My colleague, Professor Mark Coppenger, has contributed a good word on the prayer “research” controversy. His commentary is available at Baptist Press. Here are a few excerpts:
So what shall we make of the intercessory prayer test? Well, first, I assume that the STEP team was well-meaning, even hoping to find a strong connection between prayer and recovery. That way, they could encourage the enlistment of intercessors to speed or secure healing. But their approach was wanting. Reading through STEP’s press release, I see that the praying volunteers (both Catholic and Protestant) followed prescribed start and stop times, employed at least some formulaic wording, and worked only with first names and last initials. This seems to fall short of James 5:16, which teaches that the fervent prayers of the righteous are effective. “Fervent clinical prayer” may be an oxymoron, and who knows if those praying were sold-out Christians?
But more than this, how could God submit Himself to this trial? In a sense, the STEP team held a hoop in front of the Lord and said, “It’s showtime.” That He did not jump is not surprising. Some believers have retreated to the position that prayer doesn’t change the world, just the praying person. It is meant only to bring the heart of the petitioner or intercessor in line with the will of God. Well, certainly that is an important component of prayer, but I think that view fails to do the biblical witness justice. Prayer is more than personal consecration; it is also, under God’s sovereignty, strategic, impactful work in the world.
If all the data for all the righteous, fervent prayers for the sick in church history were in, I am confident that intercessory prayer would be shown to “work.” (Though, of course, Christianity is more about how to die than how not to die.) I am just as confident that God is not amused at calls to perform healing feats on cue, and that He will ignore and resist the ringmasters, whether they wear lab coats or preacher garb.
Professor Coppenger also had a good word in USA Today:
“As a Christian, I am not being so much prepared to escape death as to face death,” says Mark Coppenger, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who was not involved in the study.
The STEP study [Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Prayer] is available here, by subscription.