The National Prayer Breakfast returns to Washington, D.C., on Thursday, but the annual event will look quite different in 2023 than it did in years past.

Rather than gathering in a large hotel ballroom with people from around the world, elected officials who take part will meet in an auditorium at the Capitol Visitor Center. And they’ll be offered a casual spread of bagels and coffee instead of a plated breakfast meal.

“That’s what Congress wants, they want to take it back to its origins and in the early days it really was just the Congress and the president,” said former Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, who is now the board president of the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, to Religion News Service.

As Pryor noted, this year’s main event will be limited to President Joe Biden, members of the House and Senate, and their plus ones, like spouses or pastors. In previous years, the National Prayer Breakfast brought together a much bigger and more diverse group of people, from prominent faith leaders to political lobbyists.

Pryor pointed to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic to explain why the National Prayer Breakfast has undergone a transformation. But others wonder if recent scandals tied to the religious event forced organizers’ hands, Religion News Service reported.

President George Bush, along with first lady Barbara Bush, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell and Catherine Stevens, wife of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska join in prayer during the National Prayer breakfast in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30, 1992. | Barry Thumma, Associated Press

What is the National Prayer Breakfast?

The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual prayer gathering for political leaders, which takes place on the first Thursday in February. It was launched in 1953 during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s time in office, according to The Conversation.

That first year, Eisenhower offered remarks to the crowd, speaking about the relationship between religion and government. Presidential addresses have been a key part of the event ever since, although leaders are about as likely to talk about their political goals as their personal faith, The Conversation reported.

“Presidents have used the prayer breakfast to burnish their image and promote their agendas,” the article said.

Over time, attendees have found ways to use the event to their advantage, as well, by networking with political and business leaders before and after the meal.

“For many, the upshot is making new friends with religious, political and business leaders. There also are opportunities for alliances that could happen away from public scrutiny,” The Conversation reported.

In addition to the main breakfast, many National Prayer Breakfast participants attend smaller “seminars and discussions,” the article said. The event functions more like a conference than a single high-profile gathering.

Associated meetings “convene clergy, politicians, military leaders and businessmen for high-level discussions on the global intersections of faith, power and money. The president does not attend these meetings, but his confidantes do,” The Conversation reported.

President Barack Obama speaks at the 62nd National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014. | Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

Why is the National Prayer Breakfast controversial?

The growing size of the National Prayer Breakfast in recent years opened the door to scandal, such as when the Department of Justice announced in 2018 that a Russian national had planned to use the event as part of a larger ‘conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation,’” Religion News Service reported.

Religion experts have also questioned the prayer breakfast’s association with The International Foundation, a Christian group that’s also known as “The Family.”

The 2008 book “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” which has since been turned into a Netflix series, argues that the group wields a disturbing amount of power in Washington and supports a wide array of conservative causes, despite the prayer breakfast’s bipartisan nature.

One reason why the National Prayer Breakfast will look different this year is that “The Family” is no longer running it. That organization will host a separate event on Thursday and watch the president’s remarks to members of Congress via livestream, according to Religion News Service.

In his interview with Religion News Service, Pryor urged critics to try to be open-minded about what the future could hold.

“Let us show that it is going to be different and just give us a little time here,” he said. “We haven’t even had the breakfast yet.”