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Prayer—Strength in Numbers?

Disaster strikes. The call for prayer goes out. Church prayer chains rattle with activity; emails blitz and phone lines buzz requesting intercession for those involved. If you have been a Christian for any length of time you’ve likely experienced a similar scenario. 

Many good things come about as a result of this practice. When believers pray for the same thing it creates a sense of unity—the Holy Spirit knits us together in a unique bond of fellowship found nowhere else in life. It gets us on the same page and we become mindful of seeking first the kingdom of God. Struggling believers are encouraged by the concern expressed for those in need and we learn to love others as we intercede for them. 

While intercessory prayer is certainly biblical, I wonder whether some of our assumptions and motivations behind this kind of prayer are unbiblical.

How would you answer the following questions?

  • Does the number of people praying make a difference to God as to whether He will answer affirmatively or not? 
  • Does prayer have a greater chance of being answered when more people are asking for the same thing?
  • Is the probability of a prayer being answered affirmatively proportional to the number of people praying?  
  • Is prayer like magnetism where if you have one magnet the power is minimal but if you have 10 there is 10 times the power? 
  • Is it our numbers God responds to? 
  • If the answer to these questions is no, why do we often act like it is yes?

There is nothing in Scripture to suggest praying multitudes are more powerful or effective in moving the hand of God than individual prayers. So why do so many believers think this way? I suggest it is because they have wrong conceptions of prayer.

Some equate prayer with “getting things from God” and it becomes primarily an occasion to recite a list of wants. 

Others wrongly understand the power of prayer. It is often said, “Prayer changes things.” But, isn’t it God who changes things? 

You might think I’m splitting hairs and playing word games. But if we believe the power to effect change is in the act of prayer itself and not the God to whom we pray, then it makes complete sense to have more people praying at one time. The equation looks like this: more people + more prayer = more power. This reduces prayer to some sort of cosmic transcendental force in itself.

Matthew 18:19-20 is often cited as the biblical basis for soliciting multitudes to pray. “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”

These verses come from a larger passage, which addresses the procedures to be followed in the case of church discipline of a sinning member. The reference in verses 19 and 20 to “two or three” reflects the “two or three witnesses” in verse 16. Deuteronomy 17:6-7 says the two or three witnesses of a sinner in the act are to be the first to cast stones, and here the contrasting command is for those same people to be the first to pray in seeking the restoration of the sinner. And as the shekinah glory of God was in the midst of His people in the Old Testament, Jesus who is “God with us” will be in our midst.

To misinterpret these verses as promising believers a blank cheque for anything they might ask God for violates the context of church discipline. It also denies the rest of Scripture, especially the sovereignty of God and the many commands for believers to submit to God’s will—not the other way around.

Believing some kind of magical power boost is automatically applied to our prayers when two or three gather together is nonsense. Of course Jesus is present when two or three pray, but He is equally present when a believer prays alone. 

“The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16). It is our faith, not our numbers God responds to.