day of Prayer can also feel strange because of its seemingly nationalistic implications. The event is promoted with images of the Capitol Building and is praised by prominent Christian leaders who are known as much for their conservative politics as for their faith. While it is certainly good for the people under a particular government to pray together for that government (1 Timothy 2:1-2,), our prayers on Thursday should not stop at the border to Mexico.

On its website, the National Day of Prayer traces its history to the 1775 call to prayer issued by the Continental Congress urging the members of the colonies to pray about forming a nation. But before there was a national call to prayer, there was a worldwide one.

In 1747, influential theologian and Congregational pastor Jonathan Edwards preached to his Northampton, Mass., church: “Tis a very suitable thing and well-pleasing to God, for many people in different parts of the world, by express agreement to unite in extraordinary, speedy, fervent and constant prayer for the promised advancement of God’s church and kingdom in the world.”

Edwards followed this sermon by publishing an expanded written treatise, “An Humble Attempt,” in which he called all the colonists to join at specific times with Christians in other parts of the world to pray that “God would appear for the help of his church, and in mercy to mankind, and pour out his Spirit, revive his work, and advance his spiritual kingdom in the world, as he has promised.” Edwards was talking to the citizens of the colonies, but he was calling them to pray for a cause far beyond the boundaries of their own land.

So, too, the National Day of Prayer is an invitation to the citizens of the United States to pray together. As fellow Americans, we share common needs and concerns that we rightly join to pray about. But we also share a desire for God’s work throughout the entire world. We long to see God’s mercy to mankind in Syria and in North Korea and in the Middle East.

Thursday, we pray together for these things as Americans — but not because we are Americans. Many of us will pray together because we are Christians.

Megan Hill is a writer and speaker living in Massachusetts. She is the author of “Praying Together.” You can follow her on Twitter. (Fun fact: She went into labor with her fourth child after writing this piece.)