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The Pandemic: Did praying work?

How has Covid-19 changed the way people engage with religious services? What research opportunities has this change created?

Most religions have recorded a sharp rise in attendances at virtual services during the pandemic. Three or four times the numbers attending in-person services have been commonly reported. Coincidentally posters advertising ‘www.trypraying.org’, have also popped up at many churches. The organisation describes itself as ‘for those who are not religious and don’t go to church’, and was founded in 2011, long predating the pandemic. Presumably, the new advertising campaign aims to capitalise on renewed interest in the value to prayer as a result of the pandemic, as a method of seeking divine salvation and more immanently aiding mental health wellbeing.

The simultaneous development of these events flag a paradox. At the same time as online attendance and those attracted to prayer has ballooned, many of those participating in virtual religious services or who have tried praying on their own for the first time have been disappointed. They have found that the hoped-for outcomes of spiritual enlightenment or a sense of wellbeing achieved have been markedly inferior to direct physical rather than virtual involvement.

Regardless of success in transcendent communication, if the worshipper has been influenced by location and community, this suggests that prayer may have functions other than discourse between man and God or Gods. Alternative possibilities considered even before the advent of mass virtual prayer include mental health benefits for the worshipper as well as community cohesion, both bringing reassurance and hope. Communicative and bonding activities amongst adherents have also been explored from the sociological viewpoint of groups within society joining together in common sets of beliefs or practices.

The Covid ‘Opportunity’ for Theological Research

Potentially controversially, mass virtual worship highlights difference in approaches to worship and raises the question of how far the introduction of virtual equivalents have changed perception, if at all. A huge variety of customs believed to aid prayer have arisen both across and within religions, while sharp contrasts exist even within denominations of the same religion. Protestantism embraces a wide spectrum of practice. At one extreme “High Anglican” worship, typically involves elaborate ceremony and symbolism, choral and solo singing that may be accompanied by entire orchestras.  At the other extreme austere services may be conducted by a lay leader with no singing and minimal communal participation. Quakers have developed their own praxis, conducting their services in silence, with no formal text, speaking only if they feel inspired. 

Challenges arising in other religions include traditional Jews believing that a service can only be validly held if a minimum of ten adult males are physically present. Most will not accept virtual presence. Muslims, praying five times a day, have developed complex sets of teachings about every aspect of prayer from pronunciation to rhythm as well as harmony. These were designed to maximise the beneficial experience of physical prayer long before the computer age. Both have seen differing responses as to how to remain faithful to traditions instituted millennia before the internet and Covid.

Virtual prayer creates a new dilemma and variables to the enterprise. Most religious institutions have broadcast their services following their previous customs. However worshippers report variable success in transmission of the experience of prayer. Questions to be explored include whether consistent patterns can be observed that identify some forms of the praying regime as more virtually transportable than others. One hypothesis might be that it is easier to focus upon elaborate services, analogous to theatrical performance designed for observer engagement, rather than simpler services. A contrary suggestion would be that the informality of a home environment and the lack of necessity to dress formally contrasts too greatly with the formal tradition and online replication of formal prayer has therefore been less successful.

As in the first section above, the interplay between the environment from which prayer is broadcast and where it is viewed offers scope for further investigation. If data comparing differing combinations of type of service streamed and watched in varying environments demonstrates a consistent pattern, it may be possible to isolate factors in the watching environment that aid or damage the experience of virtual prayer. Alternatively, data may suggest that other than extremes, such as competing noise or other distraction, the immediate surrounding location makes little difference. However, a correlation may emerge between the level of ritual (regardless of religion) or simplicity that makes some forms of service prove far easier to recreate virtually than others.

The Covid ‘Opportunity’ for Experiential and Sociological Research

Alternative understandings of prayer have been long debated and considered. It might be thought that beyond lending some evidential weight to prayer serving an earthly as well as divine purpose, change from the predominance of physical to almost entire virtual prayer has little to offer researchers. I wish to suggest otherwise, that it has created several exciting areas of great opportunity for anyone interested in religion.

Until Covid, online participation in religious services was largely the preserve of those restricted in mobility either by age or disability. Mass virtual participation by a more representative demographic changes the nature of the potential sample for investigation into the impact of different aspects of prayer on the experience of supplicants. Here are a few paths for investigation:

  1. Age. The generational divide between internet ‘natives’ and ‘migrants’ is widely acknowledged. The easy conclusion is that the ‘natives’, the younger worshippers, will be more accepting of virtual prayer as an alternative to physical engagement. However, the counter to such a view is that in the twentieth century a more evangelical and participatory style of worship has been initiated by the young, often rebelling against the clergy ‘dominating’ services. For the first time it is possible to conduct a numerically significant inquiry into the relative effectiveness of the prayer experience of each form of prayer, banded by age groups to examine if there is a difference in experience.
  2. Environment. The second topic for consideration is the effects of the surrounding environment upon the prayer experience. The tradition of building overpowering venues as both a statement of temporal power and aid to experiencing transcendence is ancient, predating the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many are still moved by visiting magnificent places of worship of whatever religion. At the other extreme, Buddhists, whilst having many magnificent temples, also encourage simplicity as a way of avoiding distraction and aiding meditation, an unfurnished room with plain white walls is often recommended.

Given a constant of immediate communicative experience, that of watching the same service online, how impactful is the nature of the surrounding environment? Setting aside extremes such as noisy children running around, does an ornate or bare room in which services are watched make a difference? Have worshippers with a choice of environment found that their home office is better or worse than their lounge? Is an informal kitchen more or less conducive to prayer than a more formal dining room table? Is lots of sunlight flooding in superior to appreciate ‘creation’ or is a subdued lighting environment, maybe with curtains drawn, better for concentration?

  • Company. Whist many have had no choice but to participate alone, there are many instances of couples, friends or whole families within one allowed household bubble praying together around one computer[2]. Is this experience of mutual family worship supportive or distractive? Is the effect different from a similar group praying together in a more formal setting in the company of others?

Conclusion

Covid has forced widespread adoption of online worship as the principal form of prayer for large numbers of those inclined to prayer. It has already been established that religious service attendance has increased dramatically, how much as a result on greater awareness of mortality and danger or simply because of convenience and/or boredom during lockdown is still unresearched. As restrictions have eased and physical participation in services returns, religions will face the challenge of how to maintain their higher participation rate and whether to persist in offering hybrid online and actual alternatives. In prayer as in so many other areas of activity, the pandemic has raised new issues and forced innovation. Now is the time to assess the effectiveness of that innovation and rigorous academic research investigating the outcomes offers the best chance of assessment.

Mark Fox

Mark is completing his MA in Religion at King's College London. He is interested in how interfaith work and religion can be used to help face the challenges of life.