Do the Numbers Matter?
Is God more inclined to partner with a group of people than with an individual?
By Shalini Rajack-Sankarlal
Partnering with God is more about our intentions than the number of people involved.
As an ordained leader in the church, I find myself reflecting on the church’s role in helping people partner with God. While the church is meant to be the body of Christ, as a collection of individuals, it is not perfect. There are multiple instances when the church is a shining example of coming together to help people in need through acts of kindness, including prayer. But there are also times when the church has failed to do so.
As a result, there are individuals carrying church-wounds who have decided that they are done with church, but not with God. So instead of attending church, they prefer to listen to one of the many pre-recorded online worship options to which COVID-19 has given birth. Some may have opted to watch their favorite television preacher or read a blog instead and they consider that sufficient. As we hear more and more frequently that we can experience God anywhere, attending church may seem unnecessary.
The result is that there are people who have decided that they do not need a corporate body to partner with God while others wonder if their individual voices will be heard without this collective. In terms of prayer specifically, we might wonder if corporate prayer has greater strength than an individual person’s prayer or that of one or two persons. In more general terms, one might wonder what happens when people seek to partner with God either in isolation from others or in ways that differ in perspective from the many. Ultimately, the question becomes “Can we lobby God based on our numbers?”
Let me confess that I am new to open and relational theology, and I am intrigued by it. The rationale behind the varying modes of relational theology is compelling, especially as it relates to the idea that God’s self-giving love allows for new opportunities to emerge for future action. I am drawn in particular to a statement by Thomas Jay Oord in his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence, which states that “miracles occur when creatures and organisms or entities of various size and complexity cooperate with God’s initiating and empowering love.” Have we experienced that to be true? Can the size of the mega-church as an entity influence God as equally as the small church or the individual.
The second letter to the Corinthians 1:10-11 seems to suggest that the prayers of many are helping Paul and his companions escape suffering, and that many will give God praise as a result. I recall an article referencing that passage written by John Piper entitled, “Does the Number of People Praying for Something Make God More Likely to Do It?” He writes, “[God] is foreseeing the kind of effects that would come from a broadly-prayed-for thing than a narrowly-prayed-for thing.” His article continued on to say, “Sometimes God may in fact answer a prayer because more people are praying.” But then Piper noted that other factors, like faith and desperation, also influence how God might be inclined to process prayer, which I assume means how God might respond to prayer. So from this, it would seem that the number of people praying for something has an impact.
In Mark 6:1-6, Jesus enters a temple and begins to teach. The people doubt him and we are told: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.” The differing number of people receive differing responses. The larger number of people who doubted prevented Jesus from acting in a bigger way, thus limiting him to healing just the few who believed in him. The creaturely causation of the many and few indicates a requirement for a consensus from the larger group of people for God to act or to prevent God from acting with greater possibility.
Turning to Matthew’s gospel, we are told: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:19-20). Often this passage is used to support the understanding that there is a promise associated with corporate consensus prayer. But two or three is certainly not the “many” spoken of in the above 2 Corinthians passage that allowed for prayer to be answered, nor is it the majority inferred in Mark 6 that prevented Jesus from acting. In its greater context, this verse points more to a need to be guided by the divine presence of Jesus Christ sitting among the gathered in both discipline and prayer. Yet, it still speaks to the need for a collective consensus for partnering with God to occur.
Seemingly contrary to all of this is another part of the gospel of Matthew tells us: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). Furthermore, Genesis 18:23-33 illustrates Abraham’s singular influence on God on behalf of the entire city of Sodom. Both these passages seem to suggest that the sincerity of individuals moves God without the requirement of the collective consensus.
Based on the Scriptures referenced above it appears there are times when the collective is needed to move God and other times when we can come to God as individuals. So, is there a definitive answer? Do we need to come together in a collected consensus to partner with God? Do we need church because it represents such a collective? Or can we worship God and pray to God as individuals only to see God active in our lives.
In my personal experience, there was a time when I needed to know God was listening to me and partnering with me. And at first, I didn’t feel the need for corporate prayer. I preferred my time alone with God. But it was not long before I desired the communal aspect. And so I turned to my faith community. Truth be told, I didn’t receive immediate comfort from this. People with good intentions tried to provide explanations for my situation. They spoke about a God who allowed things to happen for reasons.
Often I was left feeling angry at them, or disappointed in myself or with God. However, the knowledge that there were people lifting me up in prayer throughout different churches and in different countries was comforting. For me, God was present, not because of the potential outcome that I or the church could persuade God to give to me, but because of the hope that was elevated from the well-being declared by the community. God was present and partnering with me and with them in that hope. Ultimately, the collective consensus prayer combined with my individual prayer did not give me the results that I desired most in my heart. But the collective hope lifted me in ways that were not possible by myself.
While we may look at situational stories for direction as I have above, the overarching story of the Hebrew Scripture and New Testament tells us that God desires a relationship with human beings and desires human beings to be in loving relationship with each other because God is inherently a God of community as depicted in the Trinity.
Throughout the narratives, we see God partnering with humankind. God first partnered with Adam and Eve, walking with them in the Garden of Eden. And when they moved away from that partnership God made a covenant with Noah; then with Abraham, and then with an entire nation. God made a covenant with King David, and then eventually God partners with individuals and nations so that we can partner with each other. God restored all people to relationship with God through the one person, human and yet divine, Jesus Christ. God is a God of partnering who desires that we all live in an intentional loving relationship with God and with each other.
If we are a church that is harmful and oppressive, open and relational theology states that God does not partner with us. Yes, we might still affect the action we want, or prevent a greater good from occurring as those in the temple did, but that is because God’s uncontrolling love cannot stop us from doing what we want to do.
In the same way, when we as a collective come together intending to be loving, compassionate, and caring, we can also affect change. But here we are partnering with God, we allow new opportunities to open up.
All of this suggests that it is not a numbers game. The quantity of people praying to God does not ultimately influence God to partner with us. However, the intention that goes along with our calling out to God, whether we do so as individuals or as a collective does. We cooperate with God when we are in community, lifting each other up, supporting each other, caring for each other, and seeing each other as beloved children of God. This is what the church is meant to affect and why worshipping God as individuals alone does not suffice. It is in living in such a God-centric community that new possibilities arise.
Questions: Is there strength in numbers when it comes to partnering with God? Many Christians have experienced a prayer-chain, where we are encouraged to share our joys, pains, and our desires so that they can be lifted up to God as a community. Why do we do that? What is the underlying assumption in that? Do we believe God will more likely hear us when more people are asking for the same thing? What if we chose to earnestly pray to God by ourselves? Will God be less likely to listen then? If God is a relational God, does God prefer corporate prayers?
Shalini Rajack-Sankarlal is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. After working in the accounting field, she entered into ministry after earning her M.Div. and MRE from Knox College, University of Toronto. As someone who grew up in a multi-faith family, she welcomes questions that lead us to deepen our relationship with God.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.