Today is the National Day of Prayer--established by the United States Congress (becoming law in 1952). It is a day "on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."
There has been no shortage of controversy this year about the day: a recent ruling by a U.S. District Judge declared the day to be unconstitutional, and the Pentagon garnered media attention when they rescinded their invitation to Franklin Graham, who was scheduled to preside over their service.
I thought it would be a good idea to look at what Americans really think about prayer. Several studies give some insight:
A 2003 Gallup poll focused on whether or not prayer habits changed as a result of the war in Iraq. They found that 52% of Americans reported an increase in their prayer life due to the war, in comparison with 74% who had reported a similar increase after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 1002. This would appear to validate the assumption that people tend to pray more in response to perceived crises.
Another Gallup study, conducted in 1988 along with the Society of the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religion Research Assocation, identified that the respondents engaged in four basic types of prayer: conversational prayer (84%), meditative prayer (52%), petitionary prayer (42%), and ritual prayer (19%).
What did these people experience when they prayed? The same study listed the findings:
• 88% "experienced a deep sense of peace and wellbeing"
• 79% "felt a strong presence of God"
• 73% "received what they regarded as a definite answer to a specific prayer or request at least once"
• 61% "received what they believed to be a deeper insight into a spiritual or biblical truth"
• 57% "felt divinely inspired or 'led by God' to perform a specific action"
A survey published by Barna Research Group in 2001 said that 82% of adults in America observed the prayer as a religious practice:
The research suggests that large numbers of people who have no type of personal relationship with Jesus Christ or who possess an unorthodox vies of God nevertheless pray to God on a regular basis. "The emphasis upon prayer during the past five years has influenced many ," commented Barna. "However, many people pray without any sense of assurance that there is a living and powerful God who hears their prayers, or that they are praying to a God who has offered forgiveness for their sins. For many Americans, prayer is like snacking--we don't really think about it, but we do it out of habit and without much passion."
In more recent times, The Pew Forum discovered in 2008 in their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that approximately one-fifth of Americans who pray more than seldom claim to receive definite answers to their prayers at least once a week. Jehovah's Witnesses was the subgroup with the highest percentage (36%) to express this claim, followed by members of Historically Black Churches (34%), Mormons (32%), Muslims (31%), members of Evangelical Churches (29%), and Other Christians (29%). Other subgroups listed fell below the 20-percent mark.
And in today's climate, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup poll taken less than a week ago, 83% of American adults believe in a God who answers prayers. Only 57%, however, actually favor having a National Day of Prayer.
What does this say about our culture? How should we communicate what prayer truly is, with respect to the gospel?