Google has confirmed that searches for the word prayer have exponentially increased in the last few weeks. Jeanet Bentzen who is an economist at the University of Copenhagen found that in March 2020, searches for prayer hit the highest levels that they have in the past five years. The report says that the "The rise in prayer intensity supersedes what the world has seen for years." *
Data from Google Analytics show that the rise began early in the month, but did not begin to climb dramatically until the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.
There is also a healthy debate happening about churches experiencing growing numbers of online interaction. With the lockdown churches began to broadcast on Facebook live or YouTube and saw a growing number of people connecting who would not normally engage with church activity.
What does this tell us? I think we need to be careful about statistics but what is certain is that a crises forces people out of complacency. In the West, our culture has been ambivalent about spirituality, and in the UK pretty much resistant to organised religion. An increase in seeking answers about prayer, and an increase in online church connection does prove that people are awakening to their predicament. It proves that people have big questions about life and death, and they don't know where to ask. We should be glad that the church is recognised as a potential place for questions like this.
However, are we ready to ask the right questions? In my experience christians are answering questions that unchurched people are not asking. For example on a recent Facebook post of mine some well meaning christians started a debate about substitional atonement. They were enjoying the cut and thrust of the intricacies of theology when I asked them to move their conversation somewhere else. My Facebook page has hundreds of spiritual seekers and unchurched people on it. I am confident that this is not a question they are asking and a debate about the nature of salvation is more likely to confuse them than encourage them to get right with God (I believe in good theology btw and have spent the last twenty years studying it).
When people are asking questions, what should we do? Jesus was a master of answering a question with a question. In Luke 10:25-26 it says:
"On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
Far too often when we are asking a question, our motivation is off and it means we end up missing the point. Sometimes we are trying to show how clever or educated we are, or articulate, or sophisticated. In Luke 10:28 it says that the questioner "wanted to justify himself." God is not impressed by our education, He is impressed by our humility and compassion for others.
Jesus tried to get under the skin of a question, He wanted to know the heart of a person. That means we have to listen at two levels. We should listen to the voice of God and the person we are speaking with, it is double listening.
When people google prayer, what are they asking? Do they want our canned or clever answers or are they looking for reassurance, some comfort or hope in the midst of a global pandemic. According to Romans 2:4 (NLT) "Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?"
Let's develop the ability to really listen and be kind, then perhaps we will earn the right to speak about sin and repentance. That is after all what Jesus did in the lives of those who knew they were far from God and were seeking answers. Think of the Samaritan woman, or the woman caught in the act of adultery. Both were led to an encounter with God through double listening. Jesus went beyond the presenting situation (two women being judged by others) and saw the deeper questions, the heart of the matter.
If more people are checking out our online church activities, which they appear to be, let's try and listen to the voice of God and the voice of our culture. What is God saying about this time? What are people reaching out for, hoping to receive by clicking on our internet offerings? Perhaps this moment is an opportunity to really listen and find new ways to engage with people, to share good news and to try and walk with people on the journey.