Prayerwalking in 2019: More Diverse and Less Combative than Ever

This year’s National Day of Prayer is right around the corner. On May 2nd communities all around the United States will hold prayer events on the theme of “Love One Another.” During my dissertation work, I found that many of the prayer events I studied had ties to major annual events like the National Day of Prayer. A mixture of patriotism, evangelism, worship and even warfare was pivotal to the success of these events, which invested significantly in the power of Christians to effect local and national change through occasions for communal prayer.

The figures I studied, like C. Peter Wagner, John Dawson, Jack Hayford, George Otis and others, reflected an interest in converting public spaces and discourses to religious purposes. Among the innovations I tracked was the growing sense that secular culture (read as opposed to religion generally) could be targeted with on-site prayer. These were Christians at war with the culture around them. They identified as victims or captives of secularism but drew on the power of spiritual gifts such as discernment of spirits and the ability to exorcise demons to confront secular evils. The model for their actions, I argued, relied substantially on their readings of Biblical urban environments such as Jericho and Jerusalem. The special efforts to “take cities for God” by John Dawson, for instance, read contemporary spaces with Biblical lenses. (You can read a draft of an essay on this over at academia.edu.)

When I finished my dissertation in 2013, I was not in a position to convert my work into a book. Without a tenure track or even a full time position, I found myself needing a job outside the academy to pay the inevitable school loan bills. Returning to the project six years later, one of the first things I did was see whether spiritual warfare efforts were ongoing. If the work by Andrew Chestnut and Kate Kingsbury in the Catholic Herald and elsewhere is representative, then the answer is absolutely. I’m thrilled that there is now academic work on spiritual mapping, neo-pentecostalism, the charismatic renewal, and spiritual warfare.

Globally there is no doubt that spiritual warfare is on the rise and that the corresponding rise in the use of exorcisms shows the success of the charismatic renewal on the global Christian south. I wrote mainly about the links between mainstream American evangelicalism (including Billy Graham and the Lausanne movement beginning in 1974) and the charismatics like C. Peter Wagner’s New Apostolic Reformation, but there is a world of connections to be made and work to be done since this is a intensely global movement.

One of the things I struggled with–and a solid reason for putting the project aside for a while–was the diversity of ways that spiritual warfare was being conducted. I focused not on exorcism (as Sean McCloud did in American Possessions) but rather on mobile efforts that brought prayer out of the church and into the streets. This emphasis led me to connect contemporary instances of prayerwalking to the global success of the March For Jesus movement in the 1990s and the broad parachurch network of groups such as Youth With a Movement where the leadership was deeply involved in producing manuals for spiritual warfare prayer techniques. (These Christians have been described recently by Brad Christerson and Richard Flory as INC or independent, networked and charismatic.)

When I returned in 2019 to the topic, I found that recent events using prayerwalks seem to have taken a less antagonistic or combative approach and are looking instead at mobile prayer as a ecumenical opportunity for kingdom building and community outreach. The tone and flavor of the events suggest that the spiritual warriors who hoped for an aggressive campaign lost the war in the U.S., however successful they may have been abroad.

As I continue to re-explore my project, I’ve integrated a workflow to better capture events as they are announced and discussed on the web. A Google alert identifies me daily about new mentions of “prayerwalk” or “prayer walk,” and, for the moment at least, I am experimenting with AirTable as a relational database of these items. You can view a limited version of this here. It lists the event, identifies churches or groups that are its hosts, where the prayer event is happening, and a link to the source that tipped me off. The tools and resources available today dwarf what was available almost 10 years ago when I began my project. I’m excited to see what’s next and I hope you’ll return again to see how things are going.

If you’re interested in this project or hearing more about my work in religious studies on the role of mobile prayer techniques in modern America, please consider signing up for my new, monthly newsletter. Until then, say hello on Twitter @dmcconeghy.