"How should we pray?" This is the question the disciples asked Christ. In truth, not having the answer to this question keeps many people from developing rich prayer lives. Most people want to believe prayer works, but they have no idea where to start. So when the need to pray arises, they offer up a skeptical but desperate plea for God to fix whatever is broken in their lives. This lack of confidence in prayer can enter our small-group prayer times as well. The affected small group usually follows a mundane prayer routine week after week with little to no variance. Of course, the solution here is not a secret set of letters and symbols that will crack the prayer code to give you access to God's "yes" box.
How did Jesus respond when the disciples asked how to pray? While their question is recorded in Luke's account (Luke 11:1), the full response Christ gives is recorded in Matthew 6:1-15. We refer to this famous passage as the Lord's Prayer, though it would be far more accurate to call it the Disciple's Prayer since this is Jesus' prescription for his followers' prayer lives. A walk through this passage will unleash your small group to begin praying with confidence in the way God designed prayer to be practiced.
An Audience of One
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:5-6).
The most important part of the Disciple's Prayer is not the actual words; it's the heart behind them. Yet many group leaders unintentionally evaluate their group prayer lives by the "eloquence factor." As prayers grow longer and more eloquent, the group must be growing! However, Christ tells us we may be simply growing into better hypocrites. The Disciple's Prayer is one done in secret where only the Father can hear you. This is the first key to rebuilding your small group's prayer life.
Key Idea: A small group's prayer life is wholly dependent on the prayer life of its individual members.
If the only time your group members pray is in your small group, you are likely reinforcing the very perception of prayer Christ is trying to break in this passage. Though they'd never say it, your small group actually may be operating as if prayer is a small-group exercise instead of a way to commune with our Father in heaven.
Application to Group Prayer Time
The first step in rebuilding your small group's prayer life is making daily individual prayer an expectation of your group members. Read through this passage and collectively agree to seek God individually throughout the week. Then your group prayer time will inspire and encourage group members' personal prayer lives.
The Heart Matters, Not the Tongue
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this … (Matthew 6:7-9a, ESV).
Growing up I used to hear the Lord's Prayer recited in various venues. My high school baseball team would recite it before games, and I imagine the other team probably did too. I think we both wanted God on our side. We never talked about it or discussed what we were praying, we just did it. It was the pre-game ritual. Sound familiar? This prayer probably has become the most recited passage of all of Scripture. But look at verse 7. The phrase "empty phrases" is also translated "vain repetitions." Do you catch the irony? Do not use vain, empty repetitions. Do not say the same thing over and over without meaning it in hopes that you will be heard because you say it a lot. In other words, do not pay God lip service! God already knows our needs (Verse 8). The point of prayer is dependence, not repetition. Warren W. Wiersbe said, "All of us have one routine prayer in our system; and once we get rid of it, then we can really start to pray!"
Key Idea: A small group's prayer life must avoid monotony at all cost!
Application to Group Prayer Time
Step 1: Blow up your mental prayer script. Your group members need to feel free to pray from their hearts. You must verbally acknowledge that we all have a tendency to make our walk with God, even our prayers, routine. Our desire, though, should be a relationship with God, not a routine! To do this, start by structuring your group prayer time. You need a game plan to overcome deeply rooted habits . For example, try allowing only praises of God for the prayer time at one meeting. I call it "no requests allowed" night. Or allow only one-sentence prayers. This combats the lengthy "I like to hear myself pray" prayer. You could also try praying at the beginning of the meeting if you normally pray at the end or break into smaller groups of two or three to pray.
Step 2: Model how to pray to your group. Whatever methods you try will work only if you lead them. It is up to the small-group leader to begin praying real, raw, heart-level prayers instead of the scripted routine prayers we've prayed for so long. You could pray a raw prayer like "God, I am angry. I don't know why. Help me see how the cross is the answer to my anger because I don't see it yet." It requires courage—so much courage that you probably are the only one in your group who can set that kind of tone for your group's prayer life. This may be ugly & awkward at first, but at least it will be honest. Then immerse yourself in the model of the Disciple's Prayer to let Scripture transform your heart and begin to mold a new prayer life.
Prayer Is First God-Centered
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 9b - 10).
This is not the place to unpack everything about the kingdom. Our purpose is to show how this should shape a small group's prayer life. Let me offer some even more practical suggestions since Christ does the same here. Your small-group prayer life must be focused first on God and his purposes, not on you and your needs. This will take conscious planning on your part to come to the group ready to reflect and meditate on the character and purposes of God. This is the pattern of prayer throughout Scripture. In the Psalms, David first worships God for who he is and how he has provided. Then and only then does he ask of God.
Key Idea: Small-group prayer time must be centered on God and his purposes, not you and your wants.
Application to Group Prayer Time
Every single time your group gathers to pray, you need to acknowledge who you are praying to. Your prayer time should always involve verbally recognizing God's purposes and then your wants in terms of how they align with God's purposes. This will be difficult but richly rewarding to your faith.
For example, when a couple in your group has a miscarriage, how do you pray for them? Do you pray for healing? Sure. But how? Instead of "God be with them," which is an odd prayer anyway, what about "God, we know in Christ we have hope, especially when we grieve (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Help this family to grieve with hope, that they and those around them may see your healing power found first in Jesus. And may you get the glory in their grief." What a difference. It takes more work, but it's worth it. Do the hard work of connecting felt needs to God's purposes. By doing this, you will train your group to set their minds on things above as Paul commands in Colossians 3:2-4. It is a worthy endeavor.
Pray as if Your Life Depends on It
Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:11-13).
While the first half of this prayer is focused on God and his kingdom, the second half is explicitly requesting things. Food, forgiveness, and protection from evil are the fundamental needs to live for God and his purposes. This should remind us that everything, down to our daily food, comes from God and not from us. God provides our physical strength through our food, our salvation in the cross, and our protection against the enemy though the constant work of the Holy Spirit. We can ask and trust him to provide for everything we need (Matthew 6:28-30).
What does this mean for your group? It means do not shy away from praying for what is in front of you in life right now. Ask God for his provision. If you really believe you are in a cosmic battle between good and evil as Scripture tells us, you'd better believe you need his provision. And he will give it!
Key Idea: We must pray as if our lives depend on God's provision, forgiveness, and protection.
Application to Group Prayer Time
As you seek to model your small group's prayer life after Christ's example, consider adapting the ACTS method described below. It includes the things in the Lord's Prayer and is easy to remember. It may help you move from the mundane into the rich prayer life Christ desires for his disciples.
A - Acknowledge God's character and authority.
C - Confess sins.
T - Thank God for his provisions in your life.
S - Supplication. Ask God to supply your every need.
Making the Disciple's Prayer Your Prayer
It's very important to note that Jesus says pray like this. Remember, the Disciple's Prayer is not a chant to recite, but a model to follow. As your group focuses on the elements of the Disciple's Prayer, incorporating them into their own prayers, you will enjoy richer individual prayer lives and group prayer life.
—Spence Shelton is the Small Groups Pastor at Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.