The Practical Power of Public Prayer

I had just boarded the late afternoon train from Paddington Station headed west to Bristol. Commuters were jostling for places, bags were being stashed, and those of us who managed to find seats were settling down with a book or a sandwich for the journey, when suddenly a voice came over the intercom. It was a sweet-sounding, melodious accent of an Indian man. “Welcome,” he said, “to the InterCity 125 service from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads. This is your train operator speaking.”
No one paid much attention; every journey from Paddington begins with the courteous reminder of which train you’re on, and how long the journey would take. But then the driver continued: “As we begin our journey together, I would like to ask all of you to bow your heads with me and join in a word of prayer.” There followed a very nice extemporaneous prayer by a man who was clearly a sincere and joyful born-again Christian.
My fellow travelers were bemused, befuddled, aghast, and amused. It got conversation going among the normally reticent Englishmen, and the atmosphere in the carriage lifted for a few moments from the usual weary commuter boredom. It was as if a bird had entered the room where a party was taking place — everyone is delighted, but no one is quite sure what to do about it.
Public prayer, which used to be so much taken for granted, has now become an oddity in our shared life. But it was not so long ago that everyone’s school day began with prayer. Prayers were offered at the beginning of public meetings, sports events, and civic celebrations. Grace was returned at the beginning of banquets, and pastors were invited to offer the invocation at public school graduations.
“What was the good of it?” one might ask. Surely they were mere formalities — formal words by a priest or pastor that did not mean much to anyone. Isn’t it better that such traditions have died out? Surely it wasn’t right to foist religion on everyone.
Then there is the multicultural question: We really mustn’t have Christian prayers lest we offend the Muslims, the Jews, or whomever else. When there are formal prayers, we must make sure that we pray to all the gods so none of their devotees will be hurt. If we invite Pastor Rick Warren to pray at the inauguration, then we must make sure we also invite Bishop Gene Robinson to pray to “the god of our many understandings.” It is all too complicated and troublesome, so in the end we bow to the bullying of atheists who insist that all public prayers be banned.
The believer will say that prayer does something. He believes God answers prayer. He thinks God will give him and his people many blessings because of prayer. But let us play devil’s advocate for a moment and put aside the idea that prayer actually affects any supernatural transaction. Let us say that prayer does not actually accomplish anything in the spiritual realm. Then what is the good of it? Is it worth anything at all?
There is actually much practical power in public prayer. The public prayer confirms an underlying shared belief system that binds society together. “But we are not all Christians!” the skeptic will cry. Perhaps not, but all who are believers believe in God and believe in prayer, and any public prayer will at least bind theists together in a shared worldview — the one that includes the Almighty in some form or other. It is true that the atheists will be excluded, but will they care that much? If they think prayer is just meaningless chatter, why do they make such a fuss? Surely they ought to smile and humor us believers, as one does an idiot child.
Secondly, public prayer has a soothing and calming effect. On the train that day in London, people’s hearts were lifted for a moment. You could see it on their rubicund English faces. Prayer shifts our attention — even if we are unwilling — to another realm. We are forced (unless we are totally calloused brutes) to stop for just a tic and observe a moment’s silence — a moment when our world may expand, our hearts might be widened, our perception opened up, and the door to the other world cracked, even if only a tiny bit and for a brief moment in time. Surely any activity that shifts our focus away from ourselves, even for a few seconds, is a worthy thing?
Thirdly, public prayer has a beneficial effect on public morality. For that moment, even the unbeliever might stop to consider that his life has a larger dimension and that he may be a player on a more cosmic stage than he thought; and if this is so, it might just prompt a better and nobler sentiment within him.
The beneficial moral effect of public prayer was illustrated by a comment I received on my blog recently. I had written on the moral and social decay in modern Britain, and an Englishman responded,
When I began in banking almost 40 years ago, the head of our Investment Banking division each morning gathered his staff together and began the day with a prayer! This division was responsible for investing the bank’s money. The prayer was not that they would make a “killing” or rack up great profits for the bank. Rather it was that they would properly care for the bank’s assets and discharge their duties responsibly.
This man, like the train driver leaving Paddington, was not a national leader offering the invocation at a civic event, but an ordinary layman with a simple faith who took his responsibilities seriously. He was courageous enough to lead his people in prayer and had enough faith to believe that what he was doing was worthwhile. Indeed, it was worthwhile: Putting aside the question of whether or not his prayer influenced the Almighty, the prayers influenced the people in the investment department. At the beginning of each day, they were reminded of the moral dimension to their seemingly inconsequential jobs as bank clerks. Their superior leading them in prayer helped them to keep the filthy lucre they were dealing with in a proportionate place. If every Wall Street firm and every investment bank did the same every morning, would we now be in financial meltdown? I doubt it.
A fourth practical benefit of public prayer is that it grants to all those who participate a new kind of dignity. The bankers who prayed with their division chief were thought worthy to pray with. The chief took them seriously. Furthermore, their jobs also had a new dimension of seriousness and dignity. They mattered, and their jobs mattered — not only to their boss in business boss, but also to the Big Boss.
Think how society would change if every business started the day with prayer. What if the workers at Starbucks or Burger King or the local factory started their shift by praying with the boss? What if they prayed for each of their customers? What if they prayed for each other? Think of the benefits to the whole of society: We cannot stay angry long at a colleague with whom we have prayed. We cannot cheat for long a boss with whom we have prayed. We cannot provide poor customer service for a person for whom we have prayed.
I am not for one moment suggesting that the only benefits to prayer are the practical benefits in the public square. Prayer is much more. When we pray, heaven opens. God’s goodness comes to earth.
Nevertheless, there is a practical power to public prayer, and those of us who have the chance, by virtue of our position, should dare to pray more openly and with those who are part of our world. Whenever I have had the chance and the courage to say, “Let us pray together,” I have never had anyone refuse. Embarrassment there may be, shuffling of feet and awkward bowing of heads with the odd giggle or two, but never objections and never refusal. Afterward I have only ever been thanked.
We shouldn’t take for granted the practical power of public prayer. Let’s stand up a bit more often, open our hearts and our mouths, and risk a little embarrassment — and, like that sweet man on the London train, say, “Let us all pause for a moment and have a word of prayer.”

Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at

  • Dan Deeny

    Fr. Dwight. Very good contribution. Your observation about the worried atheists is interesting. Perhaps they believe, but are resisting? Graham Greene, I believe, has a character in one of his books who doesn’t go to church because he is a believer. I think it’s the one that takes place in Sierra Leone. By their objections, the atheists stress the importance of prayer, and thus make it more than a formality. Of course, Christians must first begin the prayer, as that train conductor did and as you do.

  • Kamilla

    I know this is off topic – but I LOVE Paddington station. Getting off the Heathrow Express there and finding a cab to my hotel – that was the moment I thought, “Wow, I really am in London!”

    Still had that feeling on the last trip.


  • david pence

    Father Longnecker, What an eloquent response to another man’s courage and piety in public prayer. There seems a reluctance amoung Catholic intellectuals to press for public prayer and displays of the Ten Commandments as the formative symbols of our civic culture. There is a bemused sense that these are low church protestant concerns. The Catholic intellectual is more pleased when he enlists a sympathetic clever atheist to craft a well phrased treatise on natural law. And so the Catholic man is rendered mute about the sacred. In bolstering his reputation as a public intellectual(certified by the status conferred by respectful non Christians)he deliberately censors “God talk.”
    He wonders why the mother will not safeguard her baby but then turns his words not to her but another conference on principles and ethics.
    The devout conductor teaches us another strategy. Certainly the liturgical Catholic can appreciate his reminder that lex orandi est lex credendi in civic life as well as the church. Consider a liturgical strategy in civic life. What if we assembled ourselves in the protective posture of the culture of life which broke down so dramatically in the last 40 years. Let us acknowledge Him we do not see–God our Father–and let us do it especailly at our Friday night football games with our young men pitched for honorable battle. Let us do this in our schools and at our public meetings. As we acknowledge Him whom we do not see let us acknowledge again the protective biological reality which is right before our eyes and which the cult of death has convinced us to ignore. Let us again assemble and acknowledge the fundamental communion of public protection is the protective brotherhood of American men as fellow citizens most perfectly assembled in our male military and policing instituions.
    Faced with such a public acknowledgement of those ancient categories of the sacred and the masculine brotherhood of public protective duty, is it possible that a woman might see more clearly the sacred nature of her baby’s life and her own womanly protective duty as mother?
    Let us be open that we are actually in an especially fertile moment to reground our public discussion not in the first right– to life; but in our first duty– to give thanks and praise to the Almighty. It is hard to believe that a Catholic bishop giving an invocation for a President McCain would ever publicly pray the Shema and the Our Father and then call on Jesus’ name(in three languages to boot). The present configuration of American politics with a much more prominent role of black Christians has changed our landscape. They have already struck a blow for marriage law in California with their providentially assembled Mormon allies.
    Let us learn from the prayerful conductor and let us clearly see our new cultural landscape. Communal life shaped by a civic liturgy that from East to West, every day and everywhere acknowledges the Author and Protector of life cannot long stand as an instrument of death.

  • Zoe

    The atheists I know tell me they’re offended at public prayer because it treats their “choice” of non-belief as less valuable or important in the public square as that of the believer. They also don’t like because it favors belief in God over disbelief.

    Many intelligent atheists, however, like Camille Paglia, see the value of religion in the public square.

    Thanks for your article — it gives us valid, non-religious arguments to use when defending the good of public prayer.

  • Baby Rose

    Thanks Fr. L. for the reminder that we are all spiritual beings! Even atheists, whether they like it or not, were created as expressions of God’s love. Thus we are drawn to Prayer which is the language of spiritual beings with our Creator (like moths to the Light); the language of the silence of the universe can be quite deafening….go atop a deserted mountaintop & see.

    I was watching the alleged atheist, Bill Mahr (sp), on Larry King Live just to see where the guy is coming from. I know that he had Catholic education in his backgroud. I agreed with several of his opinions about healthcare being more about meeting the medical industry’s profit margins with over emphasis on “preventive care” & testing that falls short of real dectection; that eating right (foods, preparation & clean water) plus moderation is the best way to thwart much disease (Fruit Loops isn’t good food for our kids any way you weigh it especially with so many of our kids becoming diabetic); he doesn’t think that babies from Invitro-F. are particularly miracles from God…rather from Pizner Pharmcuticals (I agree that it pretty much leaves God out). He was not caustic on King’s show, like I’ve seen him on his own show.

    He was on the show to push his recent movie critizing religion with sarcasm, that seems to have flopped or not generated the profits he had hoped; he says because so many theaters would not run it–??–maybe it just wasn’t the creative material he thought it was. When they signed off, Bill said, “There is no such thing as religion, but there is still Love.” I was surprised to learn that he has some kids; a family.

    Yes, God is love, but religion is also man’s varied system to worship God (& for people who don’t know the personal God–gods). Obviously Bill Mahr has been deeply wounded by the scandals of the Catholic Church over time & the failure of man’s “religiosity” within the Church, but I’m not so sure that he is really a purest atheist, but rather uses that position to make a living for his family by riding on the shirtails of controversy. He is a spiritual being that God pursues constantly like that poem, The Hound of Heaven, illustrates.

    Thanks also to Fr. L’s blog which brought to my attention the Red Envelope Project to make our pro-abortion President aware of those who do not support (legalized) infanticide in this Nation…I sent mine off and even addressed one to the First Lady c/o the President–she supports partial birth abortion. In my neck of the woods (Hope Clinic in IL. near St. Louis) more 24-month abortions are done in the wee hours after midnight than anywhere else due to no parental notification laws in IL…drawing women from all over America–Hope’s “claim to fame.” Lot’s of heartbreaking stories of ruined lives; emotionally, physically & spiritually. Abortionists & their nurse teams are even flown in from Kansas City to assist the demand.
    Baby Rose is the name I use to submitt comments in honor of the child I aborted 28 years ago at Hope Clinic when it was in it’s “infancy.” The word “clinic” is very misleading; it is an abortuary which grieves God’s heart. Plus the doctors have other “above-board” medical practices in the surrounding area. The main Hope Clinic Dr. was the lead surgeon of OB/GYN at a Catholic Hospital across the street for many years until it came to their attention by protesting Catholics & other Christians that he was also the main abortionist across the street (working very early & after midnight). He is from another country, but totally educated in the U.S. using American grant monies. Where is over-sight?? One abortionist has spent time in jail and another faced criminal charges & has since gone to Chicago to lend his “services” there to future patients. I now pray for the many women who have died, as well as their children. Abortion is a de-fetus action, that I regret.

  • Gail P Smith

    Thank you for lifting my day with your post. After many years as a pastor’s wife, I, too, have never had anyone refuse the offer to pray with them or for them. May God bless you.
    Gail P. Smith
    Davenport,Iowa, USA

  • Mark

    “Many intelligent atheists, however, like Camille Paglia, see the value of religion in the public square.” – Written by Zoe

    When you get time, would you please elaborate on these “many” other atheists? Thank you.