How and Why We Pray

Organized religion may be losing members, but prayer is more popular than ever. A look at the myriad reasons why.

By Lise Funderburg
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine April 2014

america prays mapColin Johnson for Reader’s Digest

In the 11 years that Theresa Cho has served as a pastor at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, she has aimed to make prayer more accessible to her diverse congregation. When the tenth anniversary of 9/11 grew close, for instance, she searched for a simple yet creative way for her parishioners—and anyone else—to express themselves. Inspiration struck when she found a bucket of colored chalk in her office supply closet. She placed it on the ground outside the church’s entrance next to a large sign that read “Write a prayer or word of peace to mark this day.”

Over the following week, congregants and passersby scratched out thanks to the first responders and wishes for a better world: “Stay human.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Let’s work together.” Because the 9/11 anniversary coincided with Rosh Hashanah, members of the Jewish temple across the street added their hopes for the new year.

“After I took down the sign and the chalk faded, I got phone calls asking, ‘Why did you take it away?’” says the dynamic Cho, now 40. “People would walk by on their way to the bus, and reading those prayers was a moment when they’d pause and reflect.”

Prayer takes countless forms in America today. Across town from Cho’s church, Grace Episcopal Cathedral hosts spiritually focused Tuesday-night yoga—participants do sun salutations on mats under its soaring arches—as well as Friday-night prayer walks in its limestone labyrinth. At Praise Academy School of Dance in Stoughton, Massachusetts, a former New England Patriots cheerleader teaches kids and adults how to use movement as worship. Several times a day, Muslim employees and customers gather at a cordoned-off section of a shopping mall in Tysons Corner, Virginia, to kneel and perform salat, the Islamic prayer ritual, while, across the country, in Anaheim’s Angel Stadium, more than 100,000 Christians recently prayed alongside Pastor Greg Laurie as he implored Jesus Christ to change everyone’s “eternal address” to heaven rather than hell. And for the 85 million travelers who pass through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport every year, three chapels offer space for worship and reflection, as well as weekly Catholic, nondenominational Christian, and Muslim services.

The American Way
Although the shapes, faces, and places of prayer are ever evolving in the United States, the act itself is a fixture in most of our lives. According to the 2010 General Social Survey, 86 percent of Americans pray, with 56.7 percent doing so at least once a day. Even among people who aren’t affiliated with a specific religion—a growing group that numbered 46 million at last count and includes non-churchgoing believers, atheists, and agnostics—one in five still prays daily, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prayer is ubiquitous in America because it’s so flexible and customizable. Says religion scholar Elizabeth Drescher, a faculty member at Santa Clara University in California, “Among the traditional religious practices, prayer allows the most individual autonomy and authority. That’s especially resonant in our culture, which values personal choice.”

The word pray is derived from the Latin word precarius, which means “to obtain by entreaty or begging.” However, praying is about much more than asking for things. Writer Anne Lamott believes that most prayers fall into one of three categories: Help, Thanks, and Wow (that’s also the title of her 2012 book on the subject).

Until the middle of the 20th century, Drescher notes, worship styles were quite distinct. “Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and other denominations prayed in particular ways. Prayer was a specific marker of religion and identity.” With mass media, people were exposed to the practices of other sects and faiths, like Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

“Recently, we’ve been seeing a shift toward more informal but also more imaginative prayer,” says Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Indeed, if they were alive today, pontiffs of the past would no doubt have been confused and amused by one of the first official actions of Pope Francis. Last March, just four days after being selected, he sent his first tweet from the papal office: “Dear friends, I thank you from my heart, and I ask you to continue to pray for me.” (The pope, whose account is @Pontifex, has over 3.5 million followers.)

Next: The changing face of prayer in America

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