Testing times

Lately I’ve been thinking about how churches should harness the power of PR a little more – particularly regional churches in cities like Townsville – where there’s a strong local media contingent and not so much clamour for media attention. I’ll probably turn that into a post all of its own at some stage – but for now, I have a case study for your consideration…

A group of researchers set out to conduct a series of experiments testing prayer. Their findings created a difficulty for those people who expect science to be capable of testing everything… both Christians, and atheists…

Christians who think science can prove God struggle because the people being prayed for fared worse than the people not being prayed for – and atheists because they’ll often argue that prayer should have a demonstrable psychological placebo effect – which it didn’t.

Christianity Today found a somewhat unpredictable spin to put on events. The study was conducted a few years back, but this article was produced pretty recently. Here’s a description of the study:

“STEP was simple and elegant, conforming to standard research norms and protocols: 1,802 patients, all admitted for coronary artery bypass graft surgery, were divided into three randomized groups. Two of the groups received prayer from committed Christians with experience praying for the sick. But only one group’s members knew they were being prayed for. The result: The group whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.”

Here’s the Christianity Today editorial on the results:

The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings.

It’s an odd interpretation of the results and doesn’t seem to mesh well with the study itself.

Here’s the Harvard Medical School Media Release on the study – and a better description of the methodology… You’ve got to wonder who set these parameters and actually thought they’d work. This doesn’t seem to come close to any Biblical picture of prayer…

“The researchers standardized the start and duration of prayers and provided only the patients’ first name and last initial. Prayers began on the eve or day of surgery and continued daily for 14 days. Everyone prayed for received the same standardized prayer. Providing the names of patients directed prayer-givers away from a desire to pray for everyone participating in the study. Because the study was designed to investigate intercessory prayer, the results cannot be extrapolated to other types of prayer.”

Sadly, the whole report is now going to be used by misguided atheists to bash all Christians over the head as they call for amputees to grow arms.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

One thought on “Testing times”

  1. How scandalous!

    Did Christianity Today (or the study itself) take into account that people outside of the trial might be praying for these people?

    I think what is more scandalous is that people expect that God WILL do something. It’s up to God who he heals and doesn’t, not us.

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