Prayer Doesnt Work?

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Does Science Now Prove That Intercessory Prayer Doesn’t Work?

by Francis MacNutt

May/June 2006


When a prestigious study came out [in 2006] not only claiming that intercessory prayer does not help the sick but that it actually may be harmful. The sensational headline the Associated Press used to proclaim the finding was: “Prayer has no effect in study: Researchers find that having people pray for heart patients did not help in their recovery.” And this was the headline we saw in the religion section of our local newspaper!


            Since we have approximately 600 intercessors connected with Christian Healing Ministries (CHM), and their director, Anne Early, regularly writes up testimonies of healing that seem to have resulted from intercessors’ prayers, I could hardly believe what I was reading – so I want to respond to this discouraging study.


The Study Itself

            For the benefit of those of you who haven’t read the report, let me summarize it as briefly as I can. The study, called STEP (“A Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in Cardiac Bypass Patients”), has many notable, positive features. In the first place, it was directed by a highly esteemed group of scientists headed by Herb Benson, M.D., who wrote The Relaxation Response and has done many studies on spirituality and health. Above all, this study, funded by the Templeton Foundation, included more than 1800 cardiac patients and is the largest study that has ever been done on the effects of intercessory prayer. These bypass patients were divided into three groups from six different hospitals in a double-blind study. (The intercessors were given only the first names [and first initial of the last names] of the patients for whom they prayed.) Groups 1 and 2 were told they might receive prayer; they were uncertain whether or not they were actually being prayed for. In Group 1, 604 patients actually received distant prayer but did not know it. In Group 2, 597 did not receive distant prayer from the intercessors. On the other hand, in Group 3, 601 patients received prayer from the chosen intercessors and knew about it, too. (The STEP study recognized that probably many other people – friends and relatives – were also praying for the cardiac patients.)


            These intercessory prayers continued on for 14 days, beginning the night before surgery. (It’s interesting to know that more than 350,000 Americans receive coronary bypass graft surgery every year.) The educated guess of the researchers before the study was that those who knew they were receiving prayer would have far fewer complications than those who did not know. To the surprise of the researchers, those in Group 3 – who knew they were being prayed for – suffered 59% complications compared to Groups 1 and 2, who suffered complications in only 52% and 51% of the cases, respectively.


            There seemed to be no problem in what the distant intercessors prayed for: a “successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”


A Personal Response


            As you know, we at CHM have a high estimation of medical science and have always desired to collaborate with physicians on research. In fact, you probably know about the research project we did (in conjunction with Dale Matthews, M.D., and Sally Marlowe, N.P.) 10 years ago. At the time we saw remarkable results in praying with 40 patients who were suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, a medically incurable disease. Four of these patients seem to have been totally cured of their arthritic symptoms, and most of them experienced measurable improvement. The probability of this healing happening by chance was only .0001 (anything better than .04 is statistically significant.) These results were published in the Southern Medical Journal in December 2000. Of course, this study was not a “double-blind” study, since we met and talked with the patients and prayed for them with the laying on of hands. We were, however, disappointed that the press did not pick up on the study and publicize it to the degree that this recent STEP study has been acclaimed.


            Not only did the STEP study contradict our experience, it also seems to go counter to the teaching of Jesus, “As that you shall receive.” The message of the STEP study not only is “ask and you probably will not receive” but it goes even beyond that: “If you ask, you may actually lessen the chance of getting better!” How does this stack up against Jesus’ statement: “If you ask for bread, you are not going to get a stone.” (Mt. 7:9)


            Nevertheless, we believe in dealing with facts – no matter where the facts take us. We do not believe in bending facts to suit our theories. But our facts (what we actually have seen: bones straighten and tumors shrink and vanish while we pray) do not agree with this STEP study which was meticulously performed by expert researchers.


            How do we explain this disparity? If you are in the healing ministry and are honest, you must face the same question. This question has great ramifications, not just for the healing ministry but for Christians of all kinds. We are being challenged: “Is it a waste of time to pray to God for anything?”


What Was Missing in the STEP Study?

             Who prayed in the Templeton STEP Study?

            The most evident scientific question to ask – and apparently it was not asked by the researchers – is simply:

            “What were the qualifications of those who did the praying – the intercessors?”

            When we planned our rheumatoid arthritis study, an important factor was selecting the six teams who prayed for the arthritic patients. We wanted people who had expectant faith and who also had experience in praying for healing. But who prayed in this STEP study?

            Three groups were chosen, two Catholic and one Protestant:

            1) St Paul’s Monastery (Catholic), 2675 Benet Rd, St. Paul, Minn, 

            2) a community of Teresian Carmelites (Catholic), 167 Riverlin Street, Millbury, Mass.;

            3) Community of Silent Unity (Protestant), 1901 N.W. Blue Parkway, Lee’s Summit, Mo.


            (The study claimed they “no one else could be found -  Christian, Jewish or non-Christian groups - to receive the daily prayer list required for this multi-year study.”)


            It seems to me the belief systems of the persons doing the praying provide us with the missing piece in this mystery of why intercessory prayer seemed to have no effect. While I don’t personally know any of the three groups that were chosen, I can make several observations.


            In our experience, the first requirement for a successful prayer ministry is that the intercessors have an expectant faith – a belief that when they pray, a real physical healing may take place. Apparently, no check on the qualifications of the intercessors was made beyond the fact that they were praying people. There was no check on what they believed about healing prayer or how they prayed. For example, “traditional” Catholics do a lot of praying, but we never were encouraged to believe that physical healing might actually take place if we went and prayed for our fiends when they were sick. We prayed, but not with expectancy. In the past, I have known Carmelite sisters, one of the two Catholic groups chosen for the study, and I have always had great admiration for them as women dedicated to a lifetime of prayer. In fact, one of my favorite saints is a Carmelite, St. Therese of Lisieux, and I was greatly inspired by reading her autobiography. The Carmelites traditionally have had a very special vocation in the Roman Catholic Church, and part of their unique calling has been to accept suffering as a kind of substitute martyrdom united to the sufferings of Jesus. For example, St. Therese always admired the martyrs, and when she woke up one morning to find blood on her pillow, she rejoiced in the realization that she might soon die and be united to Jesus.


            “ . . . I had scarcely laid my head upon the pillow when I felt something like a bubbling stream mounting to my lips. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought that perhaps I was going to die and my soul was flooded with joy. . . . I would have to wait until the morning to be certain of my good fortune, for it seemed to that it was blood I had coughed up. . . . Ah, my soul was filled with a great consolation. . . . It was like a sweet and distant murmur that announced the Bridegroom’s arrival.”


            Therese’s experience was an extraordinary response to her bloody discovery that she had TB. I believe in the reality of her special call, resulting in her dying serenely at the early age of 24; but it was a special call. I don’t think most Christians rejoice when they discover they have contracted a fatal illness, especially if they are young mothers or fathers. Since this STEP study selected Carmelite sisters for a type of healing prayer directed to cardiac patients, you would think the researchers would have checked on two important qualities:

            1) Did these nuns tend to accept sickness as a blessing sent by God, and

            2) Had they any experience in praying for healing?


            Some sisters in such a group might pray for the sick, asking God to grant them patience in accepting their sickness as a blessing. This attitude would perhaps lessen the sisters’ expectation of a cure as being God’s deepest desire for the sick patients for whom they pray. In short, they have great faith but does that faith include expectancy for healing?


            The second Catholic group – St. Paul’s Monastery, St. Paul, Minn., – is a community of Benedictine sisters who center their lives on prayer and pray long hours every day. Again, the question is not about their dedication to prayer, but if they are “traditional” Catholics they may have a high ideal of acceptance of pain and suffering with only a slight expectancy that when they pray for physical sickness the sick person might truly experience a physical change (in this case, a lack of complications after surgery).

            My intention is not to criticize the Benedictine and Carmelite sisters, who probably spend much more time and energy in their prayers than most other Christians. I have no difficulty, either, in believing that they may be more closely united to Christ than most of us. It’s only that prayer and intercession for healing is a special kind of prayer. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, talks about a charism for healing – and it involves special elements that not all Christians have been taught.


            As for the third group of intercessors, representing the Protestant group, the researchers selected a Unity Church. The Unity folks are know for their love and inclusiveness, but their belief in the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God has been questioned. The Unity folks that I have met are wonderful people, but are they Christians in the sense that they accept Jesus as the Son of God and not just as a wise teacher and loving human being? If this STEP study concerns the effectiveness of Christian intercession, it only seems right to make sure the intercessors believe in the divinity of Christ – as someone who is alive and has the power to heal and change people’s lives.


            The Unity Church is criticized by the evangelical Protestants I know because Unity folks don’t have the reputation of believing in the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God. Do Unity folks address their prayers to him as the living Son of God the Father, who can actually change and heal sickness? The question them is, “Why, out of all the Protestant groups, was a church regarded as unorthodox by evangelical Protestants chosen to represent Protestants?” When we carried out our study on praying for rheumatoid arthritis, our 10 prayer ministers represented several different church traditions – Catholic as well as Protestant – but they all were united in believing in Christ as their Savior, and they all had a strong belief in healing prayer.


How Were Intercessors Chosen?


            All of our experience indicates that the beliefs of the intercessors, the people who are actually doing the praying, have a significant influence on the outcome of the prayer. Putting it simply, a key ingredient involving the selection of the intercessors for the STEP study seems to be totally missing. “Who are they, and what do they believe?” are questions vital to the success of the STEP study. The natural questions to ask the prospective intercessors are:

            1) Are they fully Christian (since it involves a study of Christian intercessory prayer), and

            2) Do they fully believe in intercession, in the sense of having an expectant belief that healing may happen (in this case, that there be no complications after surgery)?


            Again, why weren’t the beliefs of the three groups of intercessors – especially as relating to intercession itself – taken into consideration in this study?


            Without expectant faith, I wouldn’t have much confidence in the healing power of any intercessors’ prayers.


            Even the editors of the American Heart Journal (in which the STEP study was presented to the world) admit to being baffled by the fact that 59% of Group 3 (who know they were being prayed for) had more complications than those in Group 1 (52%) and Group 2 (51%) who were not sure they were being prayed for. There had to be some reason why the third group did worse. The Journal itself comments that something went wrong and criticized the researchers for not trying to analyze why Group 3 did so poorly.


            Let me propose an analogy:

            Suppose that 30 years ago, a massive study had been funded to study whether or not cardiac bypass surgery might be a new procedure that would help cardiac patients survive. Let’s suppose that 1800 heart patients had been selected to undergo this new surgery.


            Then these 1800 patients all underwent bypass surgery.


            In spite of their high hopes for bypass surgery, the proponents were disappointed to find that 900 of the patients died within two weeks of their operations. The researchers then decided that bypass surgery, far from being a success, was a dangerous failure and would have to be stopped. Their decision seemed to be an obviously wise one.


            But then a nurse spoke up and openly questioned the results of the research because the hospitals had decided to turn the surgery over to a group of hospital orderlies, scientifically chosen at random. The hospitals had decided there was no need to choose surgeons – or, better yet, cardiologists – to perform the surgery. The researchers defended their decision by saying: “After all, the orderlies are all dedicated to medicine and have given their lives to help patients. They all believe in the value of medical treatment. What more can we ask?”


            Bypass surgery was judged as useless – or worse yet, harmful, because no one had bothered to check on the aptitude and training of those who performed the operations.


            How is it possible that this crucial question concerning the intercessors’ qualifications did not seem even to have been asked in this important, major study? And, yet, they came to their decisive, emphatic conclusion: “Intercessory prayer does not work”


Last Word


            It is certainly praiseworthy that the Templeton Foundation put up the funds to do this massive scientific study to show whether Christian intercessory prayer has any effect. The study seems to show that it doesn’t help to pray and may even make matters worse. What I suggest is that a vital element was left out of this study.


            Beyond all that, most scientific studies do not examine the way we usually pray for the sick. To satisfy the need to do a double-bind study, the intercessors are not allowed to meet face-to-face with the sick, and so they do not develop a relationship with each other. Distant prayer also rules out the laying on of hands – one of the traditional channels of healing. Why don’t researchers study the power of prayer in the way we have found it best to do it? The scientific method can be a procrustean bed that takes the living breath out of healing relationships, and can set up an artificial barrier between science and Christian healing.


        The author of the study, Herb Benson, M.D., wrote The Relaxation Response in 2000 to popularize Hindu mind-blanking meditation for bliss. Unfortunately, Hinduism doesn't match up to what Christianity has to offer. He may have been tempted to make the competition look bad.  Certainly, the atheists have loved his study.


            Like St. John, we speak about things we have seen and heard and touched. We have seen living human beings who were lame and now walk, who were blind and now see.


Sources used in this article:


Florida Times-Union, Religion Section, March 31, 2006

American Heart Journal, Vol. 151, No. 4, pp.934-942

The Story of a Soul, transl. By John Clarke, O.C.D., Third Edition, ICS Publications, Washington, D.C., 1996

Larry Dossey, M.D., has actually written a book on the possible negative influence of people who pray: Be Careful What You Pray For: You Just Might Get It (Harper San Francisco, 1997)


copyright 2006 Christian Healing Ministries, Inc., all rights reserved

Used with permission