NFL quarterback Tim Tebow’s prayer practice has morphed into an Internet fad. It also raises questions about how to practice faith in public.
The practice is named for Tim Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner and current quarterback of the Denver Broncos. Tebow is a fervent Christian who takes his faith and his witness seriously. Rather than wild and raucous touchdown dances, he is known for bending down on one knee and quickly offering a prayer after a significant football moment.
Not everybody takes this in stride. After sacking the Christian quarterback, Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tullock bent down and pretended to pray a la Tebow, an action most football fans interpreted as a taunt. (I wonder if Tulloch noticed the irony of a Lion bowing to pray over a Christian?) Tebow’s legions of Christian fans have given Tullock—what else?—hell for it.
Flattery or foul?
Some aspects of Tebowing are more ambiguous. The tebowing.com website is agnostic on the subject. It features pictures of people Tebowing all over the world. Some appear to be making fun of Tebow and his faith, while others seem to be mirroring their hero.
The New York Times’ football blog, The Fifth Down, poses a perceptive question: Is mocking a very public Christian for his extremely public ritual fair game? Blogger Toni Monkovic asks: “Tebow invites scrutiny with the very public nature of his religious beliefs, his evangelistic side. But let’s imagine that a player displayed a Muslim religious ritual or one based on Hinduism? Would it be fair to mock those displays as well? If not, why is it fair game for Tebow?”
I don’t want to encourage the folks who claim middle class—or, in this case, wealthy—U.S. Christians are persecuted. Disagreeing, and even vehemently arguing, is not the same as persecution. And even being made fun of isn’t all that rough. Still, Monkovic asks a fair question.
Faith in public
Beyond that, Tebow’s public-prayer practice, along with his host of mockers and mimickers, ought to prompt Christians to ask an important question: How should we behave in public?
Admittedly, sports figures face many more opportunities to demonstrate their faith than normal people. A Christian plumber isn’t likely to bend down and offer a prayer after unclogging a bathtub. And even if he did, who would see?
Tebow violates a literal reading of Jesus’ teaching about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
Still, I’m not prepared to sack the quarterback. We’ve been watching him since he entered the University of Florida six years ago, and his faith rituals seem intended to represent his dependence upon Christ rather than to puff up his pride or build his tribe.
Still, how should Christians live out our faith before others?
Two bad options
On the one hand, haughty, judgmental, hypocritical and just plain mean-spirited Christians have given unbelievers and people of other faiths plenty of reasons to hate and to mock our Savior. If our public expressions of faith fail to demonstrate humility, love and care, then we harm Jesus’ good name and hinder his cause.
But on the other hand, for most of us, that’s not the problem. Too many Christians live in fear of being mocked or, less painfully, misunderstood. Christians who only want to blend in and whose relationship with Jesus does not shape the way they deal with others hinder his cause.
We live in a complex, conflicted, confusing world. Before we express our faith in words and deeds, we should think carefully and prayerfully about how they will be received. And if they do not represent Christ winsomely and well, we should either think of a better way or stand up and shut up.
Marv Knox is the Publisher and Editor for News and Public Policy for FaithVillage.
Originally posted on November 11, 2011.