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.

america prays map
Colin 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

america prays map
Colin Johnson for Reader’s Digest

Stoking Devotion
The Twitter account of Jessie Still (@JessieStill) has a much more modest fan base: 236 followers. The 38-year-old Michigan man’s page, which boasts a photo of Still’s boyish face, bears the description “Husband, dad, lover of God, director of the Furnace at MSU ( Loving life. Praying.” “Prayer furnaces” are evangelical Christian ministries that focus their efforts on organizing congregants to pray together and express their devotion to the Lord publicly and passionately. They are a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. Some furnaces organize participants to pray in relays to keep worship going nonstop for days, weeks, and even years.

Still runs the furnace at Lansing’s Michigan State University. He relies on Facebook to send out notices and posts instructional videos and audio files on the group’s website, but despite these modern methods, he sees prayer in an age-old way: as a means to talk directly to God. He says, “I speak with him as I would a friend. It can take the form of a simple conversation, or it might be my reading from a Bible and asking God when I don’t understand, ‘What are you saying?’ It can also include my singing or playing music.”

Although Still’s parents were nonreligious, one of his grandmothers was a devout Southern Baptist, and he credits her with helping him become “awakened” at eight years old. “I knew then that God was real,” Still says, “that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and I believed that I heard his voice. That’s defined my life ever since.” Shortly afterward, he heard a pastor say that God would bless a person who took the time to talk to him. “And I believed that in my little heart.”

Still adds, “Evangelism, or sharing the good news that God loves you, is considered a priority for Christians who take their faith seriously.” He thinks that through their collective prayers, the furnace’s believers can improve the spiritual climate of their campus, the nation, and even the world. As he writes on the ministry’s website, “The glory of prayer is that there are no limits to whom and where you can reach.”

Helen Jacobs, a Catholic in Burlington, Kentucky, is aiming for a smaller sphere of influence than Still: her family. But not much smaller. The 83-year-old and her husband, Elmer, have nine children, 15 grandchildren, and seven great-grandkids, and almost all of them gather in her home with their spouses and partners every Christmas Eve. After dinner, Jacobs dispatches her oldest granddaughter to fetch the bag of plastic rosaries for distribution among the 40 family members.

She says that people who aren’t familiar with the Rosary think it’s just rote recitation, but she views the prayer ritual as an opportunity to contact a higher power: in this case, the Holy Mother. “If you’re not feeling right or you’re worried about something, you can talk to Mary about it. It’s a closeness that you can feel.”

Though Jacobs has traditionally led the Rosary, recently she’s been teaching the girls to lead and the boys to respond. “I did it to get them more involved,” she says, “and it works out good.” With her actions, she is striving to ensure that new generations in her family will enjoy the solace and strength that religion and its rituals can provide.

Connecting to a Creator—And Kin
Other Americans are taking prayers from traditional religions and customizing them to reflect their own preferences and experiences. Tanya Marcuse, 49, grew up in a nonobservant Jewish household, as did her husband, James Romm. But after they started a family, they joined a progressive congregation in Woodstock, New York, and they’ve sent their three children to Hebrew school. “We decided to have a Jewish practice not because we had an overwhelming spiritual belief,” explains Marcuse, a photographer. “It was about wanting to have a community and a clear Jewish identity that was larger than a cultural one.”

Every Friday night, Marcuse’s family says Sabbath prayers, although they use the term Creator rather than God or Lord. “Even if I don’t believe in God,” she says, “I didn’t create my own self. Prayer is a way of reminding myself of that and teaching my children to remember a position of humility. It’s a way of recognizing the bigness of things so far beyond ourselves. I don’t think that’s a man with a beard who has a plan, but I do believe that things are a lot bigger than any one of us. That attitude has been tremendously helpful to me in good and bad times.”

Patrick Rosal, a writer in Brooklyn, New York, was raised by Catholics, but he has spent most of the past 20 years as a “straight-up atheist.” Nonetheless, he prays often, almost automatically and especially in moments of emotional turmoil. “I’d be lying if I said I knew what prayer does for me,” says Rosal, 45, “but I find myself making the sign of the cross out of nowhere.”

He attributes this reflexive practice to his deeply ingrained Catholic roots. His father was a priest before he married Rosal’s mother, and the family’s household was steeped in religion. Rosal’s parents held masses in the home, had a library filled with theology volumes, and hosted monsignors visiting from their native Philippines. Rosal played guitar at church folk masses. He says, “There wasn’t anything in our lives that was not connected to religion.”

After years of not believing, he has recently begun to consider the possibility of a supreme being. “As a writer, I’ve always had a relationship with mysticism and bewilderment,” he says, “so how could I be sure there’s no God? I felt like it was depriving me of an opportunity of wonder.”

Rosal finds himself praying nearly every day but not only as a Catholic. Before meals, he occasionally makes atang, a food offering to his Filipino ancestors—including his mother, who died of kidney disease in 1995. In those moments, he feels a bond with her that bypasses the logical, linear world. “I feel a little bit like I’m talking to her,” he says.

Worship that rises out of caring for loved ones, living or dead, is common among religiously unaffiliated Americans like Rosal, observes Drescher. “Prayer, in its broadest sense,” she says, “is an attitude of deep concern that provokes behaviors like contemplation, meditation, and chanting, which are meant to focus that concern and compassion.”

Saying Thanks
Prayer, of course, is also practiced by Americans who’ve separated it even further from religion or spirituality. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, interviews atheists and agnostics for his research. While a large percentage see prayer as illogical, he reports, some acknowledge its value as a means of projecting goodwill into the world. “It’s about focusing your mind on a hopeful outcome,” he says. “If you think about people you love and your wishes for them, maybe that will put beneficial energy out there.” This impulse toward positivity is what has made Twitter a fertile forum for prayer, with users creating hashtags like #pray4philippines and #pray4boston to quickly and succinctly show empathy and solidarity in the face of tragedies.

Offline, the positive energy that so many people are expressing through prayer is appreciation for life’s gifts. Princeton, New Jersey, mom of three Lisa Marcus Levine, 52, says, “While I don’t give thanks to God, I do try to stop and give thanks for things throughout the day: the sunrise, my kids, my dogs.” In Philadelphia, Jennifer Woodfin, 44, and her family pause at the start of every meal. “We don’t say grace,” explains Woodfin, a bookstore manager, “but we hold hands and smile at each other in a moment of gratitude for being together.”

Among people who don’t identify with a particular religion, Drescher says, the word prayer is used “to describe an emotional, psychological space that holds both anxiety and hope. In the same way that the word grace shifted from something with a religious meaning to something that indicated fluidity and elegance, I encounter people who say prayer to indicate practices they think of as prayerful.”

Even for the devout Rev. Theresa Cho, praying sometimes means leaving her church, putting on her sneakers, and going for a run. “It may sound funny for a pastor to say,” she admits, “but a little over a year ago, I had a hard time praying.” While she still believed in God, she had doubts whether she was doing with her life what he wanted her to do, and she couldn’t find the words to ask for guidance. Then she recalled her years of high school track. “Running was often how I’d get through problems,” Cho says.

Her favorite route takes her through San Francisco’s winding streets to Golden Gate Park and then to the paths that lace the shore. She doesn’t listen to music. “I run and hear what’s around me,” she says. “I let thoughts go into my mind, and I lift up some in prayer. It’s been a way of rediscovering how to connect with God.” Then, after stopping to catch her breath by the park’s sandstone cross, she turns around and heads back home.

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