Two recent trends introduce new questions about the practice and meaning of prayer in the lives of contemporary believers. One is the dramatic growth in the population of believers who do not specifically identify or affiliate with institutional religions—so-called “Nones,” who answer “none” or “no religion” when asked with what religious group they identify. The majority of Nones believe in God and maintain some measure of religious or spiritual practice, within and beyond institutional religions. The majority were raised as Christians, and many attend church services and participate in denominational communities to varying degrees.
The lines that religious Nones cross in their spiritual lives are many, and the “in between” they frequently create and inhabit stands as new territory for religion more broadly. While frequently labeled “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), religious Nones often resist this identification, preferring to locate their religious and spiritual identities not in traditional sociological categories of “believing, belonging, and behaving,” but rather in a more diffuse notion of “being” that understands spiritual and religious beliefs and practices as deeply and holistically integrated into everyday life. Thus, activities such as enjoying time with pets, family members, and friends; enjoying the outdoors and the arts; and preparing and sharing food take on considerable spiritual significance for many Nones as they understand their lives and the world in which they live as holy, as inherently religious and spiritual. Within this emerging lived religious configuration, my preliminary research with Nones indentifies prayer as the only traditional religious practice that continues to be seen as spiritually meaningful.
A second trend intersects with what Newsweek has described as this “rise of the Nones.” Recent changes to cultural and social life associated with digital social media invite new configurations of traditional practices such as pastoral care, religious formation and education, social witness, prayer, and worship in both online and offline locales. Digital social media encourage collaboration, content-mixing, and the distribution of authority in ways that draw upon, reconfigure, extend, and challenge traditional religious structures and practices.
Within the matrix of religious and spiritual practices subject to digitally-integrated appropriation, prayer is particularly central. Facebook pages focusing on prayer are among the most popular and engaging on the platform, and prayer activity is a robust substratum of activity on Twitter across religious traditions and ideologies. Likewise, hundreds of smartphone and tablet computer apps have been developed in the past five years to support the prayer practices of believers, seekers, and skeptics alike. For people seeking to enhance traditional institutional religious participation or to avoid it entirely, new media platforms offer a wide range of tools as well as opportunities to connect with others of similar or widely differing outlooks.
Together, these trends can be seen to extend, adapt, and change the meaning of prayer for believers within and outside of institutional religions. “Praying Between the Lines,” then, will explore how the prayer is unfolding as a social, cultural, and spiritual practice today. The focus of the project will be on religious Nones, engaging the range of activities that they define as “prayer,” both in offline and online contexts. Through one-on-one interviews and focus groups, the project will invite religious Nones to share their own understanding of the meaning and significance of prayer in their lives generally and in an increasingly digitally-integrated culture.