Private prayer and public good

Religious folks often pray for personal needs. Three-quarters of worshipers responding to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey said they pray for themselves and their closest loved ones every day or most days.

But they also direct many of their petitions outward, praying for the victims of poverty, injustice and natural disasters. So does time spent in private devotional activities such as prayer, meditation and Bible reading make a difference when it comes to caring for all their neighbors?

The answer is yes, a new study indicates.

Worshipers who spend more time in private devotions were more likely to give a loan, care for the sick and to help someone find a job, according to a study analyzing data from the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

“Prayer can connect us with others, and even help us identify with their suffering,” said researcher Jennifer McClure of Pennsylvania State University.

McClure analyzed data from more than 37,000 US CLS respondents to measure which factors of congregational life were associated with attenders providing social support to non-family members.

What did not necessarily make a difference was religious attendance.

Worshipers who attended services more frequently were less likely to provide a loan or help someone find a job and just slightly more likely to care for the sick.

However, their relation to other congregation members and their private spiritual practices were associated with meeting social needs.

Worshipers who had more close friends in the congregations were more likely to care for the sick, lend a financial helping hand and assist an unemployed neighbor.

The finding supports other research that suggests congregational involvement may encourage social support for several reasons, including the opportunity to learn more about needs in the community, being part of a peer group with strong expectations to help others and the greater likelihood of being recruited for volunteer projects, McClure noted.

Some religious leaders may focus on how full the church is, “but in terms of a lot of pro-social outcomes … it can be even more important to be involved in activities,” McClure said.

Still, the most consistent association with social support came from private devotional activities.

The results suggest that private devotions can have powerful social consequences, McClure said.

“The most exciting finding for me was showing that private devotions matter,” she said. “Yeah, social networks matter. But private devotions do, too.”

The takeaways for congregational leaders are that encouraging private devotions that are sensitive to the plight of others and fostering congregational involvement may be effective ways of helping members live out their faith by helping those in need.

And just about any congregation can be effective in helping members provide a helping hand to their neighbors. Membership numbers did not appear to the significant, the study found. For example, worshipers in larger congregations, which may be more likely to be seen as impersonal, were more likely to help someone find a job.

“If a minister is tempted to say this can’t be done in our congregation because it’s too big, or it’s too small, the findings do not support that,” McClure said.