"Lord, teach us to pray." Every small group, from Jesus' to yours, has asked that question at some point. What do you say to the God of the universe? Prayer can be intimidating. How do you listen to someone you can't see? Add other people's voices to the mix and it all becomes even more complex and intimidating. And yet, prayer is a gift from God to all of us, and group prayer binds us to one another in ways that no other activity can.
So, how is prayer going in your small group these days? When the leader asks: "Does anyone have any prayer requests?" Is that the most dreaded time of your group meeting?
Mary's Aunt Gertrude is in the hospital again, and explaining her condition requires a minimum of 15 minutes. 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, since the group is running over anyway. Karen is frustrated because the group always seems to spend all its time talking and not much time praying. Joe, the leader, knows his small group needs to pray but senses the group's lack of focus on prayer.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Andrew Wheeler explores these kinds of situations in his book Together in Prayer. He also tries to lay out some practical groundwork for making prayer responsible and meaningful in small groups. He is careful to point out there is no magic formula to prayer. God delights in prayer from a sincere heart. However, one of our greatest challenges with praying in community is maintaining a consistent focus on God—not on ourselves.
We've all heard the statement "prayer changes things," but the truth is that God changes things. In his book, Wheeler points out we can help maintain a focus on God in several ways:
- By focusing our thoughts and prayers on the One who answers prayer rather than on the people and circumstances for which we pray.
- By focusing our attention on those things that we know to be God's will.
- By asking God directly to act and intervene, rather than praying generically that situations will change.
Prayer that is addressed to God, not people, and that focuses on his kingdom and will, asking him directly to intervene, will honor God and draw you nearer to him both individually and as a small group.
Together in Prayer is geared toward helping group leaders set the stage for community prayer times that will be a highlight of the group's life together. The book starts by looking at some of the principles of community prayer. Then it explores how to cast a vision for community prayer, and concludes by applying community prayer concepts to other prayer settings.
Here are some of the specific topics unpacked in the book:
- The Case for Community Prayer. It's safe to conclude that praying together was a significant part of the early church's life. It should be just as significant today.
- The Focus of Our Prayer. If you are addressing God in prayer, then God should be the subject of most of the verbs in our prayers. Avoid the temptation to use prayer to exhort, instruct, counsel, or sermonize other people. There is no magic formula for wording prayers, but it's important to "seek His Kingdom first" and focus on God's will when praying.
- Agreeing in Prayer. For prayer to be a group dialog with God, it's important for individuals to be brief and to the point with their prayers. A few individuals monopolizing prayer time, having competing agendas, or thinking about what they are going to say next rather than listening to other's prayer does not promote agreement.
- Leading in Prayer. As a leader, there are several steps to help your group with community prayer: 1) understand where your group comfort level is with prayer. 2) Create a safe place for prayer—remove the performance pressure. 3) Clarify the logistics about how do we proceed together.
- Praying for One Another. Prayer time can easily be dominated by the time it takes to share prayer requests. Plus, many prayer requests can seem very "distant" to other group members. To facilitate prayer time, focus prayer requests on God's deeper work in group members' lives. To do this, suggest topics for prayer time and learn to ask good questions of one another leading into prayer time.
- Confession. While confession is encouraged in Scripture, it can be particularly difficult for individuals, let alone groups. To help groups with confession, keep the 4 C's of confession in mind:
• Confidentiality—what's shared in the group stays in the group.
• Compassion—confessed sin must be met with compassion rather than condemnation.
• Commitment—the motivation behind confession is spiritual growth.
• And finally, another C becomes a byproduct of confession, and that is cleansing.
- Other Prayer Contexts. Many of these same aspects of group prayer also apply in personal prayer as well as in corporate prayer settings.
Strengths and Features
The book has many group prayer "tips" and illustrates many of the principles with real-life examples from the author's experiences. There are also discussion questions at the end of each chapter, so the book could be read as a small group or a leadership team.
The book is a relatively quick read at 176 pages and includes an assessment in the Appendix so you can evaluate your group's "prayer quotient."
The book gives many practical ideas and covers the basics with regard to prayer, but does not delve much into specific creative prayer exercises that would help groups implement prayer in fresh ways—particularly if they are struggling in that area. There are plenty of great guidelines, but you will need to add your own creativity to your prayer times.
There are not many books of this nature that really explore the mechanics and heart behind small-group prayer. For that reason alone, this book is worth checking out.
But beyond that, in many small groups, prayer probably tends to be sloppy at best and unhealthy at worst. Therefore, wrestling with how small groups do prayer is worth the time and effort. Part of that time and effort would be well spent reading this book. Find out more about Together in Prayer and how to get it here.
—Dan Lentz is an Editorial Advisor for SmallGroups.com and the author of Let's Get Started: How to begin your small-groups ministry (Standard, 2007). Copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International.