How Prayer Works

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


The Effects of Prayer

After my encounter with Lord B., I was convicted. I couldn’t remember ever praying about the environment. Was that something I was supposed to do? Surely these were matters that belonged within the walls of government, or perhaps just left alone to the heavens. There was a reason we called things like earthquakes “acts of God,” right? But something about this boy’s prayer rattled me. I could feel myself getting drawn into this bigger world he was speaking of.

Within the church today there are multiple Christian truisms concerning the ways in which prayer changes the one who prays—often said with an element of surprise: I prayed that God would change my neighbor but I found that I was in fact the one who changed! We might be praying about an external situation, but often we find that we are the ones who are changed. The early twentieth century evangelist, Oswald Chambers, writes on the purpose of prayer, claiming: “To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘Prayer changes me and then I change things.’”

How Prayer Works

Pope Francis has a more active understanding of what prayer does. He made headlines recently with his explanation: “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them, that is how prayer works.” While Christians have a rich history of praying for God to intervene, we are continually reminded with quotes like Pope Francis on how prayer changes us. So perhaps Pope Francis and Oswald Chambers together give us the clearest understanding of prayer: when we pray, we are changed. Both through implicit internal forces at work within us, as well as explicitly chosen actions to compliment our prayers.

Pope Francis has a more active understanding of what prayer does… “You pray for the hungry, than you feed them, that is how prayer works.”

This amalgamation of Christian thought might be explained differently by various threads within the social sciences. J. L. Austin speaks of the “speech act,” whereby one’s words actually create a new reality. Herbert Simons uses “persuasion theory” to explain how we talk ourselves into what we think. My research has focused on testimony and how the words we use don’t just describe the past but actually help construct our present identities.

Can Prayer Change the World?

It’s with these understandings in mind that I began to wonder: Could praying about the environment really make a difference? Sure, I can pray that God would miraculously keep icebergs from melting, but is it possible my prayers for the environment could turn me into a more mindful steward of creation? And if so, what would it look like to invite young minds to join me in this prayerful endeavor? What would it look like for our teenagers to pray about the environment? And to pray in such a way that they are changed?

In my small world of youth ministry we pray about a lot of things. And other than occasional prayer requests that revolve around natural disasters, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a request made for the environment. We pray for safety, we pray over exams, we pray for fragile relationships, but matters concerning the stewardship of creation seem more properly relegated to Washington, D.C., than in the youth room.

I volunteer at the youth group of my local church. Every week our youth pastor collects prayer requests from the teenagers and distributes them to volunteers like myself. Over the past year alone, 1,740 prayer requests were recorded.1 The kinds of requests they made are seen below:

Type of Request Number
Prayers concerning school or work situations 713
Prayers concerning relationships (family, friends, etc.) 458
Illness/death related concerns 220
Travel/safety requests 166
Prayers to grow closer to God 85
Prayers concerning future decisions (i.e. where to go to college) 66
Praises or thanksgiving 19
Prayers directly or indirectly related to the environment 13
TOTAL 1740

Here’s a snapshot of what these prayers for the environment look like when broken down further:

Type of Environmental Request Number
Simple requests for “the weather” 5
Prayers that we would have warm weather 4
Prayers for houses that burnt down 2
Prayer for a house flood 1
Prayer concerning general flooding 1
TOTAL 13

Bringing God into the Picture

Teenagers hear about environmental issues in various educational settings, but how might we integrate their knowledge with a prayerful spirit? How might knowledge prompt both prayers and actions? Educational insights do not necessarily morph their way into our prayers, and we now know from experience that scare tactics concerning California disappearing or extinct polar bears are not effective. In fact, many of these tactics simply backfire.

Teenagers hear about environmental issues in various educational settings, but how might we integrate their knowledge with a prayerful spirit? How might knowledge prompt both prayers and actions?

A 2014 article from The New York Times explains, “More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.” This is particularly true among religious Americans. “Messages focused on extreme weather events,” the Times explains, “made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God—something to be weathered, not prevented” (which one might argue is a throw-back to the fatalism tied up with linking the Bubonic Plague as an act of God—something to be weathered, not prevented).

Additionally, it’s one thing to be aware of environmental concerns, it’s another thing to act upon those concerns. The New York Times story continues:

“Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.”2

What if we could speak of the environment in such a way that it prompts mindful prayer and responsible action? What might it look like to cultivate a practice of prayer and the environment?

Prayer and Stories

My teenagers pray about the things they care about. These prayer requests are birthed within and passed on in narrative form. A story arrests our attention and creeps into our prayers. My hunch is that all of the prayer requests shared have a story attached.

Pray for my grandma. Ever since my grandpa died she hasn’t wanted to eat.

I’ve got a big test coming up and there’s no way I can study everything.

Stories help us identify what we care about and why it matters. We are formed (or malformed) by narratives. It’s stories like “Cinderella” or “Snow White” that paint for us a mental image of the cruelty of stepmothers.3 This leads me to the question: What if we could turn science into a story?

Sharing Stories

I care about the polluted soil in the food desert of Camden, New Jersey. However, I pray about the polluted soil in Camden, New Jersey, when I hear the 17-year-old boy explain how his family can’t even grow vegetables in their own backyard. And I become downright incensed when I hear the story of the large, million-dollar corporations responsible for the hazardous toxins, which have since relocated, leaving poisoned soil in their wakes.

I care about the inefficient energy zones within my hometown. However, I pray and I act when I hear the stories of the people within these houses. In May 2011, The Vectren Foundation partnered with my city to identify the least energy efficient parts of the city. Ultimately, they focused their attention on a part of the city stretching out across roughly 30 blocks and geographically shaped like a giant “7”.

I can comprehend the problem of inefficient energy. But my attitude towards the problem changes when I hear the stories of the 844 children who are living within “The Magnificent Se7en” and have holes in their roof so large they can see the sky without stepping outside.

Stories Transform Prayer into Action

When we take a storied approach to our environment, we organically find ourselves in a richer landscape that goes beyond the physical terrain of the land.

I watched as a whole church full of congregants went from consumers of educational information to advocates for making our town better by insulating 100 homes within the region designated by Vectren. Stories change how we pray. Stories change how we act.

When we story our land we care for the environment differently. We also care for our neighbors differently. When we take a storied approach to our environment, we organically find ourselves in a richer landscape that goes beyond the physical terrain of the land. We also find ourselves bumping into complex issues of race, economics, religion, and gender.4

When we expose our youth to the stories embedded within our land, we are implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, calling them to be both prayerfully present to what is occurring as well as to become involved in attempting to answer those prayers. Because first we pray about our carbon footprint, and then we actively work to reduce that footprint. This is how prayer works.

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Footnotes:

1. Thank you to Pastor Matt Beck for compiling these requests, and to Pastor Anderson Kursonis for cataloguing them as well as offering fantastic suggestions and assisting me in the writing process.

2. Originally published in Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, “‘Fear Won’t Do It’: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations” Science Communication, March 2009, 30:355–379, first published on January 7, 2009. Quoted in The New York Times:

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy.

One recent study, published by Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, found that conservatives become less skeptical about global warming if they first read articles suggesting nuclear energy or geoengineering as solutions. Another study, in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2012, concluded that “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society” rather than “on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 9, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: “Global Warming Scare Tactics.” http://cstpr.colorado.edu/students/envs_4800/oneill_2009.pdf, Accessed March 1, 2017.

3. Alisdair McIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, third edition. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

4. For more, see Jennings’ work on linking landscape and race. Willie James Jennings. Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

 


Amanda Drury (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) has been in youth ministry for about fifteen years. She serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University where she lives with her husband and three children. She is the author of Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Formation, and is currently serving as director of Examen, a summer theological institute for high school students, and The Brain Kitchen, a non-profit organization in Marion, Indiana serving children with after-school mentoring and cooking classes in a trauma-informed environment.

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