The Story: According to the 2014 General Social Survey, a record-low share of Americans attend church regularly, affiliate with a religious faith, and see themselves as religious. But more than half still say they pray at least once a day.
The stability of prayer contrasts sharply with erosion on other measures of religious commitment. Since 2006, the percentage of people describing themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious has declined eight percentage points, from 62 percent to 54 percent. The share affiliating with a particular faith has fallen from over 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s to 79 percent in 2014. Just over 4 in 10 report attending worship services at least once a month, down roughly 10 points from three decades ago. All are record lows.
The resilience of prayer reflects a broader shift in Americans’ understanding of religion, according to Christian Smith, a professor of sociology who leads the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.
“Religion is gradually becoming more personal, private, subjective in practice,” and “less public, institutional and shared,” Smith said. “People still believe religious things and practice religion ‘in their heads,’ as in prayer, but are less institutionally connected and engage in fewer public, institution-centered observations.”
Why It Matters: In looking for a silver-lining to this finding we might be tempted to say, “Well, at least they’re praying.” But while they may be sending their requests to God, are they truly praying?
What exactly is prayer, anyway? Most people might say it’s talking to God, mostly to ask for what we need. This is partially true, but there is a piece that is missing. As Tim Keller writes in his latest book, prayer is connected to God’s revelation:
What is prayer, then, in the fullest sense? Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him. . . . The power of our prayers, then, lies not primarily in our effort and striving, or in any technique, but rather in our knowledge of God.
This is why, as Donald Whitney says, “. . . of all the Spiritual Disciplines, prayer is second only to the intake of God’s Word in importance.” Prayer is second in importance because it relies on our knowledge of God, which comes from reading his Word. Engagement with Scripture is an essential—though often missing—component of prayer. Without this piece, prayer becomes problematic.
If we include this missing piece we can craft what I believe is a robust definition of Biblical prayer:
Prayer is an encounter with God that is initiated by him through his Word and that changes our hearts as we humbly communicate and worship the Lord, confess our sins and transgressions, and ask him to fulfill both our needs and the desires of our heart according to his will.
Without engagement with Scripture, our prayers are like a phone conversation in which the other person can hear us but we can’t hear them. Fortunately, we have an easy solution to our prayer problem: To fully encounter God in prayer, encounter him first through his Word.