A scholar on Christian spirituality argues that prayers are meant to bring together a community of faith – something apps are unlikely to achieve. [4 min read]
Prayer apps can help guide spiritual practices and encourage people to set goals and stay on track. (Image source: iStock.)
Prayer apps are not new. Silicon Valley startups popularized mindfulness and meditation applications from 2010, even if many have criticized these apps for being spiritually shallow. Sanctuary young founders – devout lay Catholics of the millennial – are among those who felt that mindfulness apps did not meet their religious needs and decided to create theirs.
Hallow’s accessible language introduced different prayer methods, along with inspiring lectures, spiritual practice guides, and notifications to encourage users to set goals and stay on track.
As a priest, I know it is important to help people develop healthy prayer habits. But both as specialist in Christian spirituality and as a person who provides spiritual direction to others, I see limits in what prayer apps can achieve.
Technology and faith
Churches have long enthusiastically embraced communication technologies to spread their message. The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther and his followers in 16th-century Germany quickly spread through the use of Gutenberg’s printing press.
Currently, Catholic faith-based media include the Eternal Word Television Network, founded by Catholic nun Mother Angelica, who provides news, radio broadcasts, live services, and web-based religious instruction to a estimated audience of more than 250,000,000 viewers.
Applications are also used for something. As several surveys have shown, active membership of a religious community decreases. People without religious affiliation, who are mostly young, make up about a quarter of the US population. At the same time, many of them yearn for a sense of religious belonging, and these apps seem to help build a faith community.
What kind of community technology fosters is an important spiritual question to consider, however. Evidence suggests that the unstoppable reach of technology in all aspects of our lives shapes the way people think and relate to each other. Research showed that while people have much more access to information, their attention span is less. Since prayer involves both mind and emotions, this has spiritual implications.
see how addicted people have gotten to their phones and other devices, I sometimes urge them to regain some spiritual freedom by giving up social media during Lent.
Prayer as a community
Commitment to community is also deeply rooted in the Jewish roots of Christianity. Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism attach particular importance to the community aspect of prayer. The gathered prayer community is at the heart of their faith and identity.
An embodied community asks people to show up regularly in real time and reunite with those they may not know well or even like. Time-consuming inconvenience and lack of choice are actually spiritual riches because they involve the needs of others. This type of sacrifice is not what prayer apps make it easy.
In the Catholic tradition, prayer is not primarily about finding peace, joy, or reducing stress. These can be achieved, but they are not always present or necessary. Deepening one’s prayer is often a slow process of going through periods of to be bored, distracted or frustrated.
People with excellent intentions can sometimes end up being confused as to what they are experiencing in prayer, especially if it is unfamiliar to them. As a priest, I tell people that a good rule of thumb is that growth in prayer leads to more kindness towards others, and focus less on yourself.
Many religious traditions, inside and outside of Christianity, insist that healthy spiritual growth can be facilitated by the personal guidance of people. more experienced in prayer.
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The “spiritual father”In monasticism is a prayer teacher. Within Catholicism, spiritual directors, who may be lay or ordained, listen to people talk about their prayer experiences, helping them relate their prayer to their daily lives. While this tradition of spiritual accompaniment can help provide counseling, each person’s prayer is always unique to them.
Even the best-designed algorithms are unlikely to deal with the human soul adequately.
Measure the impact
Holiness is numerous enthusiastic reviews insist that this prayer app is a force for good. The same goes for the many users of other applications.
From my perspective, the measure of a prayer app’s success isn’t the number of downloads. Jesus insists on looking at the fruit of good intentions. If an app helps people be more patient, humble, righteous and caring for the poor, that’s a good thing. But being an active member of a real community is probably also necessary.
Dorian Llywelyn, President of the Institute of Higher Catholic Studies, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences