When I was a teenager, there was a day called See You at the Pole (SYATP). We were encouraged to show up at the flagpole before school started, join hands and pray together.
I went to a large high school so this usually meant that people saw more than 100 students praying around the school’s flagpole.
In high school, I played an active role in organizing, promoting and leading our annual SYATP event. After high school, I was even the featured speaker for some of the SYATP rallies.
Today, See You at the Pole continues to be observed at high schools across the globe as thousands of students gather to pray. This year the event is scheduled for Sept. 25.
Upon a cursory glance, that seems like a wonderful thing. However, as I reflect back on my own experience and as I now work as a youth pastor, I feel very hesitant about SYATP for two reasons.
First, I am uncomfortable with the idea of students standing in a circle and praying around the flagpole.
I understand that, most likely, the flagpole is chosen because every school has one. However, doesn’t U.S. Christianity struggle enough with conflating our faith and nationalism?
After a SYATP event in which I participated during high school, I was approached by a student who had seen me and others that morning standing in a circle, holding hands and praying around the flagpole.
This student was not an adherent to any organized faith and she found the spectacle very confusing. She asked me, “Why were you praying to the American flag?”
The other reason that I am uncomfortable with SYATP is the extremely public aspect of the whole affair. From my own experience, I can tell you that SYATP has much less to do with seeing people at the pole than it does with wanting to be seen at the pole.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does tells his listeners that they are to “let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:16), but he also has a great deal to say about public prayer.
Later in the sermon, Jesus speaks of people who like to pray on street corners so that others will hear them. About these people, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5).
Instead, Jesus instructs his listeners that when they pray, they are to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).
I am not against public praying. I am not even against teenagers praying at their school. However, I have some very doubtful feelings about any event in which students are encouraged to make their faith into a spectacle to be seen.
It’s interesting to me that in U.S. Christianity we teach our adolescents about humility in almost every area of life, except for faith. When it comes to their religion, we want them to be loud and proud.
Perhaps instead we should teach our teenagers that their faith is meant to be bold in the way they treat people, the activities in which they either participate or avoid, and in the issues of justice and ethics on which they take action.
Those are the kinds of things they ought to shout from the rooftops. I’m not sure if prayer ought to be treated the same way.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing for any teenagers to go to See You at the Pole. However, I hope that if they do so, it will be to join with sisters and brothers in praying that God would come alongside them as they try to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.
Tyler Tankersley is associate pastor of students and spiritual formation at Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo.