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.
Encourage Personal Sharing
Within the guidelines of managing the time, encourage group members to share personal requests. Some group members may tend to share only requests for others. This can be a symptom of lack of trust or intimacy in the group, or it can be a means of avoiding accountability. Group members will more readily relate to praying for one another than for others whom they will most likely never meet. Interest and involvement in prayer is easier to maintain when group members focus primarily on their own needs.
As with other guidelines, this is not a prohibition against praying for family or friends outside the group. Occasionally, a significant need may arise that warrants the group seeking God in prayer. There is nothing wrong with this; the problem is that a steady diet of prayer requests for those outside the group can cause group members to lose interest over time. Keeping it personal helps keep it meaningful for group members.
Encourage group members to go beneath the surface in sharing their prayer requests. God cares about our temporal needs and wants us to bring these to him for his provision. However, he also cares about the deeper work that he wants to do in our lives and wants us to seek him for things like character development and the fruit of the Spirit. The caring, intimate environment of the small group is the perfect place to give and receive prayer for these deeper works in our lives.
One way to help the group move in this direction is to pick topics for prayer requests. There are many ways to do this, and here are a few basic ideas to help you get started:
- Have group members share about a fruit of the Spirit that is particularly lacking in their lives and pray for God to bring that fruit about.
- Read through one of the prayers of Paul for the churches, and have group members single out something from that prayer that they personally need prayer for.
- Pick a topic that you are studying in your Bible study or in church and have members formulate requests around that topic.
The point here is not to discourage prayer for the daily situations and circumstances in people's lives; it is often precisely at those points that group members need to know that the group is pulling for them and praying for them. Rather, the point is to begin to get group members to lift their eyes above the everyday circumstances and discern what God wants to teach them and do in their lives. By getting group members to think in these terms for prayer requests, you will also get them accustomed to viewing their lives more in terms of God's direction for them.
Finally, ask good questions. Again, balance is needed here to keep from focusing too much on the sharing time. However, a few well-placed questions can actually help focus the sharing time as well as help the group know how to pray. For example, if I receive a request to pray for someone in the hospital, my first question is always, "Is he a Christian?" I ask this question because the answer will determine the focus of my prayer over the situation. Asking good questions can be a way of helping to focus on the deeper spiritual issues underlying the surface of many prayer requests.
Manage the Time
One way to help keep the sharing time from dominating and preventing the group from actually praying is to focus on one person at a time. Have that person share a prayer request, and ask the questions that need to be clarified in order to go to prayer. Then have the group pray over that request until there is a sense that the situation has been covered sufficiently in prayer. Have someone close out that prayer time and then move on to the next person.
I favor this method over having everyone share first and then having everyone pray for several reasons. First, focusing on one person at a time helps group members remember what to pray for. It can be difficult to remember, after 6 people have talked for 20 to 30 minutes, what the first one wanted prayer for. Second, such a focus promotes agreement in prayer as the group focuses together on one person, rather than skipping around from person to person. This focus will also result in covering each person in the group more thoroughly in prayer. Finally, breaking up the time between sharing and prayer helps keep people involved and concentrating as compared to long periods of sharing and then long periods of prayer (which can lend themselves to people tuning out over time).
If some group members have difficulty expressing their prayer requests succinctly, you may want to consider having everyone write down their requests on an index card (either before coming or during group time). This may help members organize their thoughts. Further, you may want to have group members switch cards before going to prayer, and have each person read the requests on the card they received and then lead the group in prayer for the person who wrote the card.
—Andrew Wheeler; excerpted from Together in Prayer, copyright 2009 by InterVarsity Press (www.ivpress.com). Used with permission.