Our small group met monthly to pray for the persecuted church around the world and for missionaries from our church. We were all committed to God, to prayer, and to each other, and several of us were experienced pray-ers. Yet some of our prayer times—well, most of them, really—seemed to drag by.
Often my mind wandered during prayer; seldom did I feel we were connecting as a group. Although I knew God was with us, I rarely felt lifted into His presence. Many times I drove away glad we had met, but not particularly inspired. Why did our group struggle to "click" when we interceded together?
Like many small groups, we lacked effectiveness in this area because we failed to take into account two key dimensions of group prayer.
A Balancing Act
Group prayer—unlike private prayer—involves both vertical and horizontal dimensions. When we pray in a group, we are praying to God (the vertical dimension) with other people (the horizontal dimension). Effective group prayer requires a balance between both of these dimensions. When the horizontal isn't taken into consideration, the result tends to be long, winding prayers that diminish overall participation in the prayer time. When the vertical is lacking, prayers are often said more for the benefit of other people than for God, and can move the focus away from God rather than toward Him.
Balancing the vertical and horizontal dimensions of community prayer doesn't happen automatically. However, our group has discovered some principles and practices that can help. Let's look at the horizontal aspect first.
All Together Now
Praying with people means that we pray as a team, sometimes even limiting our individual prayers for the benefit of others.
Focus. One way to improve a group's ability to pray as a team is to focus the topic. Prayer times in the early church often centered on a single overriding concern. Acts 1:15-26 describes a group of believers praying for God's guidance in choosing a replacement apostle for Judas Iscariot. Acts 12 shows a similar assembly praying for Peter's release from prison.
Narrowing the focus in this way allows a number of people to express to God their desires about a particular situation. When multiple subjects for prayer are opened simultaneously, participants often skip from topic to topic rather than developing a prayer together in unity and agreement.
Our group made three changes that helped us focus our prayer time. First, we limited our topic to the persecuted church. Second, instead of praying generally for countries where persecution is rampant, we now pray for specific needs in three to five countries using a recent prayer list from International Christian Concern (www.persecution.org). Finally, we changed the format of our prayer times. We used to read through all the requests on the list and then pray. Now someone reads aloud the information for the first country, and we pray about those needs. When there is a general sense that we've covered that country, we move on to the next nation.
This format could be adapted for nearly any prayer focus. For example, if you're praying for members' personal requests, focus on one person at a time instead of gathering everyone's requests at the beginning. You'll experience greater unity in prayer and help people remember what to pray for.
Short and sweet. Praying short prayers is another way to improve the horizontal dimension of group prayer. Our tendency, however, is to do the opposite. Long, winding prayers may be perfectly appropriate in the prayer closet, but they are seldom conducive to community prayer. Prolonged prayers often cause group members to tune out. God may have an infinite attention span, but we do not!