As our churches wrestle with what it means to be online/digital communities and how to best stay connected to one another in a time of social distancing, we need to revisit what it means to pray for one another. Thankfully, many Christians are doing this well in this season; sadly, too many are still doing it poorly.
We have always been a people who pray for one another, who share our concerns with our brothers and sisters. But there comes with that a sacred responsibility to carry our friends' stories well. They are, after all, their stories and not ours.
Take the following scenario, just to help us put some content together:
You have a member of your church or a close friend who is suddenly diagnosed with colon cancer. Let's just say colon cancer. That friend is ushered into a rapid-fire series of appointments and surgeries and phone calls that they never imagined themselves having to make, and in a time of social distancing, that friend is alone through all of it. They reach out to our community for prayer.
The absolute poorest way to handle this situation is to blast your friend's details - all of them - all over social media. "Please pray for my friend Bob Jones. He just found out he has colon cancer, and the doctors are going in tomorrow to see what they can take out. He's going to have a colostomy bag afterward and probably some hemorrhoids for a while. He just really needs your prayers!"
Even when done with the purest of intentions - to get the most specific prayer possible for Bob - this is a no-no. This is Bob's journey, not yours, and the details of his life are not yours to plaster to the world. Especially when your world is different than his. Maybe your reach goes into places his doesn't, and now, the whole world is talking about Bob's colon. Maybe Bob doesn't want the whole world talking about his colon. Maybe Bob didn't tell certain members of his family, or maybe he hasn't told his boss. It is not your place to disseminate Bob's information all over the place. He shared it with you. It is sacred between you and him.
Without the purest of intentions, some of us do this because we want to be the storykeepers. We want to be the person who breaks the news, the one who seems 'in-the-know.' It's important to us, for some reason, to be the first place someone hears something, so we share as much as we know just to show that we know it. This, obviously, is also a no-no. If you hijack someone else's story and cloak it in religious language to satisfy your own ego or boost your own social standing, this is clearly a problem. Don't do it. You're not showing what a valuable asset you are to your community; you're demonstrating that you cannot be trusted.
Sometimes, we'll say something like, "Please pray for a member of my church (or a friend) who has just been diagnosed with colon cancer." Whether we include more details than that or not (and see above why spilling all the details is a bad idea), this really isn't any better. Now, everyone connected to your church or in your circle of friends is running through their head trying to figure out who it is. This is how rumors get started.
For the same reason, it's a bad idea to post something like, "Please pray for Bob Jones." Now, everyone's trying to figure out what's going on with Bob Jones. Again, this is how rumors get started. Or worse, a man who's spending his whole life on his phone and can't seem to get away from his own news now has to share it a thousand more times as connections come out of the woodwork to check on him and see what's going on. He gets more connection, maybe, but he gets no space to breathe.
By now, I'm hoping you're starting to see how sharing your private prayer list on social media - your prayer requests from a community that trusts you and is invested in you and in whom you are invested - is bad form.
At the same time, we want to be a people who pray. We believe in the power of prayer, absolutely. We want to demonstrate to the world how we come together and pray for one another. We want to maintain those connections that we have. We want our community to be a real community.
But the best way to do that is to hold sacred our communities and honor their stories when they share them with us.
So is it possible to ask for prayer for someone you're praying for without profaning the trust? It is. And doing this gently and humbly actually makes our prayer circles even larger still.
Imagine this: you make a post on your social media that says, "I am praying for a man navigating a new diagnosis of cancer. Please pray with me."
You have not given up Bob Jones's name, so you've protected him from an onslaught of inquiry (and those who feign concern just to be a part of something). You have not indicated your connection to the man, so no one can figure out which of your communities he is a part of. They aren't narrowing down the pool to figure out who he is. Those who know Bob Jones know who you are talking about, but those who don't...don't. And you haven't given them a way to figure it out. You have revealed the specific nature of the problem, allowing for specific prayer, without giving all of the graphic details. You have solicited prayer without hijacking Bob's story to do it and without violating the sacred trust he's put in you.
Now, here's where it gets cool. When you are praying for "a man navigating a new diagnosis of cancer," you are creating an invitation for others who are praying for men and women in the same situation...in their own communities. Your friend comments on your post and says, "I am praying for a woman in the same situation." Another friend comments and says, "I just heard about a neighbor who...." And all of a sudden, you are a community praying for Bob - which is what you wanted, if your intentions were pure - but you are also a community praying for many others.
And that's sacred.
We're all trying to figure out how to be a digital community, now more than ever. Here, I think, is one simple rule to start with: don't be a prayer gossip. Honor the stories of your brothers and sisters that they've entrusted you with and respect the fact that these remain their stories, not yours. Let them be the ones deciding how they're told and when and to whom.