I recently received a brochure encouraging me to attend or organize a See You at the Pole event in my area. See You at the Pole is a national movement organizing Christian prayer events on school campuses, usually at a flagpole, prior to the start of classes. This year the event is on September 22.
Though I pray for our schools and our nation frequently, I have serious misgivings, both theological and social, about organized public Christian prayer events to take place on school campuses at the foot of the American flag. In short, I worry that See You at the Pole risks turning the discipline of Christian prayer into a segregated rally that can unnecessarily divide the school community.
First, let me be clear that my critiques are about the event itself, and not the youth who participate. The youth who participate likely do so for a variety of reasons, including the urging of their pastors or youth leaders, and many genuinely find it to be an exciting, faithful event bringing diverse Christians together to pray. What Christian kid, when invited by their friend to a prayer rally, would say no? And what Christian pastor or parent would say "no" to a child who wants to pray with other kids? But despite the enthusiasm and faith that might be cultivated by See You at the Pole, and the great intentions that might be held by those who organize these events, I fear that See You at the Pole is so rife with problems that we should caution our youth before they participate.
See You at the Pole almost can't help but become a platform public posturing. After all, it seeks to gather Christian kids in front of the school to pray, allowing fellow students, teachers, and passerby's to see and hear them pray in the name of Jesus. Yet when teaching his disciples how to pray, our Lord Jesus instructs them to pray in private, so that the one who prays isn't tempted to turn an act of faith into an opportunity for "look at me" pious grandstanding (see Matthew 6:1-18). And note that this event is not called Pray at the Pole, but See You at the Pole. Clearly, seeing and being seen is central to this event. (The See You at the Pole FAQ page responds to the Matthew 6 critique, with an argument based on one's motive for public prayer rather than the act of public prayer itself.)
But I also question the wisdom of praying at the foot of the American flag. Our faith is a universal faith, not tied to or identified by any national or ethnic identity. When Christians pray, we are addressing the Lord of all nations. Thus, prayer should not be done in a way that conflates our Lord with our nation; but praying at the foot of a flag does just that. National symbols are not appropriate gathering places for Christian prayer (see past post, Praising God, Honoring Country). (The See You at the Pole FAQ page explains that the flagpole is a meeting place simply because nearly every school campus has a flagpole. Some See You at the Pole events meet at other locations on campus.)
There is also a significant social aspect to this event. The event's name – See You at the Pole – makes it clear that this event is about being seen in prayer, just before the start of the school day. But what about those kids who will not be seen at the pole? Essentially, See You at the Pole gathers Christian kids at the flag pole to pray, to the exclusion of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, Christians who don't believe in praying outside of their fellowship, and others. And what about Christian kids who don't participate? Will they risk being accused by some participants of not being true Christians? I fear that drawing faith lines so dramatically and so publicly at this age,
over and against the diversity of the public school environment, is harmful to the school community. The last thing we need is for Christian prayer to become an opportunity for division in our school communities.
And more. By gathering at the foot of the flag to pray in a Christian manner, these kids are identifying the American flag as a gathering place for Christian prayer, thus alienating Americans of other faiths from their own flag. It's a way (however unintentional, perhaps) of claiming the flag as a Christian symbol, rather than lifting it up as a national banner that flies over Americans of all faiths and traditions.
The organizers of See You at the Pole could faithfully and wonderfully encourage prayer in many other ways, without running afoul of the problems outlined above.
- They could invite children and families to pray at home, behind closed doors, in accordance with our Lord's teaching. An organized, at-home prayer event joining millions of households in prayer would be quite powerful.
- Or, if they really want to gather people for prayer, they could hold events behind the closed doors of a local church one morning before school.
- But if they insist on holding an event on a school campus, they could do so on a weekend, when they are less likely to start a school day by dividing the student body according to religion.
- But if they truly insist on holding these events on a school day and on campus, they could at least pick a different spot, a more modest spot, away from the main doors to the school building where the flag is usually located, and away from the bus lanes or other very visible locations.
From what I can tell, See You at the Pole is a well-intentioned but flawed event that has the potential to sow division in our school communities, and which seems to be just as much about being seen as it is about prayer. I hope and pray that I am wrong, and that those who participate find it to be a powerful experience of Christian unity and prayer that leads them closer to God, and that through God they draw closer to their neighbor.