Note: This article has been excerpted from Together in Prayer, by Andrew Wheeler.
"Does anyone have any prayer requests?" Thus begins what is often the most dreaded time of any small-group meeting.
Mary's Aunt Gertrude is in the hospital again, and explaining her condition requires a minimum of 15 minutes (each time). John really needs some prayer but is afraid to open up to the group and express his deep needs. Tim is anxious to get going—the Bible study is over and he never did really get the point of this "sharing and prayer" time. Karen is frustrated because the group always seems to spend all its time talking and not much time in prayer. Joe, the leader, knows he needs to incorporate prayer in his small group but senses the group's disconnectedness and lack of vision for praying together.
Have you ever been any of the above people? If so, the frustration you've experienced is not unusual; in fact, it's a normal part of the way many groups pray together. If you've been tempted to give up on prayer in your small group as a result of situations like the one above, don't!
Praying effectively for one another in a group setting is worth the time and effort it takes for your group to learn to do it well. As you and your group members lift each other up in prayer, you usher one another into the very presence of God and invite his work in your lives. You submit to him, both as individuals and as a group, and nothing builds more powerful community than seeking God together for one another.
Set the Tone
One of the most difficult areas to handle regarding group prayer can be the sharing of prayer requests. If the group is going to be praying for one another, then it is imperative to provide a time for sharing information about the requests before going to prayer. Otherwise, the prayer time itself will be spent sharing information rather than focusing on God. However, leading the time of sharing can require both discernment and courage.
On the one extreme, there may be some group members who are reluctant to open up enough to share anything personal. (This is often revealed by consistent requests for prayer for family members or friends rather than for themselves). This will hinder the group in praying for them, and will slow the development of real community in prayer. On the other extreme, there may be some members who feel that they need to give a full biography in order to share a prayer need.
Somewhere in the middle is what you're shooting for.
Set the tone for the sharing time by emphasizing that your purpose is to invite God's supernatural presence into the lives of each of the group members and to request his answers to prayer. The sharing of requests is not an end in itself, but rather a means to the end of approaching God in prayer and inviting his intervention. Naturally, some situations will require more explanation than others. You need to give room for enough information to be shared that the group will be able to pray intelligently about situations in the lives of group members. But you also need to be discerning to know when the line has been crossed and the sharing is drawing the focus away from God.
As with many situations involving prayer, there are no hard-and-fast rules about how much time to allow for sharing. If your group does this regularly, then you will need less time than if you do it only occasionally, because group members will naturally be more updated on each others' lives. Be careful to avoid turning the sharing time into a counseling session. The person sharing may indeed need counseling or other next steps, but the point of the sharing time is to bring the situations before God. Your group may not even be qualified to guide the person through those next steps. Be sensitive to situations that may call for more than prayer, and suggest that you begin by praying over the situation, then pursuing other next steps as appropriate.