Digital Prayer: New Ways of an Age-Old Practice
Early in the Exodus story, God’s people are complaining in the desert. The old ways in Egypt were gone, but the new ways of the Promised Land hadn’t been discovered yet. The forty years in between were full of anxiety and challenges for God’s people but were also necessary to change for the better. Those forty years were a season of liminality: the transitional time between two epochs, or moments, in history. It’s when what used to work no longer works, but what will work has not fully been discovered.
The church is in a liminal time. The pandemic exposed the realities of church attendance declines already taking place. But the good news is the pandemic put the church in a place of liminality, one where we realized the old ways of doing church aren’t necessarily working anymore, and we’re in a time of finding out what does.
Part of our shared liminal experience is that we live in the most digitally connected time in history, yet simultaneously seem more disconnected than ever — from God, ourselves, and each other. How has this disconnection affected spiritual growth or discipleship? How can churches reconnect in more meaningful ways with their people and communities? One way is through digitally-powered prayer. “Digital prayer” can mean different things like corporate prayer during an online worship service, using prayer apps, or participating in Zoom Bible studies, to name a few. But as we go on, I want to focus on several ways to use the world’s primary means of digital connection to pray: texting.
Why digital prayer? Prayer is the most powerful, yet simple entry to faith; digital technology quickens our ability to move through that doorway.
Spiritual hunger may wane, but it never goes away. Prayer is usually tied to a person’s needs or wants, and those never go away either. Most people want to be prayed for. They may resist the gospel, but they won’t resist prayer. In fact, while church attendance may be in decline, two-thirds (64%) say that they pray weekly or often, according to a Barna study.
Think about the Apostle Paul in his letters telling people exactly what he was praying for them. Now imagine if someone from your church texted a visitor an echo of Paul from Romans 15:13, “Hey. I just prayed for you. I prayed that God, the source of hope, will fill you with joy and peace!” Can you imagine the encouragement and connection someone would experience with something like that?
And consider the possibility of asking a new believer to pray for you as Paul did in Ephesians 6:19, “I’m about to go into a meeting. Could you pray for God to give me the right words and the right time?” That’s powerful and helps build the confidence of someone younger in the faith.
Why digital prayer? Because it connects people to prayer at any time.
At my church, and probably at yours, we have a “connect card.” During the service, someone will say, “If you have a prayer request, fill out this card, and one of our pastors will contact you.” That’s the traditional way, and quite frankly, it’s limiting. A person would need to be in the building at that time on Sunday morning to put a card in the prayer box to get prayed for.
Now say your church has a QR code or a number that people can text any time and get a response in real-time, even if it’s just an automated message saying, “We’ll pray for you,” which is later followed through by a church volunteer. Digitally-native approaches like these are coming forward as innovative and new ways to be effective during this liminal time.
Of course, the Holy Spirit transcends time and space and eliminates distance when we use the conventional method of a prayer card. But newer technology like texting is also a place where the Holy Spirit can work just as powerfully.
Why digital prayer? Because it’s a discipleship pathway.
Discipleship is just following and living like Jesus. What does that look like? Twenty-five times in the New Testament you will find what I call the “one another” statements: Commands to follow as disciples like, “love one another, “serve one another,” “forgive one another,” etc.
In fact there are only two you can’t do digitally: “Wash one another’s feet” and “greet each other with a holy kiss.” The other 23 can be done digitally, and people are already doing these things both digitally and in person. So then the question arises: how can I leverage digital means to live into the Bible’s “one another” statements?
Why digital prayer? Because it helps church leaders connect with the needs of their congregations.
Growing churches do two things declining churches don’t: Know their people and then match them to the next steps for growth. I work with Gloo, helping churches reach people in their city.
One church we partnered with digitally mapped over 3,000 prayer requests from their congregation and found that the two biggest prayer requests were “marriage” and “relationships.” There were seasonal ones, too. In February, when the bills from Christmas came due, the biggest prayer request was “finances.”
Understanding overall prayer need trends was a great first step, however the pastors were unaware of the real-time needs of the people. They were preaching on unrelated sermon topics that weren’t as relevant to the needs of their people. But analyzing digital prayer requests submitted via texting to know their congregation’s needs allowed the pastors to adjust their message content in a more agile way.
Of course, digital prayer doesn’t replace face-to face-connection. What we’re trying in this liminal time is learning how to leverage digital prayer to help reinforce and strengthen connections. It may not be what you’re used to or it may mean letting go of the old ways. But remember that methods and practices of prayer are just that: methods and practices, not sacred relics.
Jesus says, “we have not because we ask not.” God has so much more in store for us during this season of liminality, but we need to pray and be open to new ways of doing ministry, and any tool to help people increase their connection with God and each other is a no-brainer.
Eric Swanson is a ministry innovation specialist at Gloo and has personally worked with more than 250 North American churches the past 20 years. Gloo is the leading creator of innovative technology whose platform releases the collective might of the faith ecosystem. This article was originally published in Lead Magazine's June 2023 issue.