It all started 7 years ago when a guy named Joel wrote and asked if I would promote his now defunct website on my blog. These requests increased as the readership grew, as well as people wanting me to promote books.
I took one look at prayer-helpers.com and frankly I was appalled at the idea of people setting up a commercial enterprise to “prey” on those who wanted someone to pray for them. Without questioning the authenticity of whether any prayer would ever actually happen, I was concerned that this site would simply exploit people who were disconnected from a local church, or from friends or family who would pray for them.
“Generally,” my wife said, “You pray for people you are in relationship with.” I agree with that sentiment; though I have done several shifts at a prayer counseling center. But we didn’t charge people. The “pray-ers” didn’t get paid, either. Probably 90% of the people I’ve prayed for have been people who I knew more than superficially.
First, here is part of Joel’s letter to me:
…I was hoping that you might be willing to consider reviewing my new Christian website, prayer-helpers.com on your site. I think the concept of pay-for-prayer may be controversial and interesting for your audience. My goal is to bring easily accessible prayer partners to people who may not have them available. I would happily answer any interview questions you might have.
Interesting, yes. Controversial, definitely. Deeply disturbing, incredibly. Maybe somewhat guilty-by-association. I wrote back:
Yes it is controversial.
This is why people need to belong to a local church.
That left Joel wanting more. He replied:
Why do you say it is too controversial? Also, some people are either too far from a local church (alaskans, etc) or for some reason are physically disabled and unable to go so the online community needs to be there for them.
I’m sure Sarah Palin would get a chuckle out of the (small ‘a’) Alaskan stereotype. This is the closest I came to thinking I was being “had” in this entire exchange, except the website was real. I wrote back:
“Freely you have received, now freely give.”
The example of Jesus driving out the profiteers from the temple is sufficient evidence for me that we can’t exploit a person’s spiritual quest for the sake of deriving income. (Trust me, being in the Christian bookstore business, I’ve spent countless hours working through that whole situation.) I know that pastors are paid, and spend some of their time in prayer, but the idea of taking a need for prayer and the clicking “add to cart” is crossing a line, I think. And it’s reminiscent of the Catholic church asking people to pay for indulgences before the Reformation. Or televangelists asking people to send in their prayer requests on a special form, and then there is suspicion as to whether any prayer was offered or if the forms just went out to the dumpster, where the network TV crews found them.
Plus, we’re supposed to pray with as much as possible, not just pray for.
I just don’t see the convergence of internet technology and prayer being best applied here.
Joel ended our dialog with:
Thank you for your response. I respectfully must disagree with you. I see no difference between your christian bookstore and the prayer-helpers.com website.
And for me, that response clinched it. I wrestle on a daily basis with what I do vocationally and the things done by the Christian bookstore industry in general. Some of the marketing, the branding, the excesses, etc. are downright shameful. At the end of the day though, people are taking home a resource, be it a CD, DVD, Book or something they place on a table or on the wall to remind them of their Christian identity.
Prayer is somewhat of an intangible in that sense. Furthermore, when I pray for people in the bookstore, I never charge extra.
Joel saw no difference.
Also, we need to remind ourselves that while the local church solicits donations, they are never for a specific service offered to a specific person, but one is contributing to the overall work of the pastoral staff. Can you imagine the Apostle Paul saying, “Okay, I’ll lay hands on you and pray, but that will be 20 shekels.”
The church should never operate on a fee-for-service basis, and if you see that happening, you need to find another church.
*No, Thinking Out Loud does not accept credit cards for prayers.