The pope was on Twitter. There’s an iPhone app for confessions. So why not a website for crowdsourcing prayer?
The Manchester, N.H., start-up PlusGrace is taking a model popularized by sites such as Kickstarter, which gives artists and entrepreneurs an online platform for funding projects, to the faith community.
On its website, launched last month, PlusGrace lets users broadcast prayer requests, in hopes that people from around the world will join in, supporting a social cause or helping an ailing friend in the belief that more is better.
“A lot of people believe in the power of prayer,” said Jamie Coughlin, a New Hampshire tech entrepreneur who founded PlusGrace last fall with his brother, Adam. “I think the faith-based world is begging for this innovation.”
Though both Coughlins are practicing Catholics, they pointedly kept PlusGrace nondenominational, to attract people from all religious backgrounds.
While group prayers within congregations or among like-minded people are not unusual, there has not been a website focused solely on spreading prayer or backing other faith-based causes to really hit it big.
“The religious community tends to be behind the trends because it tends to be conservative in nature,” said Erik Goldschmidt, director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College.
But during the past few years faith groups and churches have increasingly adopted social media and the Web to spread their message and connect with like-minded people, he said. “That’s where people spend a significant amount of their time, and we are meeting them where they are,” Goldschmidt said.
The center created its own smartphone app in 2012 for users to submit prayers and prayer requests. Many leaders in the Catholic Church have also abandoned their reservations about social media since former Pope Benedict XVI started using Twitter last year, Goldschmidt said.
“Churches can evangelize on these tools,” he said.
So far, PlusGrace has around 30 campaigns for collective prayers. They range from looking for spiritual support for a junior high school retreat at Pilgrim Pines, N.H., to asking for prayers for expectant parents from Franklin, Mass., whose unborn child was recently diagnosed with spina bifida, a spinal cord defect.
The baby’s father, 30-year-old Stefan Gagnon, said PlusGrace offered him and his wife a place “to turn for emotional support.”
Since the couple’s prayer request went live on the site, at least 15 people have offered their own prayers for the couple and their child. Gagnon said that even a former classmate with whom he has not spoken since high school posted a message.
“It’s really just prayer for support,” Gagnon said, rather than to heal the child.
The power of prayer has been the subject of much debate and study within the religious, scientific, and medical communities. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine funded a handful of studies several years ago, and none found that prayer benefited physical healing.
Even so, some physicians see benefits.
“We have a lot of intangible capacities for healing,” said Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, a cardiologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., who has studied the role of prayer in medical treatment.
Turning to prayer when people are ill or in distress is the cultural norm all over the world, he said. Now, using the Internet to expand the reach is an “evolution of one of the world’s oldest practices.”
But PlusGrace, which is a for-profit company, hopes to be much more than just a virtual destination for prayer-seekers who can create campaigns for free.
The young company is planning to make money when faith groups, organizations, or individuals use its website to fundraise for social and religious causes, or to support their churches.
It charges 5 percent on all donations above $10.
PlusGrace founder Jamie Coughlin said churches could begin using it instead of passing the hat on Sundays. “We want to replace the collection basket,” he said.Michael B. Farrell
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