Note: This article has been excerpted from Together in Prayer, by Andrew Wheeler.
Community prayer is to private prayer what a symphony is to a solo. An orchestra playing together—with various sections picking up refrains from each other, with chords dependent on the contributions of multiple instrumentalists, with a beautiful collective voice raised to the audience—this picture begins to describe the ideal of group prayer.
Often, however, group prayer turns out to be more like a collection of soloists each playing their own piece than a concerted voice arising out of teamwork. One particularly experienced soloist plays a very long piece, and others are intimidated to follow. Multiple soloists each play a piece of their own, but there is no relationship between the pieces, no common refrain. The result is a cacophony of individual prayers and not true community prayer—not the picture Jesus had in mind in Matthew 18:19-20 when he spoke of two or more people coming together and agreeing in prayer.
Two Dimensions of Prayer
One of the main reasons we tend to struggle in community prayer is that we fail to recognize its two-dimensional nature. Private prayer concerns itself with only one dimension: the relationship between the believer and God. Community prayer, however, adds a second dimension: the relationships among the believers who are praying. Balancing these two dimensions of prayer is not always an easy task.
Community prayer at its best can be defined simply as "praying to God with people." The definition is simple to articulate but not always easy to follow. Even those who have strong personal prayer lives often struggle with balancing the vertical and horizontal relationships in community prayer. Accustomed to private prayer, they can sometimes forget that they are praying in concert with other believers and end up praying in ways that may not be appropriate in a group setting.
What It All Means
"Praying to God" means that we address God—not the group—in prayer. Our prayers are focused on asking God to intervene in situations and in people's lives, not on changes that people need to make. Praying to God means that we're praying always for his will, submitting our requests to him but not demanding that he answer in a particular way. We're trusting that he will answer according to his perfect wisdom (and acknowledging that our wisdom is imperfect). Finally, praying to God means that even as we pray over temporal circumstances, we're focused on "kingdom prayers"—prayers that emphasize God's eternal work in the lives of those for whom we're praying.
"Praying with people" means that as we pray, we keep in mind the presence of the community of believers. We pray in concert with others in the group, limiting our prayers so as to invite participation of the whole community, and agreeing with one another as we pray. We enter into the prayers of others in the group, rather than focusing strictly on our own concerns. We develop a true community conversation with God, rather than a series of one-on-one conversations.
While most of the prayer problems that Jesus addressed stemmed from heart issues, many of the most common problems in community prayer are caused not by sinful hearts but simply by a failure to understand some of the implications of the two-dimensional nature of community prayer.