A Service Without A Prayer
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
January 27, 2011 - The difference between posting intercessory prayer requests on a webpage and calling up a prayer hotline is merely one of degree, not of kind. Both aim at efficiency, the cardinal virtue of industrialization. And both are rooted in a theology of connectedness propagated by that great repository of theological wisdom, AT&T, which, in the late-twentieth century, admonished parishioners to “Reach out and touch someone.” (Of course, for the sake of sentimentality, the latter overlook the fact that the touching is, strictly speaking, impossible.)
That well-meaning petitioners would avail themselves of such avenues for intercession is understandable. As human beings, our needs are great. Our condition is frail. And the remedies to our afflictions do not always arise out of human ingenuity. Divine grace is essential in the midst of our weakness, even when we anticipate a terminus to our present suffering. Thus, it makes sense that we, hurting and alienated creatures that we are, would be moved to “call now for prayer” or “submit” a prayer request (with a “400 character maximum”).
However, that churches would, either out of sincere but misguided ignorance or calculated marketing, encourage such behavior among anonymous television viewers or internet surfers is unconscionable. This is because the logical trajectory of the industrial methodology on which such “services” are based is fundamentally incompatible with the incarnate art of prayer in the life of Christ’s body. And this incompatibility only aggravates the alienation that moves the lonely browser to make his requests made known unto the server.
The logical trajectory of internet prayer service providers is already on display in the magisterium that articulated its foundation (again, AT&T). Just call any AT&T-like service provider to experience industrial virtue in excelsis. The voice on the other end of the line sounds vaguely (indeed, increasingly!) human. Though the even the moderately attentive caller quickly recognizes that it is not. For as AT&T knows, the robotic automation of even human, interactive functions like answering basic questions is far more efficient than populating call centers.
Of course, no one suspects the churches to move toward prayer request-posting 2.0. (Though, with today’s technology, it’s worth asking how one would ever know.) For now, it is perhaps most charitable to assume that there’s truth in advertising. A church that says we will pray for you really means it.
But the logic is irresistible, and as importantly, the pattern of service is unsustainable. (If in doubt about this, just ask AT&T.) Hence, it is only a matter of time before the theologians of the internet church will be wrestling with the question: Does God answer the prayers of automated response systems?