While many bemoan the decline of the American religious, one fact remains: religiously affiliated or not, 55 percent of people in the United States pray each day. Though institutional religion may be going out of style, this ancient spiritual practice seems to be holding steady.
But, why, as a nation that is allegedly turning more secular, are we still praying?
“I’ll pray for you,” is a common phrase in my Southern state, signaling the conclusion of a social encounter. It can be a statement of sincerity or contrition, backed by with actual embodied prayer, or neglected as a nicety. But, for many members of the Christian community, praying for others can conjure up images of past disappointment: “Does prayer really work?” even the devoutly religious might ask, having been burned by unanswered supplications and closed doors.
Prayer among Progressive Christians is further complicated by the loud, evangelical stereotype that dominates politics and 24-7 media cycles. Non-Christians associate evangelism with the entirety of the tradition, forcing more welcoming and affirming congregations to re-think how they conduct prayer practice in order attract new generations and cheerlead: “we are not like them.”
That’s why, when my liberal Baptist Church holds its annual prayer and healing service during morning 11:00 a.m. worship, it’s met with suspicion—even by me, a seminary graduate and self-described “open-minded” Christian. We’re the type of congregation who does not shed our shells quickly or easily. In lieu of vulnerability, we operate as stoics. Enlivened, healing prayer might be something our members practice in private, but no runs down the center aisle asking for healing prayers at the conclusion of Sunday service. Instead, we fall into the Progressive Christian trap of “living” a robust religious life in which our academic brains and social justice actions receive all the exercise, but our sincerest soul practice is left behind.
During the annual healing service hour, our sanctuary is divided into prayer stations. Amid trepidation, hesitant university professors and community activists initially remain glued to their seats, filled with wonder as to who will actually go forward for prayer.
What happens next is an emotionally salient act totally out of character for many Progressive Christians. One by one, despite suspicion, parishioners give way to curiosity, humbly shuffling to the stations, unsure of how this will all play out. No more than three minutes later, shells are shed, suffering is revealed, handkerchiefs are retrieved, and tears flow. The once shut-out mystical healing power of God is welcomed again, and a hand might even be lifted overhead. Perhaps our physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual pains have not been completely eliminated, but a small piece of healing faith has been renewed.
If this works so well once per year, how might the Progressive Church re-discover the ancient practice of healing supplications in a more frequent way?
Bruce Epperly, theologian and pastor, says that Progressive Christians can “reclaim the power of prayer and divine healing” by “liberating [ourselves] from conservative … understandings of prayer and divine activity.” Epperly writes that Progressives must be “imaginative in our prayers … open to God in new ways of partnership with God through prayer, healing touch, meditation, affirmations, and social concern.”
Millennials, who are “leaving the church in droves,” site the inauthentic nature of modern Christianity as the reason for their exodus. This anti-church recoil of young people is reinforced by the fundamentalist Christianity that dominates American culture. When hate and exclusivity are held in tandem with Hollywood-esque demonstrations of “prayer” that degrades others, Millennials have all the more reason to reject a faith that, doesn’t seem to attend to real people and real suffering. Millennials long for a Church that will hear their questions, and sit with them in their pain—a church that will seek to heal the wounds of exclusions brought against LGBTQ persons, minorities, and the poor.
Perhaps riding the wave of Brene Brown’s “Power of Vulnerability,” is the answer for today’s failing churches who desire a re-discovery of ego-stripping transparency. Perhaps the mainline Christian Churches should work to self-identify as “praying churches” that invite authentic moments of brokenness during worship, instead of focusing on the prosperity of some, and hate for others.
The annual healing prayer service in my Progressive Christian church is an imperfect spiritual practice that gives us room to re-image our partnerships with God. Each year, I am reminded that prayer is something the church can and should do well and repeatedly, continuing to reflect on Jesus’ ministry as a radical healer. While the deep study of scripture and advocacy for the marginalized are hallmarks of liberal Christianity, mysterious spiritual ways of being in relationship with God and others should be, too.
J. Dana Trent is an author and teacher. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition. Her awarded winning book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk tells the story of her eHarmony-born interfaith marriage. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets@jdanatrent.