11/07/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Christians by the Grocery Store

Walking into the grocery store the other day, I passed a small group seated at a table. There was a Bible on the table, and their heads were bowed, their hands linked, as their leader led them in prayer. It was awkward stepping past them; I wondered why they chose to have their prayer group meet at the entry to a grocery store in a Minneapolis suburb.

I suspect that one reason they chose that location was precisely so that they would be seen. Christian culture in America often encourages public prayer, and the more public the better. It is a public statement, meant to be seen and heard. This is, intentionally, a marker of public Christianity for many groups.

The problem with this, like some of the other markers of public Christianity in America, is that it directly transgresses the instructions of Christ. He was pretty clear on this: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." If that's not enough, there is this: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.... whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door...."

The more "Christian" the community, the more likely it seems to be that public prayer is a feature of the culture -- before banquets, football games and legislative sessions. Little of it, in fact, is really very Christian, if Christianity has much to do with Christ and what he taught.

Other markers of public Christianity are equally non-Christian. For example, the media delights in seeking out ministers and lay Christians willing to denounce others for their supposed sins, from Catholic Bishops decrying pro-choice politicians to the Westboro Baptist Church's hateful protests. This creates the unfortunate impression that judging others is a Christian imperative, while the opposite is true. "Judge not" was among the shortest and simplest of Christ's directives, yet too often we seem to get it wrong.

If things like public prayer and castigating "sinners" aren't the proper markers of public Christianity, what should we look to? I have some ideas on that.

  • Perhaps one public marker of a Christian is that she is not at work on Sunday.
  • Perhaps another is an eagerness to forgive.
  • I suppose that voluntary poverty would mark one as a Christ-follower, too.

Already, I see a problem with these more genuine markers: They are really hard to achieve, much harder than judging and public prayer. I will admit that by these markers, I may not be such a Christian myself.

Which, then, is better -- the difficult but true, or the easy and false?