Predatory Prayer

Over the last few days, I was part of a Facebook conversation about prayer.  Specifically, it had to do with the “priest” of a “post-denominational internet church” having asked about  and how he should tell people on his >1K list of Facebook “friends” that he has gleaned his daily intercessions for the site from their posts.

Not if he should be doing this, but whether and how they should be told, after using fairly specific information has been used on his website is an accomplished fact.

The question is “should it be on their Facebook page”, or not tell them at all.  The rationale is that if he doesn’t tell them, it is unlikely they would stumble upon the Saint Laika’s website on their ownand thus they would not know.  He wants them to know what he has done, but doesn’t (because he is “English” and doesn’t “do” the “I’m praying for you” thing “naturally”). Letting them know seems, to him, somehow “pharisaical”.

I had only been electronic friends with this person for a few days (at his request, not mine), and usually, my tendency with a new connection is to test the waters before engaging in robust discussion on another person’s page.  However, as he had engaged vigorously on my page, I responded to the question with the following:

Send them a message, and ask if you can mention it, and at what level of detail.  That’s how I’d want it handled.

Do it in advance of mentioning it on your website, and if they say no, Keep Your Mouth Shut.

Why is that a difficult concept?  Ask before presuming that someone wants public prayer about their situation just because you see something on their social media pages that inspires you to pray.  Private prayer is another issue.  If you’re doing something in your own room, in the silence of your heart, go on ahead. If you (mentally) include someone in intercessions for a category of people (“the sick”, “the unemployed”), that is fine–the specifics of their identity and name (even first name) aren’t involved. But if you are going to  mention, as the owner of the website says, “first names only, and nothing too personal” (by whose standards?  Yours, or the person whose page you trawled for the intercession fodder?), you ask.

The only reason I can see for not asking in advance is they might say no, and then your website’s daily intercessions would look rather anemic.

I was assured that the website owner was “very discreet and circumspect; we English are good at that”.  Not entirely my experience, and this is a one-sided discretion and circumspection–the feelings of the “priest” are protected, the feelings of the “parishioner” be damned.

Exactly the opposite of good pastoral practice. And people wonder that I’m somewhat leery of “internet church”.

Granted, the saner people agreed with me (perhaps not for the reasons I stated, but they did, which is a good thing).

A number of participants in the discussion argued that if you put it on social media, it’s fine for anyone to take it and use it as they wish.  One person claimed that Facebook collects information for advertising purposes, and prayer is a “higher purpose.”  But do higher purposes justify lower standards?  A “real life” pastor would ask before putting someone’s name on the prayer list for Sunday worship, even if the person’s condition or need were quietly known amongst the congregation.  If a congregant had a conversation with the pastor or other leader about their concerns outside the confines of confession, spiritual direction, or pastoral counseling (say, over lunch or in a coffee shop), the pastor would still ask–it is not his/her information to do with what s/he pleased. That’s a basic, fundamental principle of pastoral ethics. So, the fact of something being said in a “public” forum is a non-starter.

Another participant claimed that if someone mentions a concern, it is at least a tacit request for prayer.  No, it is not.  I have never asked (except in private messages) for prayer on Facebook, and do not intend to do so in the future. Just because you say something in public does not mean people want to be prayed for in public, if at all.  It is as foolish as saying that if a woman takes her breasts out in public, she gives permission for them to be groped.

The “conversation” veered from whether and how to notify people (the “when” was already a foregone conclusion, obviously) that they were being prayed upon (after their social media pages were being preyed upon) to whether individuals appreciated prayer, the efficacy of prayer, and so forth. So what? The important thing is


Nobody is harmed by asking, but people may indeed be put off–not only this person, not only the “internet church,” but Christianity as a whole–if they experience the kind of clerical arrogance this represents.

And it is clerical arrogance to think that every one of your Facebook friends (especially a list of over a thousand) shares your religious views, or in some way accepts you as their “pastor” or “priest”. I un-friended this person precisely because I do not intend to submit to his spiritual authority. It may not, as a few people said, make it impossible for the pastor of Saint Laika’s to smash-and-grab my social media for the sake of his own need to be seen as having an international ministry of intercessory prayer. It just makes it a bit less likely.

Technology is changing the way we will do and be church in the 21st century. And it will need a lot of careful reflection on what appropriate procedures and ethics need to be in place. However, the church has already spent centuries reflecting on and codifying how clergy are to relate to the people under their care.  There is  much accumulated wisdom and we need to take that into account as we navigate new territory.

And one piece we can bring on the journey with us is Ask First. And accept “no” for an answer.


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