A Tough Assignment

While our Pastor is on sabbatical, Chalice is putting on a series of services dealing with prayer. The first one, and the one I’m presiding over, considers intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is asking God to intervene in a situation on behalf of another person. Here is something from an author at Sojourner on the topic.

While scientists are coming into agreement with religion that prayer can affect the person who prays, spiritual leaders are pushing science to take it to the next level: examining the effects of prayer beyond the one who prays. “When an individual generates great levels of compassion within herself,” said the Dalai Lama, “then we say that the Buddha is awakened within and this produces compassionate changes beyond the individual self.”

One Christian manifestation of the ability to produce compassionate change beyond oneself is “distance healing.” Recent scientific studies of intercessory prayer, mental healing, non-contact therapeutic touch, and spiritual healing show statistically positive outcomes. Larry Dossey’s books Prayer is Good Medicine and Healing Beyond the Body provide an excellent overview of how Western science is trying to catch up with our spiritual traditions and practices.

Bringing scientific inquiry to bear on spiritual practices can give us—the practitioners—new ways of understanding what we do and how we do it. As Christians, we have received a prayer tradition. It’s important that we continually exercise our prayer muscles, that we pursue a variety of ways of opening ourselves to God, and that our churches be prayer laboratories for social-spiritual experiments. For example, how can liturgy physically enhance the compassion centers of our brain? How does developing a state of energy-balance in our frontal cortex allow us to minister more effectively in situations of conflict? Perhaps the next level of scientific study will be on the power of prayer to effect non-personal change—prayer as a tool for social transformation.

From Prayer: It Does A Body Good, by Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

So, what do I think happens when a congregation prays for the sick? That is a tough, but important assignment for me. The first paragraph of the excerpt is referring to the fact that prayer helps one develop the natural sense of empathy. I think that is valuable, and a specific and unique benefit of faith. The rest of the passage is the hard stuff for me. I’ve got Friday & Saturday left to figure it out though. I’m sure it will be fine.

5 replies on “A Tough Assignment”

I totally believe that praying can help the person praying. It also makes sense that by praying for people you develop your empathy muscles and so you act differently, therefor your praying is indirectly influencing the world for good.

What happens when a congregation prays? You have the same dynamics above in a communal setting. I see again how that could be powerful for the people doing the praying.

If you are praying for a person, say someone who is ill, knowing about that goodwill could help the sick person. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of knowing that people care.

I agree with Josh, but the Author says:

Recent scientific studies of intercessory prayer, mental healing, non-contact therapeutic touch, and spiritual healing show statistically positive outcomes.

This is exactly, and demonstrably not true. In fact there have been recent studies showing no efficacy in healing due to prayer. Many studies in fact have been done, and it follows a pretty important pattern: as the studies get better and better designed (meaning better scientific methods ar applied), the effect of praryer on the person being prayed about, goes down.

This inverse relationship is why, even though there are an equal number of studies that show homeopathic medicine is effective as ones which show it to be ineffective, you can still conclude that homeopathy is bunk.

The better the study, the smaller the effect.

In the case of healing with prayer, as well as “non-contact therputic touch”, this same relationship exists, the closer you watch it, the less effect you see.

I can provide references should you want them.


If you get a chance before the weekend, I would like the references. My understanding of the evidence was what you said. However, this article contradicted that understanding, as did someone I was talking to recently. Contradicted as in reported that recent studies suggested a positive impact of prayer.

In either case, I’ll do some poking around myself before Sunday.

I apologize, but I was booked all Friday and the weekend so I didn’t get back to you.

The Lancet (one of the big few medical journals, based in Britain) had this paper in 2005:

The Lancet 2005; 366:211-217

This is the abstract:
“Data from a pilot study suggested that noetic therapies—healing practices that are not mediated by tangible elements—can reduce preprocedural distress and might affect outcomes in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention. We undertook a multicentre, prospective trial of two such practices: intercessory prayer and music, imagery, and touch (MIT) therapy.”

This is from the findings:

“371 patients were assigned prayer and 377 no prayer; 374 were assigned MIT therapy and 374 no MIT therapy. The factorial distribution was: standard care only, 192; prayer only, 182; MIT therapy only, 185; and both prayer and MIT therapy, 189. No significant difference was found for the primary composite endpoint in any treatment comparison.

So Music helps, but prayer does not. If you have access to the Lancet’s website (free registration):

Unfortunately the American Heart Journal charges $30/article, and I’m going to pay that. The NY Times wrote about the major study on intercessory prayer that’s been going on 10 years involving 1800 patients.

Turns out (,

“Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery”

and further:

“And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.”

So the take home message here is: don’t pray for me, Argentina.

The NYTimes goes on to say, im n discussing the speculation about the study over the last ten years:

“[the study] is the most scientifically rigorous investigation of whether prayer can heal illness”

Directly to my point about the inverse relationship between the quality of the study and the size of the observed effect:

“At least 10 studies of the effects of prayer have been carried out in the last six years, with mixed results. The new study was intended to overcome flaws in the earlier investigations.”

This study was about strangers praying for strangers, by the way, so take that for what you will:

“Dean Marek, a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a co-author of the report, said the study said nothing about the power of personal prayer or about prayers for family members and friends.

I think Dean Marek is being hopelessly politically correct to argue that you should still pray for your loved ones. I think the most responsible advice would be: “pray away, but don’t tell them since the best scientific evidence we have at this point is that it appears to do more harm than good amongst heart patients.”

It comes down to whether you want science to help provide you with information or whether you don’t.

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