The Vaule of Prayer (Requests)

February 28, 2009 at 11:59 pm 38 comments

The last article I wrote was about the biggest benefit religion possesses: its strong sense of community. That feeling of unity and belonging that the Christian community provided is maybe the thing I miss most about being a religious person. But coming in at a close second are prayer requests.

For the ten years I went to Christian school, every day started with the opportunity to share prayer requests followed by a prayer that dutifully addresses all concerns. Prayer request time was supposed to be time set aside for spiritual introspection and communion with fellow believers, but it always devolved into nothing more than story-telling time. And I loved it. We had a way of taking a story that we wanted to tell and twisting it to make it either a prayer request or an object of praise:

“Last night, when we were coming home from soccer practice, it was really dark outside. A dog ran right in front of our car and my dad had to slaaaam on the breaks! We all started screaming because we thought he had hit the dog. My sister even started to cry. My dad got out to make sure the dog was okay and saw him walking along the sidewalk across the street. He got back in the car and told us the dog was alright. My mom said that maybe we should go pick it up so that it wouldn’t get hurt or cause an accident. So we took the dog home and called the number on its tags and its owner came and picked it up. I’m thankful to God that my family and the dog were not hurt and that it got to go home to its family.”

Human beings love to tell stories. It’s the primary way that we learn and relate to each other. I can still remember the feeling of excitement as I sat at my desk with my hand raised, waiting for the teacher to call on me so that I could tell the entire class my new and exciting story–err–I mean, prayer request. One thing that I particularly loved about prayer request time was not only the fact that I got to tell stores and listen to stories, but that I got to listen to stories from people who I wasn’t necessarily friends with. My own stories also reached this larger audience of my school-mates, where normally they would be relegated to the realm of the lunch table in the corner that my friends and I always shared. These were people who I wouldn’t usually converse with, but I nonetheless had a desire to share events of my life with them because I felt a sense of connectedness and community with them.

As I go about life as a secular adult, I find myself often wishing I could go back to my fourth grade class room and share some of my prayer requests with a communal audience. I find that I have have so many stories to tell, but no good platform from which to do so. Sure, I can talk to my husband when he gets home from work, but it isn’t quite the same as telling a story to a large group of casual acquaintances who can actually learn something about me through my story. I wish that I could tell my entire German class that I saw a squirrel holding up one of its paws as it ran past me that morning, and that I really hoped it would be okay and that it wasn’t in pain. I feel the same sort of connectedness and community with my German class that I did with my fellow fourth-graders. We’re all students at the same school, we all live in the same area, we all know each others’ names. But the reality of the situation is that in this grown-up day-to-day life there is little opportunity for that kind of random non-sequitur, self-revelatory story. I wish I could feel like my German class was enough of a community that I could be permitted my non-sequitur for the sake of bonding and communion, but rules of propriety keep me quiet.

I see the value of prayer requests from a Humanist perspective. They help inspire and support the structure of a community. They allow a large community to freely share stories with one another—to relate to one another—without worrying about propriety, without worrying about sounding self-centered, and without worrying if the other person actually cares. If it is a request to God, there is always a legitimate reason for sharing. Not so with my squirrel story and my German class, unfortunately. I worried about that squirrel all day, and I wanted so badly to feel like it was okay to tell someone about it, but I never found the opportunity. If only I still went to church.

– orDover

(cross-posted from orDover)

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38 Comments Add your own

  • 1. The de-Convert  |  March 1, 2009 at 10:30 am


    I look at your most excellent blog as the way you now share your prayer requests… err… stories..


  • 2. TitforTat  |  March 1, 2009 at 11:47 am


    I understand what you mean. I am fortunate enough to have a job that allows me to share and listen to stories. Mind you, I think I would find a way even if my job didnt allow me to. 😉

  • 3. TitforTat  |  March 1, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I think there is another value to prayer that most dont focus on. That is the one of power and connection. My mother called me this morning about my aunt who is suffering from cancer. My mother is not religious at all, but does have a sense of spirit. She asked me to pray for my aunts health. I believe(as my mother does) that the intention of prayer or the wishing well of another human can help in the healing(both emotional and physical). Like love it may not be physically tangible but we can feel the “essence” of it.

  • 4. Christopher  |  March 1, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Now see, I always thought the best part of prayer requests was people could gossip about people without actually feeling like they were gossiping.

    “We should be praying for Martha. I hear she’s struggligng in her marriage.”

    “Oh, really? Is there anyting specific I can pray for?”

    In all seriousness though, I totally get your post. Community is important to everyone, and regardless of what one thinks about religion, it can provide community.

  • 5. Joshua  |  March 1, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Wonderful post, orDover 🙂 I, too, often want to share my experiences and just want someone to talk to but find that the sense of community is lacking.

    I really agree with Christopher quite a bit, though. The church gossi – er – prayer chain is quite a tool for both good and bad. Sometimes the news that someone was sick would bring a wealth of cards to their door. At other times, the news that someone was in sin would produce a massive skepticism toward that person, where no one is quite sure what to do.

    For the most part, prayer time was a beneficial, uplifting experience and I do miss the sense of connection.

  • 6. lauradee24  |  March 1, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Did we go to the same school? 🙂

    I liked this post. Good one.

  • 7. anti-supernaturalist  |  March 1, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    . . . choosing to walk with a despised minority? it’s not easy.

    ** Super-size me Jesus! **

    A nation overwhelmingly god-fearing also overwhelmingly rejects science. Millions lack the critical intelligence to evaluate the garbage they put into their brains. Junk-food faith for a fat-head nation.

    The US is an aberration among developed nations in its affinity for xian enthusiasms and in its failure to accept now elementary basic truths like evolution via natural selection.

    • On the road to internal exile

    America the free? Nonsense. I am an atheist, an *anti-supernaturalist* to be precise. Therefore, I belong to the most despised minority in the US. Why according to GHW Bush, I’m not fit to be a citizen.

    I’ll tolerate fundies only when everyone’s “freedom of conscience” under the US Constitution is restored and respected. The US is still a secular state which has the misfortune of selective amnesia towards the political ideology of christo-fascism, dominionism. Read Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a xian state in America in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

    • religious cover for frauds, pedophiles, and plotters

    The US has been a secular state from its inception. It is *not* one nation under a non-existent god. Nor under child molesting priests, nor under fanatical tax-dodging televangelists, nor under cabals of delusional fundies (dominionists) seeking to overthrow the Republic.

    If you require communal warmth — you can find it inside other than religious organizations.


  • 8. CheezChoc  |  March 1, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    I’ve got a story to tell about this subject:
    Recently my elderly mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. A couple of my friends had prayed for her before the biopsy, but it came out positive for cancer. She had a mastectomy and healed up well from it. She had a great surgeon and good insurance.
    Then a church lady from a church mom no longer attends called out of the blue just to see how she’s doing in general. Mom told her what had been going on. This is how the conversation went:
    CL: Did you tell the church about this?
    m: No.
    CL: Shame on you.
    M: why?
    CL: We could have started a prayer chain for you.
    M: It all happened very fast.
    CL: well…I guess you didn’t need it then. Can I take you out to lunch some time?
    M: I’m on a special diet, but thanks anyway.
    I told Mom she didn’t have to go out to lunch (which she does) with a person who had told her to be ashamed of herself. She agreed with me.
    My main point here is that a prayer chain, and my friends’ earlier prayers, made no difference that I could see. If they did, how would we ever know? It would have been better if she hadn’t had to go through surgery at all, at age 82.
    It’s just a good thing that she is healing up so well on her own.
    Just my two cents.

  • 9. Luke  |  March 1, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    what if all church was intended to be was a community that gathered, told stories, and help each other figure out life?

  • 10. Bethlin  |  March 1, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    You must tell your squirrel story to your German class!!!
    But in German, of course! It’s a great way to learn a language — to speak in the language when you have something you really want to communicate and the word “squirrel” comes up a lot more often than you would imagine.

    If your professor has any sense of interestingness, he/she would welcome the respite from dull grammar studying and would probably really enjoy the story in its own right. Ja?

  • 11. Skee09  |  March 1, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    At my Christian high school, kids would try to drag out prayer request time for as long as possible. In one of my friend’s classes, the students managed to wasted almost a half an hour praying for the wayward souls of a number of rappers and celebrities. This teacher was well known for her non-function sincerity detector.

    I’ve attended Unitarian Universalist services on and off recently. At the one I attend, there is a “joys and sorrows” time. If you have something to share, you go up the front, say your piece, and then light a candle. I like the Humanist aspects of UU, but I find there is a little too much leniency toward New Age BS.

  • 12. Jeffrey  |  March 1, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    >Prayer request time was supposed to be time set aside for spiritual introspection and communion with fellow believers, but it always devolved into nothing more than story-telling time. And I loved it.

    That is exactly the Christian community I was within but couldn’t enjoy. “That’s great, but what are we doing here? Where is God in any of this? We’re just a bunch of friends hanging out and telling stories while pretending to have a Bible Study and prayer time!” Some of the best parts of religion fall under the common pejorative “functional atheism.” I knew it, so I couldn’t enjoy it.

  • 13. Joshua Zelinsky  |  March 1, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I find this quite interesting coming from a Jewish perspective. In most Jewish services, something like prayer requests occurs but only very rarely. When they do occur they are generally for known members of the community who many people know.

    There is also a standard prayer added for specific sick people at a certain point in the services that have a Torah reading. However, that consists of primarily reading the names off of the people in question very quickly as part of a larger formula. The idea of “prayer requests” as a general opportunity for story-telling is fascinating.

  • 14. Christopher  |  March 2, 2009 at 1:54 am

    The more I think about this, orDover, the more it makes me think (not as redundant as it first sounds).

    I wonder if anyone has ever done an anthropological study on this topic. If you’re aware of one, post a link if you can. If not, toss that idea out there at the anthropology wing (does Berkley have one?) and see if some doctoral student would pick it up. It wasn’t until I read Joshua’s comment (13) that I really began to look at this from the outside.


  • 15. paleale  |  March 2, 2009 at 2:05 am

    I’m so happy to be in a forum where people can use the word ‘pejorative’ and everyone gets it. Vocabulary kudos!!!

    Concerning the post, I too am nostalgic for the sense of community that was shared through church. I would venture to say that most of us here share that connection. But I’ve found community in this group of ‘De-Converts’ that is so similar to the social camaraderie that I experienced in religious circles. I’m very glad to be here with you, even if it is only in the virtual sense.

    Warm wishes to you all

    Brad (paleale)

  • 16. LeoPardus  |  March 2, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Quick! Edit the title or tell me what “vaule” means. 🙂

  • 17. Dale701  |  March 2, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    I just love your sense of humor leo.

  • 18. Joshua  |  March 2, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Leo –

    Vaule is not a word and therefore is nothing more than a meaningless word that serves as a placeholder for the word value, just as prayer is nothing more than a placebo for community sharing time 🙂

    What an ingenious title!


  • 19. Rover  |  March 2, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Oddly enough I agree with you to some extent. The best part of the prayer meeting for me often seems to be the time spent prior to the actual prayer time getting to know one another and telling each other what went on during the week. Sometimes I hate to pray with certain people because they will basically focus on going through the sick list and asking God to heal everyone. However, there are times when I am with a group that sincerely seems to value prayer and these are good times when I don’t feel as though I need to “perform”. Prayer IS very social and I think that is okay, but many of us Christians have allowed it to devolved into nothing more then a socialization process void of its original intent, whatever that may be 🙂

  • 20. Aussie Ali  |  March 2, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    I always thought it was weird that we would spend half an hour going through prayer points and then pray as if God had never heard anything that had just been said!!!

  • 21. Eve's Apple  |  March 16, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    This may be a little off-topic, but it seems that the stories told at these prayer requests are all positive, at least the ones that thank God for something. You never hear of thanking God for turning down a request.

    Recently I was sent an e-mail showing a drawing of a plane landing in the Hudson being cradled by two giant hands. The caption read “What really happened.” Yet a short time later when another plane went down and all on board were lost, there were no inspirational e-mails sent out. Why? Was God’s hands on the first plane and not on the second? We celebrate the first because it had a happy ending and ignore the second because it doesn’t fit the myth. It raises too many questions. But if God can guide one plane safely down to the river he can guide the other one through a snowstorm. But he didn’t. So we don’t talk about it. It’s embarassing. It’s inconvenient.

  • 22. CheezChoc  |  March 31, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    To reiterate on #8 (mine):

    A relative of mine is bipolar and may be shizophrenic as well. He’s been in and out of the mental hospital. Every time he comes out, he gets worse than before, goes back in, out again, ad nauseum.
    The prognosis isn’t good, to say the least. His parents are very religious, pray a lot, worry, cry, fret, and their son has entire church congregations praying for him along with individuals. I wish the prayers would work. I wish the meds or something else would work, too. What is the answer?

  • 23. elaine  |  June 18, 2009 at 2:41 am

    Father, I pray for my family, protect them from the enemy, help them to let go and let You. May Your will be done in their lives.

    I pray for a share of Your healing and peace for Maureen, Sue, Isabelle,George, Frank according to Your will.

    Be with Grace in America give her discernment and help Helen to find suitable accommodation.amen

  • 24. Quester  |  June 18, 2009 at 3:46 am

    Spellcasting, blasphemy, idolatry and going against Jesus’ expressed views on how to pray, all in three short, unnecessary and unhelpful pseudo-paragraphs. I’d call Poe if I didn’t know how few Christians are taught what theologies different styles of prayer promote.

  • 25. Quester  |  June 18, 2009 at 3:57 am

    Aw, and there I go, spedily breaking the sense of community OrDover was speaking about. Tch. And I never did comment here to agree with those above me that the Internet can allow for an interaction of storytelling not available outside of prayer requests- if not as immediate and thus perhaps not as rewarding.

  • 26. orDover  |  June 18, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I’m sure elaine just google “prayer requests” looking for a place to dump her worries. I wonder, does she do this because she feels like God isn’t really hearing her, and is comforted by the idea of REAL eyes reading her words? Or does she do it hoping that more people will pray for Frank and Isabelle and that Helen finds accommodations?

    I actually think that the entire concept of prayer requests can be used to demonstrate that even ardent believers don’t have as much faith as they’d like us to think. It isn’t enough for them just to “lay it at the foot of the cross,” to “let go and let God” through private prayer. They need other humans to hear their woes and wishes. They need to be comforted by real arms and relieved by real words of encouragement.

  • 27. Shadowfx  |  October 31, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    When I was in High School, my sister was diagnosed with Leukemia. She was only 9. She was a Chistian and had all the faith in the world that God was going to heal her. The whole church was praying for her. My Father, who was something of a skeptic, having grown up wih a Fire and Brimstone preacher for a father, found a faith healer and went to him in the hopes that it would heal his daughter. It was a rollercoaster ride and in the end she died when she was about 12.

    By my reading of the scriptures, she should have been healed (if you have enough faith, ask and it will be given unto you). So after that I lost my faith in the power of praryer for a very long time.

  • 28. Tidus  |  February 23, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    It seems that this site offers ‘prayer request time’ . 🙂
    I feel welcome to express my ideas and opinions without the irrational fear of being labeled as ‘heretical’, ‘lacking in faith’, or ‘misunderstanding the nature of [the Christian] God’. Here my ignorance is not due to the carnality of my mind/heart, but rather my naivety or lack of knowledge. Sincere and well-written posts (esp HeIsSailing’s A Confession- I want to Believe June 2007) encapsulate much of the angst that prevents me from expressing doubts that Christians tend to blow off. You guys are helping me to understand and for that I’m grateful. Thank you.

  • 29. CheezChoc  |  February 23, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I honestly cannot fathom why some friends and fam keep emailing me prayer requests. I don’t understand what the praying is supposed to accomplish on behalf of someone else, whether I know that person or not. In the past week, one asked for a prayer because she thought she had internal bleeding (it turned out to be too many beets at dinner–file that one away for future reference!), one had a friend whose sister was killed by a gunman (horrible, yes, but again, what good does a prayer do from me or anyone else?), and others were asking for prayers for someone who was in the final stages of cancer (what can I say except that I hope her family is compassionate enough to see to it that she gets a lot of pain meds–no cure possible at this point unless there is a miracle–and that is another issue).

  • 30. Quester  |  February 26, 2010 at 1:09 am


    I’m glad you’ve found some things to help you here. Please check out our Community Site linked to in the top right corner of the screen (when you’ve scrolled up considerably). Doubt is not fun, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of, unlike unjustified certainty. *grin*


    It’s a sign of solidarity that can boost confidence and morale, if not provide actual, practical, help.

  • 31. CheezChoc  |  March 2, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    I get that, but maybe that’s where the problem lies for me. If I can’t really do something to help, the prayer seems useless.
    Whenever I hear people say they’re praying for Haiti or Chile or whatever, I want to tell them to get busy making donations instead.

  • 32. Anonymous  |  March 3, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Cheez—- (#31)

    I think the majority who do pray also contribute and ask God to use those contributions to really help people. We do what we can, but ask God to heal and comfort also. At least that’s my take on it.

  • 33. Quester  |  March 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm


    Fair enough, but when someone tells me that they’re stressed about a job interview, or a surgery, or something else where I can not be of practical assistance and any advice I give would be redundant and perhaps patronizing, saying “my thoughts are with you”, “best wishes” or “good luck” are really not distinguishable from saying “I’m praying for you”. All it really means is “I care about you and what happens to you” in a slightly indirect, and thus less threatening manner.

  • 34. Joe  |  March 3, 2010 at 4:00 pm


    Well said–that’s very true.

  • 35. CheezChoc  |  March 4, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Makes sense. Got it now.

  • 36. theologicalrambling  |  March 12, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    I work for a church and have an MDiv, but I enjoy coming to this site. Prayer at churches often annoys me because it’s used typically as a transition and often repeats the desires of the community (which isn’t bad, just often very weak).

    I believe prayer is important as a Christian. If I pray something, and it does or does not happen, then that should inform me of the God I believe I serve, correct? I was telling my friend/mentor figure about this once, and he agreed. He said let’s pray for something that you and I have trouble believing will happen, and let’s see if it happens. I prayed for his (I’ll not mention it here) and that it would occur within a week. He prayed for mine and that it would occur within a week also.

    I laughed while he was praying, because I simply knew it wouldn’t come true. He prayed my mother-in-law would apologize to me. My mother in law was fiercely against my wife and I marrying, mostly due to the fact I wasn’t super rich and wasn’t planning on living in state forever. This went on for years and years, and is better nowadays mostly because of her new grandson. Anyway, my mother in law apologized to me like 5 days later, the only time she ever has in the last 7 years. His prayer request happened 2 days later, and these weren’t like “travelling mercies” type of requests.

    Sure, you can say it’s just happenstance. But when certain things occur in life I believe God is involved, like this one. I believe prayer opens up our hearts, but also invites God to take action in our lives that you are not seeking otherwise. This is not the only story I have like this, I have a couple more.

  • 37. cag  |  March 12, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    theologicalrambling, next time pray for something less selfish, such as the end of cancer, no more hungry children and the eradication of malaria. Get positive answers to those and then we can discuss your prayer and its effectiveness.

  • 38. theologicalrambling  |  March 12, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    He’s an angry elf…

    Get a super bad mother in law and youll understand…

    As to that other stuff, we are all called to action.

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