Many years ago, evangelist S. D. Gordon said, "The greatest thing anyone can do for God and man is to pray." After 25 years of leading small groups and coaching small-group leaders, I have come to one clear conviction: prayer is the most important activity of a small-group leader. In fact, if a group leader could only do one thing to make his or her group more effective, that one thing would be to pray.
Prayer is a fascinating tool for the person with a heart to minister to others. It is one of the simplest things we can do. All we need to do is sit down and lift someone up to the attention of God. Yet most of us will admit that prayer is one of the hardest things to do for others. We get busy. We get distracted. We get discouraged, and we just don't pray enough.
Highly effective small-group leaders view prayer as a non-negotiable aid in their ministry to others. They use it often and well. They build it into their daily schedules and make it a high priority. They don't just pray a little; they pray a lot.
Here are some tips to help you effectively pray for your small group.
- Have a set time, and a set amount of time, for prayer. Those who don't have a set time for prayer rarely take the time to pray. Great people of prayer speak of their appointments with God. Most agree that the "when" of the time is not as important as actually having a time. So set aside a time when you will meet with God daily. Make it your unbreakable appointment with God.
It's also good to set a goal for the amount of time you will spend in prayer. A beginner may start with 10 to 15 minutes and grow from there. An hour in prayer would be a great goal to reach. If that seems like a lot, realize that the more we pray, the more God will work. The small-group leaders making the greatest impact are the leaders spending time in prayer.
- Have a usual place for prayer. Our ability to focus and concentrate in prayer is enhanced by having a regular, private place for payer. Jesus spoke of this private place in Matthew 6:5–7. He promised that the God who sees in secret will reward us openly by answering our prayers. Find a place where you can privately and passionately pour your heart out to God.
When my children were little, we lived in a very small house. I found that the best place for me to pray was the sidewalk of my neighborhood as I walked for exercise every morning. Now I pray in my office or as I walk on a nearby track in the mornings. I often go to a park and sit on a picnic table and pray. Again, where you pray is not important, but it's vital to find a "place" to pray.
- Have a plan for prayer. Many great prayer warriors speak of using the disciple's prayer of Matthew 6:9–13 as a plan for prayer. They use it as an outline that includes worship (v. 9), petition (v. 10–11), and confession (v. 12). They cover these areas once or even several times when they pray.
Others use the acronym ACTS—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication—as their prayer plan. But the specifics of the plan do not matter as much as having a plan in place.
- Have a place for recording requests and answers. The weakest ink is better than the strongest memory. We do not want to forget someone's requests or needs, but often we do. It is valuable to have a list or, even better, a small notebook in which to record prayer requests. Then you have them right in front of you as you pray. It also becomes a testimony of the many prayers God has answered. When I get discouraged, I often get out one of my past prayer notebooks and look at all the answered prayers.
- Ask God to direct you to appropriate Scriptures. Sometimes we are not sure what we should be praying into a person's life. When in doubt, Scripture is the best thing we can pray. Paul left some great examples of prayers he prayed for those under his care (Ephesians 1:17–19, 3:16–19; Philippians 1:9–11; Colossians 1:9–12; 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3). I have special verses God has directed me to pray regularly for my children, my wife, and my key leaders.
- Season your intercession with thanksgiving for each member. It is easy to get frustrated with the people we are called to lead. They sometimes act like sheep, wandering off in all the wrong directions. The apostle Paul seemed to keep amazingly free from the frustrations of spiritual shepherding. I think one of the reasons for this was that he persistently thanked God for those sheep. Notice that Paul consistently begins his letters and prayers with words of gratitude to God for his people (Ephesians 1:16; Philippians 1:3–4; Colossians 1:3–4; 1 Thessalonians 1:2).
- Mix fasting with prayer for greater effectiveness. Many prayer warriors have discovered a "secret" of prayer: fasting. Fasting is voluntary abstinence. It generally involves abstaining from food for a period of time in order to focus on God and give ourselves more wholly to prayer. Typically, fasting lasts for one complete 24-hour period—usually from sundown to sundown. The early church fasted two days every week, Wednesday and Friday. Pharisees fasted Tuesday and Thursday. Other biblical fasts ranged from 3 to 40 days. Both individual and corporate fasts are seen in the Scriptures.
I generally fast for about 20 hours before my small-group meets on Wednesday evenings. This means I eat dinner on Tuesday evening and then don't eat solid food until late afternoon on Wednesday. When I fast, the group seems to flow better, and I seem to do a more effective job as the leader.
- Pray through all possible elements of the group meeting before hand. It is better to pray before trouble comes. Think of all the possible elements of your small-group meeting and bathe them in prayer. From the attendance to the worship, from the prayers to the discussion of the Word, cover each section with prayer. This will give you peace and confidence that God will be able to do all he wants to do in your gathering.
- Pray for your apprentice(s), and for the birth of future groups. A key here is to remember that your group cannot multiply unless you find and develop apprentices to lead future groups. Jesus told his disciples to pray for the Lord of the harvest to raise up laborers (Matthew 9:38). Good apprentices are harvest laborers in the highest sense. They help you reap and maintain your harvest, and will one day multiply it as they lead their own groups.
When leaders ask me where to find apprentices, my answer is always the same: On your knees. God is the one who can send you an apprentice. God is the one who can help you find untapped potential in the people of your group. God is the one who can guide you in bringing out the best in them. You just need to ask him.
- Pray for God's grace to help you. Don't hesitate to pray about your prayer life! Ask God to help you build it into your schedule and your daily priorities. With prayer, all the other things you do will be better. Without it, all the other things you do won't amount to much.
Excerpted from chapter 2 of 8 Habits of Effective Small Group Leaders. Used with permission. Published by TOUCH Publications, Houston, Texas. 1-800-735-5865.