Does This Phone Make Me Sound Selfish?

Not really sure exactly what to make of this. Tania ap Sion and Owen Edwards recently published a study that compared the content of prayer requests submitted to the Church of England’s Say One For Me website and those submitted in handwritten form in churches. As it turns out, the content of the prayer requests differed dramatically.

[Researchers] found that 34% of people had prayed online for help with their own personal issues, compared to just 3% or 4% of traditional handwritten prayers left in churches. These online prayer authors were particularly concerned about their work or relationships, as well as their personal spiritual or moral issues.The number of prayers submitted for friends or loved ones also fell from 75% of church notes, to 57% online.

Now, all of the normal caveats about studies apply here: this is a single study of relatively small size (290 prayer requests) during a particular church season (Lent). There is clearly a lot more work to be done here figuring out why the difference exists.

In the coverage of the study, co-author Dr. Tania ap Sion suggested that those who submit electronically may be more reflective and honest.

It may well be that the online prayer provision is available at a time of need more easily than going to church. It allows a more flexible time frame and unlimited space as well as more anonymous and personal reflective location in which prayer authors were able to articulate their requests. This may explain why many prayer authors were able to reflect on the potentially more complex issues of relationships and work.

Ok, that’s plausible. But I have to say that this explanation is unsatisfying.

An alternate, plausible explanation would be that people who submitted prayers on paper—presumably because the attended a church service—may be engaged in spiritual practices (like attending services) that lead them to be more fully attuned to the needs of others. Those who submit electronically may, for all we know, never actually set foot in church or do any kind of spiritual practice that connects them with the needs of others. As a result, while they may be more reflective, but unable to reflect about the needs of others.

I’m just sayin’, that’s a plausible explanation, too.

Given the material studied—anonymous prayer requests—there are lots of factors here that will be hard to factor in order to find explanatory power. Thus, it seems premature to jump to either conclusion. And the authors may not jump to conclusions in the study. Journalists rarely cover studies on religious issues particularly well. And, of course, the SJU connection to the full text journal database is down, so I haven’t been able to read the full study. I’ll follow up when I have a chance to read the study.

If you have full text access, the study can be found in “Praying ‘online’: the ordinary theology of prayer intentions posted on the internet’, Tania ap Sion and Owen Edwards, Journal of Beliefs and Values, 33 (1), 2012, pp 95-109

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