Friday, September 19, 2014

How “Praying for One Another” Can Damage Unity in the Body of Christ

by Albrecht Durer, ca. 1508

My friend and colleague, Jody Bormuth, recently posted about her wonderful experience of the support and encouragement, as well as prayer support, her family received through “the stronger and deeper family of God made visible” through responses to her requests for prayer (and one in particular) on Facebook. Her post can be found here: Below are my thoughts in response to hers.

Thank you, Jody, for your thoughtful post and the inspiration to take more seriously my communications with my Christian brothers and sisters, even on Facebook. From your post and some prayerful consideration, the following thoughts emerged.
Like many others, I often struggle with the communication styles and sometimes shallow platitudes offered in response to authentic and heart-felt status updates. Still, Facebook prayer requests have yet to catch up with two of the more difficult realities of other means of gathering prayer support (prayer chains and open-forum prayer in Christian gatherings), and a third problem with prayer requests would seem to be almost impossible on Facebook as well.
"You need prayer? How could you have let that happen?!"
One of the advantages to Facebook is that it limits the tendency found elsewhere to turn “prayer requests” into “gossip sessions.” Because the comments are attached directly to the posting of the request, it is far less likely that, instead of praying for the need presented, one might suggest that the person posting make changes to their lifestyle, decision-making skills, or other “causes” of their need. While these do sometimes occur on Facebook, my experience is that they are not so common as they are within Christian gatherings. Score one for Facebook.
Don't ask this guy for prayer.
The other advantage is related to the first. But rather than offering how one might have avoided their need through “better Christian living,” prayer requests often provoke far many more offers of remedies to the need presented. Instead of “Here’s how that person should have prevented their own need,” this approach at least focuses more directly toward the person making the request: “Here’s how you should go about addressing and alleviating your own need.” Again, in the context of the status update on Facebook, it would seem more awkward there to tell someone to answer their own prayer. This does happen, though, and more frequently than the gossip noted above. But it still counts as a second point for Facebook.
The third factor favoring Facebook is the almost total absence of “The Telephone Game.” Most are familiar with the party game in which a phrase is whispered from one to another until it reaches the last of the guests, with the result that the statement becomes significantly altered, and sometimes incomprehensible. This phenomenon, warping and morphing the request into something far different than what was initially requested, is endemic among prayer chains of my acquaintance.
For example, I recently received a call asking whether one of our older members was being treated at our local, small, and reasonably-competent, but limited-in-services hospital, or at the state-of-the-art regional medical facility seventy or so miles away. When I hung up the phone, my wife expressed her confusion about the nature of the call. She’d heard who I had mentioned, and that the question concerned the two hospitals. It didn’t make any sense, given what else we knew about the patient. My explanation: “You need to remember that they heard about it through the prayer-chain. By the time it got to them, (our friend and parishioner) may not have been having a quadruple-bypass. They may have heard that she was having quadruplets.”
Of course, on Facebook, when similar miscommunications occur, it’s not necessary to blame any of the humans along the chain for misstating what they’ve heard, adding their more-detailed assumptions, or otherwise embellishing the facts of the matter. No, on Facebook, when something is miscommunicated, we can simply blame spell-check. I would, however, be surprised if Facebook doesn’t eventually catch up in all three areas, especially among those of us who let our devices read posts aloud to us, and then compose our responses by speaking them into text.
So, even on Facebook, three rules for prayer requests might be helpful:

  • First, when a person asks for prayer, don’t blame them for having the need for prayer. Just pray.
  • Second, when a person asks for prayer, don’t offer remedies for the need about which they’ve asked you to pray. Just pray.
  • And third, when a person asks for prayer, do feel free to clarify anything you don’t understand about how they’d like you to pray. But then, leave it at that, and just pray.

The alternative, sadly, is to leave many of us in need of prayer, but questioning whether we’re willing to endure the gossip, the advice, and the blame. For the sake of an authentic, transparent, and vulnerable fellowship in Christ: Just pray.
My advice: Drive over the signpost itself. Then, just pray.


Pastor Greg said...

Thanks Bill I totally agree. We are too quick to try and fix things when that is not what we were asked to do, nor is it our job.

On the topic of prayer chains...I would recommend not more than two exchanges of information to avoid the Telephone game you speak of. I changed our prayer ministry from the chain approach to that of teams. Pastor taking the request types accurate summary and emails list to team leaders who then prayed over them in-person with their team. No errant passing of distorted info.

Anonymous said...

Yay Bill. Let's pray!


Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks, Greg. I love the idea, and may implement an e-mail distribution list for some of the pastoral prayer support requests. The prayer chain, of course, depends upon participants who do not have e-mail. (I don't dare critique them for this, largely on the grounds that most of my friends who live where cellphone signals are more prevalent can't imagine I don't text!)

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Relative to some discussions about church unity, I wonder if a joint prayer chain (or e-mail distribution as Greg describes above) might foster mutual collaboration, even where other opportunities for ministry or even contact have been diminishing. Hmmm...

Schaak said...

Bill, I appreciate your comments as it pertains to prayer requests in relation to the current culture. I think it is helpful to discuss good guidelines for social media and facebook. I am sure there are also drawbacks to using facebook for prayer, but then again there are negatives doing just about everything. I prefer when people focus on positives and how to improve what exists. Communicating through facebook provides an easy and quick way to reach a vast number of friends, acquaintances, and the friends of those people as well. I appreciate your admonition to "just pray" and might add to that "just pray and let the person know you are praying." As evidenced by Jody's post, it can be a tremendous encouragement to the person requesting prayer, and an opportunity to participate in what God is doing in others' lives.

Wm. Darius Myers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks for the comment, Noel. I hope that my comments don't come across as overly critical of the traditional prayer chains in most churches. My guidelines were intended as improvements, especially where there is no Twitter or Facebook account, as well as no texting or even e-mail access for some of our folks. Your addition of "let the person know you are praying" does have it's exceptions, but it is a good idea in the vast majority of cases. (The exceptions on my mind: when someone decides that another should be the subject of prayer, yet leaves that person ignorant of the fact, or ignores the fact that the person is uncomfortable with either prayer, or their need--perceived or actual--being shared, or both.) Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

sent by cohort jp I agree, we should just pray. Recently I attended a church board meeting of a church “in crisis.” After the primary matters of business, the senior pastor alluded to some struggles he was feeling. Many of the board members blamed him, and criticized him. They ignored his feelings and verbally attacked him. I have known the pastor for many years, and I heard the pain behind his words. I quietly went over and sat with my arm around him. He opened up and expressed his heart. He spoke of the church’s needs, I asked the group to pray for those needs. I also prayed for him and for his own hurts. I agree that instead of blame and criticize, we should pray.

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Sadly, I have seen the same pattern played out too many times, not only with pastors, but they do seem to be the most isolated from actual prayer support. There seems to be an even greater tendency toward blame, advice, and gossip in those cases.

Even unsolicited offers of prayer can be strangely unsettling. Today, I received a message from a couple seeking missionary support from our congregation. They affiliate with another congregation in our area, and I'm aware of some of their sources of information. But their allusion to praying for us because "your church is going through some changes" sent me into a tailspin of wondering what changes those might be. (And why it is that no one has bothered to tell me about them.)

Thanks for the comment, Cohort!

Jim Polensky said...

Thank you Bill. Facebook takes a lot of critique but I believe it is helpful, especially in the area of prayer. My nephew suffered a cardiac arrest at the age of 24 years old. He had no prior existing medical conditions. His parents, out of the need for prayer, set up a Facebook page that had 10,000 people world wide providing prayer around the clock. The doctors of this world renown cardiac unit said it was a miracle that he had a complete recovery. We all believe that the miracle from God was because 10,000 people "just prayed."

Wm. Darius Myers said...

No doubt, there are myriad drawbacks to the uses to which Facebook is being put. But I have some acquaintances whose proof-texting from Holy Scripture is far more damaging than anything I've seen on Facebook. As a means of communication it can be invaluable (both Facebook and the Bible). But in both cases it is also probably important to recognize them for what they inherently are, not what some of their users have made them into. Thanks for the comment, Jim!

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