Dozens of residents bowed their heads to pray on the downtown square in Gainesville nine days ago. The solemn activity was part of the National Day of Prayer, which was established by Congress as an annual event in 1952 and designated as the first Thursday of May each year in 1988.
For those watching this religious tradition, some may wonder “What does prayer do?”
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, prayer is defined as an address such as a petition to God or a god in word or thought.
“For me, it’s very simple. Prayer is just communicating with God,” said Jeff Benefield, senior pastor of Chestnut Mountain Church in Flowery Branch. “It is both speaking to him and probably more importantly listening to him.”
Benefield added the purpose of prayer is to have a continual fellowship with God.
The Rev. Wendy Cordova, pastor of evangelism and lay ministry at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, said prayer is a safe place for Christians to let down their guard and talk about what is on their hearts.
“It’s the way we can tap into God’s power in our lives,” she said.
That begs the question: “When, where and how do you talk to God?”
“I think people are free to pray when, where and how they want,” Benefield said. “I think it was C.H. Spurgeon in the 19th century who said ‘I have rarely if ever prayed for an hour. But I have rarely gone an hour without praying.’”
For Cordova, the tradition of praying with her head bowed and hands clasped together proved difficult as a child.
“For a girl who had a hard time sitting still, it was hard to pray,” she said.
When she became an adult, she realized there was no correct body position, no correct words and no correct place to pray. In fact, she prays wherever and whenever.
“I can pray while I’m walking my dog or while I’m driving my car,” she said. “I often close my eyes — except when I’ve driving — because it’s more about staying focused. It keeps me from being distracted.”
Benefield, however, thinks it’s helpful to have a consistent time and place to pray. He also bows when the situation calls for it.
“Oftentimes, if I need to get into a certain position, I lay facedown on the floor,” he said. “I feel the need to physically to put myself in a position of submission.”
Many Christians pray on bended knees as an act of submission or humility before God, the Chestnut Mountain Church pastor explained.
“For many, bowing, kneeling, clasping of the hands or a physical position of submission (is the way) they are acknowledging the greatness of God and the smallness that we are,” he said. “And a lot of it depends on the tradition they were raised in.”
Cordova said during her walk of faith with God, she has learned prayer looks different to each follower. She finds that comforting.
“Some people are wired to sit still, and that feeds their soul,” the Gainesville FUMC pastor said. “Some are more active. Who we are and how we are made informs us on the way we pray.”
But both pastors acknowledge prayer is an important aspect of their lives and praying frequently is paramount.
“It is difficult to have a relationship with someone you don’t communicate with,” Benefield said. “I don’t talk with my wife and children at a particular point and place and time. I have ongoing dialogue with them. I think of my prayer life as where you have an ongoing dialogue with God.”
For Cordova and members of the Gainesville FUMC, prayer led to the formation of three specific ministries. An intercessory prayer group meets on Tuesday mornings to pray. A devotion and prayer line allows residents to call a phone number (678-343-2733), hear a brief devotional and listen to a prayer from one of the pastors. And the church has a prayer pager minister.
“People can call and request a pager,” Cordova said. “We publish the name and number of the prayer pager. And people then can call and press in a code and (the pager beeps to) let the person know someone has prayed for them.”
Of course, does that mean prayer works?
Both ministers answer with an emphatic ‘Yes!’
“I’ve never heard God audibly where I could record it on tape recorder and play it back, but I know God speaks to me on regular basis,” Benefield said. “He guides me to Scriptures and leaves impressions on our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
In 1988, the physician Randolph Byrd shocked the world with the results of a study he conducted five years earlier on the effects of prayer on cardiac patients. He found a significant difference in the quality of recovery among patients who received prayer: They fared better on average than their fellow patients who did not receive prayer. Almost 85 percent of the IP group scored “good” on the rating system used by hospitals to rate a patient’s response to treatment. By contrast, 73.1 percent of members of the control group scored “good.”
But other studies have not produced similar findings. The Study of the Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), a major study published in 2006 in the American Heart Journal, looked at patients who all had coronary artery bypass graft surgery at six medical centers in the United States. Not only did the STEP study not find the same results as Byrd’s, it revealed a wholly unexpected aspect. Those receiving prayer suffered more complications than those who did not receive prayer (52 percent to 51 percent). More surprisingly, those who were aware they received prayer fared the worst: 59 percent of this group had complications following their surgery.
Cordova said God doesn’t always answer yes to prayers.
“I know God doesn’t always respond in the way we want ... but he responds,” she said. “I wish I knew why some people are healed and some are not. I don’t understand it, but that doesn’t make me doubt the power of prayer.”
“Prayer doesn’t always change your situation, but I do believe it always changes you,” he said.