The Healing Rooms is a global Christian network of nondenominational intercessory prayer service that has been operating actively since the 1990’s. Its roots are in Pentecostal-Charismatic evangelizing, but it is specialized in one single activity, healing in its holistic meaning (of course, with the basic mission of winning new followers for Christianity). Differing from usual locally organized Christian groups, the Healing Rooms does not provide opportunities to an individual to become a member of a community that demands personal commitment. It rather offers a place for spiritual experience appealing to the universal human need of well-being. Despite the relatively rapid expansion of the movement, there has not been any extensive or small scale research done on this phenomenon, so far. In Finland, this organization has been operating for four years.
Healing Rooms as a case in a post-secular society
In Finland, nearly 80% of roughly 5 million inhabitants are officially members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, even though only approximately 3% of them are active church-goers. In that sense, the situation in Finland is quite similar to that of the neighboring Nordic countries, Sweden and Norway. Furthermore, various revival movements have reached the countries as minority religions despite the dominant status of the established church. In Finland, traditional Pietist revival movements are closely connected to the mainline church today, where as the Pentecostal Church and the later arrivals, the minor Neo-charismatic communities represent the non-denominational independency. The Healing Rooms does not identify explicitly with any of these fields but attempts to work independently and in co-operation with all of them. The rapid expansion of the network as a voluntary lay organization in Finland opens up a new perspective to an interesting situation in a post-secular society.
I work at Åbo Akademi University as a member of a research team in the project of comparative religion, Post-Secular Culture and a Changing Religious Landscape in Finland (see the website: [http://web.abo.fi/fak/hf/relvet/pccr/]). Before I describe my own case study of the Healing Rooms further, I will provide a brief presentation of the idea of the project as a whole. The PCCR Project has started in the beginning of 2010. The whole project is planned to take 5 years, and there are about 10 researchers involved with case studies of their own. The case studies deal with themes varying from religion in the societal sphere, market, media and popular culture to questions of identity and agency connected to contemporary religiosity and spirituality.
Today several scholars argue that religion has not lost its influence and relevance in the way that the secularization thesis predicted. For instance, immigrant religions, charismatic movements, new religious movements and spiritualities, exemplify this. In order to conceptualize the new situation, in contrast to the idea of secularization, western societies of today are often referred to in terms of post-secular culture (e.g. Jürgen Habermas 2006, Charles Taylor 2004). The term post-secular is ambiguous, but we use it to depict and understand the complex and diverse changes that in different ways involve resacralization or revitalisation of religion, and therefore transforms the religious landscape in a profound way.
This new situation provides not only a theoretical challenge but also a methodological challenge. For instance, as a result of the profound changes, it becomes difficult to focus strictly on religious groups, organisations or movements; many forms of post-secular religious phenomena appear as, for example, spiritual practices (Sutcliffe 2003). Contemporary Western society hosts multiple forms of religious or semi-religious self-help and therapeutic practices with their respective metaphysics. Moreover, many traditional religions today focus more and more on health, well-being and empowerment. In other words, they are focusing on the self and the present-day life, instead of yearning for eternity. Thus, instead of asking the question whether the role of religion is diminishing or not in the society, we can rather ask how traditions accommodate to new situations as multiple practices that may, in some cases, even contest each other, or how the traditions absorb functionally relevant pieces and ideas to compromise and make the most of new situations.
The aim of the PCCR Project is to provide detailed analyses of how post-secular culture affects religious life in Finland and, in particular, how it shapes identities, values, meanings, and agency. In accordance with this, the objectives of this project are:
This presentation has not provided results yet, but simply illustrates an introduction of a work in progress concerning one of the case studies belonging to the PCCR Project. My case study, within the project, deals with the Christian Healing Rooms prayer service that began in Finland in 2006. It is an international movement that has spread very quickly to every continent taking advantage of already existing and functioning structures in local religious fields. The Healing Rooms works at least as an “inter-charismatic” if not exactly ecumenical network without clearly committing itself to any single Christian church or movement, but rather aiming to co-operate with them. The headquarters of the movement is in Spokane, Washington in the United States. In 2001, the International Association of the Healing Rooms was founded.
A brief history of the movement
The Healing Rooms dates back to the first decades of the last century. It was launched by Mr. John G. Lake, a Pentecostalist pastor in Spokane in the beginning of the 1930’s. Very quickly, Lake’s reputation as a charismatic healer praying for the sick gave him a nickname “the Doctor”, and his local meetings were called “Healing Rooms”. It was a short term revival of a single charismatic leader, and soon after the death of Lake in 1935 these activities ran dry for several decades.
After the period of oblivion, Healing Rooms was recalled again in the 1990’s by another Pentecostal pastor, Cal Pierce, who discovered the history of the already forgotten ideas of Doctor Lake. Pierce and his wife Michelle had the vision to spread the non-denominational Healing Rooms network throughout the world by starting to found local prayer clinics, as they call the idea of this type of intercession service.
The new rising of the Healing Rooms in the 1990’s was very much concurrent with the rising of the Neo-charismatic Movement which is often characterized as Health and Wealth Gospel because of its strong emphasis on healing, well-being and prosperity as privileges for true believers. So thematically, the Healing Rooms is a kind of continuation or supplement of Pentecostal-Charismatic revival, even though it is not associated unambiguously with it.
Since 2006, during the first three and a half years of working in Finland, 23 prayer clinics have been founded around the country. The Healing Rooms operate in several different organisational contexts such as in Pentecostal and Free Church congregations as well as in the context of the mainline Evangelical-Lutheran Church. The Healing Rooms may also work in purely secular surroundings like shopping malls or in other public spaces. The point is that it should be accessible to everyone, accessible both mentally and physically. In order to make the clinic accessible, they are always situated in urban centres where the public transport works properly, and the spaces where the clinics arranged on a regular basis are carefully chosen so that the threshold would not be too high for anyone.
In addition to these 23 already working clinics, several others are planned to open soon. In the context of post-secular culture and non-denominationally organised spiritual practices, I find this activity a quite interesting development. Furthermore, there is an interesting aspect of transmission of an innovation, considering that in the neighbouring Nordic countries, Sweden and Norway, there are no Healing Rooms at all. In Russia, however, there is one, likewise in Denmark. In Estonia there is possibly one Healing Room trying to get started, and as far as I know, the influence has come from Finland. However, the rapid growth of the movement in highly secularized Finland is worth noticing. It seems to break new ground to the functions of social relations and networking not only locally, but also in the global religious field.
Setting and actors of Healing Rooms practice
The local Healing Room clinics are arranged once a week or fortnightly. The procedure is precisely the same in every clinic. Before the actual clinical reception opens for the clients, the prayers get prepared by praising and praying by themselves for an hour. This meditative get-together helps the prayers in orientating to concentrate on their task and be present for the clients. Before the reception, they also form the teams of three prayers, preferably having representatives of the both sexes in every team.
The actual reception for the clients takes two hours. The clients wait for their turn to be prayed for in a waiting room where a receptionist gives each and every client a form to fill in. After the clients have written down their requests for prayers of intercession, they are invited one by one to the prayer room − as to a doctor’s surgery – where the team of three trained prayers prays for each client personally in private, according to his or her request.
It is expressly emphasised that the Healing Room service is not supposed to be therapy-like pastoral care for their clients. For this reason, all actors, both prayers and a client are standing during the prayer which may take, depending on the case, 10 to 20 minutes. In case people were sitting, the situation could easily be interpreted as a therapy session, and that is not provided in the Healing Rooms at all. The clients may ask only for an intercessory prayer for various problems. That is the only service they are provided, and in a case of other needs, clients are advised to turn to their home congregations, physicians or other professional helpers. During one reception, in bigger cities, there are usually around 20 visitors and 3 to 4 teams working for them.
The prayers serve at local Healing Rooms clinics as volunteer workers. However, they are selected and trained to encounter people from different backgrounds. The most important criteria are that a prayer belongs to a Christian church or congregation, no matter which one, and that he or she is a mentally and spiritually balanced believer (not, for instance, going through a personal turmoil at any level). The standardized training is an absolute precondition for being authorized as a prayer in the Healing Rooms.
The Finnish prayers come from various Christian backgrounds, mainline church, Pentecostalists, other revival movements, and according to my interviewees, there are also one Catholic and one Greek Orthodox prayer working in teams, too. The clients, for their part, are not required to tell about their religious convictions or confess anything if they do not want to do so.
The idea of supernatural healing
Healing within the Pentecostalist tradition is based on the idea of charismata, the gifts of the Holy Spirit as they are depicted in the Bible. Illnesses, pains and depression etc. are prayed for in order to channel the healing power of the Holy Spirit. The function of the training of a prayer is to encourage participants to take the role of an active agent as a tool of God by using the charisma of healing.
The social-psychological concept of agency includes the ideas of both instrumentality and subjective self-efficacy as an individual’s consciousness of being able to control his or her own life, produce experiences and shape events (Milgram 1974; Bandura 2001). These both sides of agency are present in a praying act. In Neo-charismatic Christianity, it is typically held that miracles and supernatural healing can be channelled through all believers, not just through religious specialists like preachers or pastors. This idea works in the Healing Room context, too. The prayers regard themselves as instruments lacking the responsibility of their own, but simultaneously, they are very confident that they are capable of bringing about advantageous changes with the help of their personal “spiritual knowhow”.
It is emphasised during the clinical reception that the prayers do not guarantee and they are not responsible of anyone’s healing. They claim to be just mediators while God is the actual healer. Their minds and bodies function as channels for the supernatural healing power. My interviewees described that healing may happen immediately as a result of one prayer or a client may visit the clinic several times. Healing may also happen gradually, or it does not happen at all. At all events, it is not up to the prayers, as they say. The clients are always advised to follow their prescribed medical treatment in addition to a prayer. They are not urged to leave their medication without consulting their doctors. This is not seen as questioning the effects of a prayer. The western medical science is rather regarded also as a gift from God, not being in dissonance with the spiritual help offered in the Healing Rooms.
In the website of the organization, there is a cumulative list of healing narratives, that is, short witnesses of the clients who have experienced some kind of improvement in their situations after having been prayed for. Remarkably many of them also report receiving successful medical care as supplementary help. My interviewees did not deny the meaning of psychological support of their services. On the contrary, they saw it as good an explanation for improvement as experiencing a miracle. The meanings of healing are seen in a holistic perspective, concerning simultaneously body and mind as well as spirit.
Critique towards the Healing Rooms
The Healing Rooms has been criticized in Finland, above all within the Christian circles; on the one hand, for representing Americanized New Age because it propagates “healing”, and on the other hand, it has been interpreted as occult, heresy and delusion. This critique can be found above all in Christian chat forums on the Internet. There are, of course, theological confrontations among different Christian communities, and the Healing Rooms is crossing borders, which is in some cases locally understood as threatening the authority of the established forms of Christianity. In many Christian circles, especially in independent Charismatic communities, there is also aggressive critique against everything with a New Age flavor, even though, or perhaps because, many New Age practices propagates same themes like well-being, good life and prosperity, but they are promoted from different premises and with different rhetoric.
The leaders of the Healing Rooms have responded to this critique by claiming that they actually want to rehabilitate the concept of healing and bring it back to its original Biblical meaning after having been stolen by New Age thinkers. Actually, it has been pointed out that the idea of healing, which is so characteristic to New Age thinking, seems to have its roots in the spiritual New Thought (or Mind Cure) movement emerging from transcendentalism and Swedenborgianism, and pawned further to several healing centered Christian organizations like Christian Science, for instance. (McGuire 2008, 133.)
To propagate the interpretation of the Biblical healing following Jesus’ work as an exemplar, the Healing Rooms introduces its work in the well known annual New Age happening in Finland, the Fair of the Spirit and the Knowledge. It is an event where various New Age practitioners present their services for a couple of days every autumn. Mr. and Mrs. Laitinen explained it to be an important forum for the Healing Rooms, too, because that fair is the place where the seekers are. Thus, they take it as an opportunity to win new followers for Christianity by using the appealing theme of healing.
It has surprised me, that I have not found any previous study about the Healing Rooms. After all, it is an active global network that has been operating for over ten years. As an example of flexible religious well-being practice, it represents a post-secular culture looking for new forms and functions, resacralising or revitalising the established religion, and transforms the religious landscape by stretching the boundaries of a religious space. Even though the prayers are committed members of their respective congregations, in the clients’ point of view, the “low threshold” may supply the need of believing without belonging. A client cannot become a “member” of a prayer clinic.
Our work is only in the beginning stages of the PCCR Project, and the proceeding at hand is the ethnographic work. In my case, it means interviews, a questionnaire and Internet ethnography.
It is my intention to meet members of prayer teams, both men and women. In the beginning, the gender issue did not seem to make much difference to my interviewees, but they soon admitted that it is a good point and urged me to study why there are fewer men than women in these circles. The themes that I find interesting are the questions of agency and empowerment. The Healing Rooms practice offers the prayers an arena to act in a meaningful role instead of sitting in a pew. It provides a structure for their personal religious virtuosity beyond the borders of a single, often hierarchical community.
The other category of material is planned to be constructed by a questionnaire distributed to all actively functioning prayer clinics in Finland. The questions will measure how broadly the Healing Rooms clients are using other spiritual practices, what are their religious backgrounds and what are their experiences of receiving intercessory prayer, as well as what is their experience of healing. Is it practicing without belonging or even practicing without believing, and how the clients use this practice as empowerment?
The third category of material is offered by the Internet. In the website of the Healing Rooms, there is a cumulative list of testimonies, little stories about personal healing experiences that have been sent as feedback. On the whole, the Internet is an essentially important element within new religious phenomena today. It is an ethnographic field of its own kind, where both religious communities and their criticizers create their own worlds.
I take the post-secular perspective as an acceptance of the fact that religious landscape is a never-ending process, and there is an ongoing dialogue at different levels between the religious and the secular. Strong emphasis on an individual’s personal experience – search for well-being and empowerment – links the Healing Rooms to the larger processes in the post-secular religious landscape. As Sophie Gilliat-Ray has pointed out, there is a shift away from institutionalized religion, or religion constituted mostly by its public role, and a growing trend is spirituality that corresponds to personal needs (Gilliat-Ray 2005:358). In this perspective, the rise of a phenomenon like the Healing Rooms is regarded as an answer to the search for the holistic spirituality within an institutionalised religion.
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Gilliat-Ray, Sophie 2005. ‘Sacralizing’ Savred Space in Public Institutions: A Case Study of the Prayer Space at the Millennium Dome. Journal of Contemporary Religion 20(3): 357–372.
Habermas, Jürgen 2006. Religion in the Public Sphere. – European Journal of Philosophy 14(1): 1–25.
McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion. Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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