It’s estimated that around half of the US prays before meals—an astonishing figure that spans the diverse ethnic, economic, political, and religious spectrums that exist in our culture. A 2017 study, conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, revealed that the practice of “saying grace” was even prevalent among those who rejected organized religion.
With these stats in mind, I can’t help wonder: why is this simple act of uttering a few words before eating a meal so prolific among American households? And, given its wide-spread acceptance as a socio-religious practice, how intentional are we, as faith formation leaders, in our engagement with this notable mealtime ritual?
While I’m certain that there are many prayers offered with a genuine sense of gratitude and thanksgiving for all the blessings God has given us on this earth, if I had to guess, I’d assert that the commonality of this practice among Americans has more to do with cultural rituals rooted in Christian tradition, than a desire to offer praise to the God from whom all blessings flow. Cultural traditions, especially religious ones, function as social glue that holds communities and larger societies together, which is why this ritual transcends the diversity that makes up our country—non-religious diversity to boot.
Given this wide-spread acceptance of praying before meals, it’s understandable that we’ve often tried to dress up our prayers during ministry at summer camp, weekend retreats, mission trips, and children and youth ministry. We try to take something seemingly routine and make it enjoyable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sung the Johnny Appleseed or Superman prayers before meals at ministry events. And, why not? They’re fun and engaging and participatory—all important facets of any effective formational ministry. That said, there came a point in my own ministry that I began questioning whether I was missing an important discipleship opportunity in the simple act of being mindful and intentional in offering “grace.”
Praying before meals, after all, is a kind of daily confession to God and before others that all that we have is from God’s loving hand. It’s as if the meal before us is a tangible symbol of God’s provision and care for us. Offering prayers of thanksgiving orients us as the receivers of God’s blessings. These prayers can give us a sense of perspective on our lives in relationship to God’s ever-sustaining grace.
Engaging those to whom we minister in intentional and reflective prayers before meals offers us a regular window of formation that has the potential to connect us to God in meaningful ways. In the end, if we know we have this incredible little opportunity to form folks in a short prayer before we eat, the question we need to ask ourselves is, how are we going to use it?
Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through the bounty of Christ our Lord. Amen.