For as far as our collective memory and records can reach, we have engaged in group spiritual practices to appease God, deities or spirits of ancestors, and ask for:
- A fertile year
- Victory in battle
- Strength and other blessings
Whether praying for the communal wellbeing, a shared cause or for a loved one, we seem to have an innate tendency to unite in thoughts and love in the times of need.
In this article, we look at the power of praying together and how this practice has echoed through the ages, across cultures and even through science.
Praying Together As A Cross-Cultural Phenomenon
Almost every culture in the world practices some form of prayer, and with it, communal prayer as well.
So to avoid appropriating the practice to any particular religious community, let’s look at the dictionary definition:
Any community and anyone who believes in a Higher Power has their own way of communicating and relating to it.
In essence: Everybody prays.
Therefore, in this article, we look at the power of praying together in the context of all groups and creeds.
The Most Common Types of Group Prayers
Simply put: Group prayer is a prayer echoed in multiple voices, thoughts and hearts.
This makes the practice highly versatile as a living, breathing entity that we create and shape together.
The most common types of group prayer across cultures are:
- Ceremonial: Some of the biggest milestones in our lives have us come together in prayer. Think baptisms, weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies like bar and bat mitzvahs, state ceremonies and funerals.
- Litanies: These are the group prayers that usually involve a leader that heads and a congregation that repeats chants or other supplications to God. Think chanting mantras in Hinduism, for instance.
- Formulaic: The prayers that involve repetition of certain words or phrases, like “Amin” in masses and liturgies
- Free or improvised: Unscripted and impromptu prayers, usually spoken by one group member and absorbed by others
- Silent or internalized: Moments of silence or meditative activities where a group channels their thoughts towards a shared purpose
- Hymns: Prayers expressed through (choral) singing
- And others
Do note that some of these categories overlap. For instance, ceremonial prayers are almost always formulaic as this makes it easier to pass it on from generation to generation.
The Power Of Praying Together Across Ages & Cultures: Which Communities Practice Group Prayer And How?
Group prayer has been integrated into our lives for as far as our historic records can reach.
From Australian Aboriginals, a civilization speculated to be well over 50,000 years old, through Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, China, Mayan civilization, Roman and Ottoman Empires to modern-day world, all chapters of humanity have had some form of collective prayer.
The history of group prayer is fascinating; Not always easy to stomach, some impossible to condone from the present standpoint, but powerful in all its forms.
For instance, in many ancient polytheistic civilizations, ceremonial prayer would accompany the rituals of animal, and even human, sacrifice.
Such prayers would offer a gift of life to a deity or multiple gods in exchange for a fertile year, victory in conflict or other communal benefits.
In some monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam, these practices have transformed into self-sacrifice.
This is where individuals usually give up habits or pleasures that satisfy the senses but may distract them from nurturing their spiritual beings and their relationship with God.
Such are the practices of lent or fasting during which most practitioners commit themselves to frequent prayer, whether group or individual.
So if we are to highlight the conclusions of this overview, it would be that group prayer has:
- been a part of our collective lives, in one form or another, since the dawn of humanity as we know it
- usually accompanied important personal milestones
- and formed an important part of communal religious ceremonies across ages and cultures.
What Does Science Say About the Power of Praying Together?
As we discussed in our previous article The Benefits of Prayer and Meditation, there have been numerous attempts to study spiritual practices, but very few have produced results acknowledged by the scientific community.
Researchers have looked at physical and mental health, as well as sociological effects of praying individually, intercessory (more on that later) and collectively.
The conclusions of some of these studies can be generalized to other forms of prayer.
For instance, though using individual subjects, studies on religious chants may also proving insight into the power of praying together.
Here is an example:
How Does Group Prayer Affect Our Wellbeing?
One study looked at how chanted prayers affect our ability to cope with difficult situations by analyzing the primary and secondary brain responses to negative imagery.
The study included 21 participants with over a year of experience chanting the name of Amitābha, a chant practiced in many Buddhist communities.
It found that:
“[…] Buddhist chanting, or in a broader sense, repetition of religious prayers [will modulate brain responses to negative stimuli] during the late-stage emotional/cognitive processing.”
What the study failed to acknowledge, however, is that chants, including Amitābha and Christian hymns, are often practiced communally, i.e. via choral singing.
Therefore, it may also provide a good basis to claim that chanting together increases our ability to cope with difficult situations.
To reaffirm this, several studies have concluded that choral singing has numerous positive effects on our psychological and physiological wellbeing, especially our reaction to stress.
Add the religious component to it – the belief that our collective song resonates with the Higher Power – and we can only assume how the healing effects of choral singing are amplified.
How Does Group Prayer Affect the Person We Are Praying For?
Intercessory prayer, or praying on behalf of someone, is a highly complex research subject.
On the one hand, we can ask: If we pray for someone or something together, does the sum of our prayers improve the chances of the favorable outcome?
This is where research says no.
A 10-years-long research published in 2006 had studied over 1,800 patients with heart disease and how prayer (or lack of) affected the success of their treatment and recovery.
The study found no links between collective prayer and a favorable outcome for the patient.
However, the one thing that this and no other study can ever truly measure, is how those who prayed internalized the practice.
In other words: If we pray mathematically, focusing on the frequency and the sum of our efforts more than on our individual conviction, aren’t we are chipping away from the power of our prayer?
And flipping the focus on the receiving end, we can ask much simpler questions:
- When we pray for someone, how does this make them feel?
- Does this give them the strength they need to cope and succeed?
- How does this influence their perception of self-worth?
- How does this affect our relationship?
To pray for someone is to say: “I give you a love that is holy. I support you with all my soul.”
There is an undeniable power in knowing that we are loved and that our existence matters. We don’t need research to tell us as much.
How Does Praying Together Influence Our Relationships?
To answer this question, we looked at how prayer affects two types of relationships:
- And family
There has been plenty of research on both topics and, to make the discovery process more exciting, a lot of this research was based on diverse samples in terms of religion, culture and ethnicity.
How Does Praying Together Or Praying For A Partner Affect Romantic Relationships?
A cross-cultural study published in 2015 sought to understand if and how prayer influences the experience of forgiveness in romantic relationships.
The research included 100 Indian couples and 51 American couples divided into two groups: In the first group a partner would engage in self-guided prayer for the other for at least three minutes; In the second, one partner complement the other’s physical attributes.
Here is what the researchers concluded:
“Results showed that participants in the prayer group showed statistically significant decreases in retaliation motives from pre-test to post-test and the magnitude of this change was not different across cultures.”
The group that relied on describing the partner’s physical appearance showed no behavioral change pre and post-test.
Besides influencing the experience of forgiveness by making us more receptive to it, prayer also increases our satisfaction with a partner’s sacrifice for the relationship.
One study found that the couples who entered a disagreement followed by prayer were more satisfied with the partner’s sacrifice that those who did not pray.
It concluded that:
“Praying increased satisfaction with sacrifice, couple identity and emergent goals, both of which mediated the relationship between prayer for partner and sacrifice.”
These and other studies show strong evidence that the power of praying together resonates in romantic relationships across cultures, promoting forgiveness and understanding between partners.
How Does Praying Together Affect Families?
A recent study published in the Journal of Family Psychology looked at 198 ethnically, religiously and geographically diverse families to understand the role of prayer in their relationships.
The study found that praying together affects family relationships in several ways. It:
- Designates a time for togetherness and reinforces consistency in this regard
- Opens the floor for discussion and vocalization of personal concerns
- Creates a space to provide and receive support
- Helps relieve any interpersonal tensions
- Promotes the conservation of religious heritage and family values
This and the above-mentioned research makes it easy to understand how and why group prayer has withstood the test of time, shaping our relationships through millennia.
Takeaways on the Power of Praying Together
Having looked at group prayer through various lenses, we can conclude that:
- Everybody prays; Some to one God, some to multiple deities and some to the spirits of their ancestors. Whoever or whatever we pray to, it seems as though prayer is something we reach for almost instinctively in the times of need.
- History ties group religious rituals to the earliest records of human existence
- Research has confirmed multiple benefits of prayer in personal wellbeing, interpersonal romantic relationships, family relationships and more
- The scientific community remains fascinated with the subject and continues to investigate
Additionally, we can observe that praying together has been a coping mechanism in our communal of personal times of need.
It has given us courage to face the enemy marching on our lands; It has helped us weather through drouths and famine; Deal with loss; Conquer fear.
Group prayer has also helped us preserve our traditions and values, give and gain forgiveness, mend relationships and fortify our bonds.
The true power of praying together is reflected in the fact that this spiritual practice has transcended time, geography and creed.