Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.
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(Photo: jpena35/Flick)

(Photo: jpena35/Flick)

Earlier this month, LifeWay Research, an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, released a survey about America’s prayer life. Max Lucado, the pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, and author of a new book on prayer, sponsored the survey, which took place on a single day in August when 1,137 adults completed an online questionnaire. LifeWay then weighted those results “by region, age, ethnicity, gender, religion and income to more accurately reflect the population.”

It was a small survey, especially when compared to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, which interviews more than 35,000 respondents. But small or not, the LifeWay survey reveals some interesting features of America’s prayer life. Almost half of those surveyed said they pray at least once every day, while nearly a third say they pray several times a day; 83 percent think at least some of their prayers are answered, while 14 percent do not know.

The survey confirms what many earlier surveys observed: Americans pray and expect at least some of their prayers to be answered; most of those who pray offer prayers for themselves and those closest to them. Beyond that, it’s hard to know what to make of such varied responses.

But what are those prayers? Americans, it turns out, pray: for family and friends (82 percent), about difficulties and problems in their lives (74 percent), to give thanks (54 percent), for their own sin (42 percent), for people affected by natural disasters (38 percent), for their enemies (37 percent), for their own prosperity (36 percent), to win the lottery (21 percent), for people of other faiths or no faith (20 percent), for God to avenge them (14 percent), for their sports team to win (13 percent), for elected officials (12 percent), for a good parking spot (seven percent), to avoid a speeding ticket (seven percent), for someone to get fired (five percent), for celebrities (five percent), and for someone else to fail (four percent).

That’s a rather dense summary of several sets of questions. Generally, though, the survey confirms what many earlier surveys observed: Americans pray and expect at least some of their prayers to be answered, and most of those who pray offer prayers for themselves and those closest to them. Beyond that, it’s hard to know what to make of such varied responses.

There are as many definitions of prayer as there are people who pray. Every single person who prays has his or her own understanding of what happens through those silent thoughts or spoken words, so it might not mean much that more people pray to win the lottery than for someone else to fail or that fewer people pray for celebrities than for elected officials. It might only mean, for instance, that in a recession people trust the lottery more than their elected officials to bring about prosperity.

It’s also possible that such rigid categories don’t account for the dynamism of prayer. The same prayer may be understood differently by different petitioners: one person thinks he is praying for his sports team, while another thinks of her prayer in terms of a specific celebrity shortstop. And while one petitioner understands that in order for him to get a promotion someone else must be fired, another thinks of prayer only in terms of his own benefit, not the detriment of others.

For many, prayer is a way of encountering the world, so prayers might not ever be as specific as help me find a good parking spot, even though the general help me do well in this interview includes such quotidian concerns as finding parking nearby so as to arrive on time. That’s all to say the quantitative assessment of prayer is a difficult thing indeed. Whether or not a person prays is easily surveyed, but the width and depth of such prayers is not as easily measured.

I thought of this on Sunday when my own religious community gathered in prayer. There we were, almost a hundred of us, with heads bowed and hands folded and a worship assistant at the altar leading us in the prayers of the people. Those intercessory prayers are more capacious than any I offer on my own: They are for the community gathered but also the global community, the local church and the church universal, this particular country and all the countries of the world.

Such prayers make the categories of the LifeWay survey seem so inadequate. Like asking whether you’d ever petitioned the Lord to buy you a Mercedes Benz, instead of asking whether you pray for safe travel.

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