Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training resource Evaluating Prayer in Your Small Group.
It's the end of your group's Bible study time. Almost with a cringe (because you've become conditioned to what's about to transpire for the next 30 seconds or 30 minutes), you say something like: "Okay, time to shift into our prayer time. Anybody got anything we need to be lifting up this week?"
What follows is either:
A colossally awkward silence where you are thinking: Really? Nothing? Are your people dead inside? And your group members are thinking: Really? Share serious life stuff with everyone here? Are you stupid inside?
- A verbal cascade of prayer requests lasting 12 minutes each with tears, laughter, gossip, and maybe a little anger all wound up into such a mess that you have no idea what the bombardier who started this raid actually wants you to pray for.
Finally, after the awkward silence or the monologues, you say something like, "Who will close us in prayer?" This leads to a single prayer, probably by the unfortunate soul who made eye contact with you when you asked that question, and it lasts about 30 seconds. "God thanks for letting us meet, be with all the stuff we just talked about for 30 minutes, keep us safe this week, amen. No wait—in Jesus' name, amen.
Or maybe you go so far to say, "Let's have a different person pray for each one of those." This leads to five of the same nondescript prayers tailored slightly to the assigned requests.
Praying as a Small Group
Sound familiar? Hopefully that is a humorous picture that strikes one or two chords with your past experiences. What happened in that situation, and in a lot of small groups, is that prayer requests take far more time and energy than actual prayer. God calls us to be a people of prayer, not prayer requests. Seriously, if you aren't careful you can "prayer request" your group into spiritual demise.
So let's take your group prayer time through a boot camp of sorts. We'll start by asking a few questions, and then we will look at some ideas to help cultivate a rich, participative, belief-saturated prayer life among your group members.
For the sake of common language, this assessment will operate on the following definition of prayer:
Definition: Prayer is God's means for people to acknowledge their dependence on him for all things.
So when we praise him, when we confess to him, when we believe him for a brother's need, we put ourselves where God designed for us to be: dependent on his provision. A rich prayer life is one that regularly and unreservedly cries out "Abba, Father."
Assessing Your Group's Prayer Life
The easiest way to assess where you are is to simply interact with some questions designed to investigate your group's prayer life. This is not intended to beat you up. Like a workout routine, it should only hurt in the places that need the most work.
- Who is the main character of your group's prayer time? At first you may say: "God, of course." But who do most of your prayers really center around? God and his character? The nations? The orphans and widows? Or is it you and the people in your group?
Why this matters: You were created to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Most of the prayers in the psalms, for example, are filled with praises for God—with requests for his help coming only in the last verse or two. If we really are only here by God's grace, our prayer life should be fueled by a God-focused mind and heart.
- How is the Bible involved? It is not uncommon to find a big disconnect between a group's Bible study time and its prayer time. During Bible study, everyone has a Bible open and pages flipping. But when the leader transitions into prayer, just about everyone shuts their Bibles and puts them away to begin explaining to one another what they need to see or hear from God. The irony is that God's Word contains all of his promises, and it is sitting right there—unused.
Bottom line: Is the Bible just a textbook for your group, or is it something more—as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 suggests it may be?
- Who is praying—and with whom? This is a straight-up group dynamics question. Are you praying in one large circle with everyone in the group? If so, chances are good the same people (if any) are volunteering over and again. You may have created an unnecessarily large barrier to a vibrant prayer life. Are guys praying with girls? Are new Christians praying only with other new Christians? What is the set up?
Bottom line: In the Ideas section we will look at a couple of ways to shake this up.
- How are you preparing for your group's prayer time? I know you feel obligated to say, "I could always be doing more." But it's important simply to look at what is happening so you can brainstorm a starting point. Are you putting enough effort into your group's prayer time?
Ideas for Moving Forward
With your questions answered, here are some ideas for breaking free from prayer normalcy. These are simple concepts I've seen be a great help for moving groups into rich seasons of prayer.
- Index cards. Pass out an index card to each person at the start of each meeting. Ask everyone to write their prayer requests on the card at some point before prayer time. Here's the secret: people will write the "need to know" information on these cards without all of the side-track stories they would share if given the chance. When everyone is done writing, collect and redistribute the cards for prayer time and have each person in the group pray for the needs on the card they receive.
- Subgroups. Divide up guys and girls where applicable, then get into groups of three. Sharing takes way less time here and usually will draw out the prayer needs of someone who wouldn't share with 10 to 15 people.
- Single-gender prayer groups. Men and women become much more transparent when they are only speaking with others of their gender. And that is a good thing. I encourage you to try this out and see what happens.
- Prepare. Come to the prayer time with an agenda for what you will be praying for. Check in with your leadership (pastor, elders, director) to see what the entire church or organization is praying for. Maybe even hand out a prayer guide that walks everyone through what the group will be praying for that night. This is a great way to keep things fresh in the group. You may even try devoting one entire meeting to prayer. (Bonus: collect individual prayer requests, written or by email, and send them to the group so they can pray throughout the week.)
- Pray through Scripture. Find a resource like For the Love of God by D.A. Carson or Oswald Chamber's My Utmost for His Highest to help your group think and pray through passages of Scripture. Consider memorizing a passage of Scripture together and pray the promises of God in those passages each time you pray.
- Delegate prayer time to another group member. As a group leader, part of your role is to raise up more disciple makers. The prayer element of your group is a great one to delegate to someone you are hoping to see take an increased leadership role or eventually serve as a group leader.
Small-group leader, this all starts with you. God designed prayer to be a holy, worship-filled communion between you and him. Do not settle for anything less!
—Spence Shelton is the Small Groups Pastor at Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.