Praying in small groups

20 Oct

[This post is courtesy of Col Marshall, posted on The Briefing 22nd November 1994.]

If there is one sure-fire prayer point in small groups, it’s praying that God will make us more prayerful! Everyone believes in prayer; everyone recognizes that we need to pray more, but everyone has trouble making it a priority. Put it down to the bustle of 90s life, or simply to sinful, independent hearts—either way, we can always find something which is more pressing a task than speaking to God in prayer.

Prayer ruts

Most Christian groups pray. Most Christian groups easily drift into prayer ruts. Our times of prayer become hurried intercessions, a quick vote of thanks at the end of the Bible study, prayers for the sick or ‘those who aren’t with us’, or general prayers for more love and peace. Of course, these are all great things to pray for, but we usually end up praying for them by default, because we don’t put in the time and effort to think about what to pray.

Most groups find it easier to do Bible study (or have supper) than to pray. Prayer gets reduced to a minimum, sometimes included only to relieve our guilt about it.

Prayer warriors

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (Col 4:2)

We want our groups to love praying—to long to pray to God. Our group meetings can be training grounds for great prayer warriors. What is it that will help our group to be devoted to prayer? Here are a few ideas:

  • The example of leaders. If you are a group leader, you must first address prayer in your own life. The group will see whether you are a prayer warrior or a prayer wimp. Enough said.
  • Give prayer priority in group time. You may need to be creative in order to achieve this. Occasionally, devote the entire meeting to prayer. Start your meeting with prayer instead of leaving it until the end. Pray at several different points during the meeting. Pray spontaneously as issues arise from discussion.
  • Keep track of the groups prayer concerns. Some groups use a ‘Prayer Diary’, so they can look back to what they have prayed about, as well as writing in specific events, people and occasions to pray for in the future. It is a very helpful aid to memory.
  • Be confident in God through Christ. Ultimately, this is what drives us to pray. It is the truth of the gospel—that we are lost on our own, but have entered into relationship with God through Christ—that will sustain us in prayer. We need to keep teaching the gospel. It reveals the love of the Father in his Son for his people. If we doubt that God cares for us and hears and responds to our prayers, we will never pray. We need to recall that “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things” (Rom 8:32).

Christian prayer

There are numerous prayer techniques being promoted in churches which are not true Christian prayer. The Christian form of prayer comes from the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father. We pray:

  • to the Father
  • through the Son (on the basis of his death)
  • in and by the Spirit
  • using ordinary language.

It is worth modelling this carefully in our groups, and not allowing any special techniques. There is no human technique for prayer. Prayer is available to those who trust Jesus. Believers have marvellous access to the Father through him. The current trends towards meditating in prayer, listening to God in prayer, having dialogue with God, journalling, imagining and having prayer dreams have moved away from the gospel basis of prayer.

Exercise

Think of five or six creative ideas for making sure that your group devotes more time to prayer.

Expanding our concerns

Our prayers are often of a totally different character to the prayers of the Bible. For example, look at the prayers in the following passages:

Note the concerns of these prayers: the grand purposes of God; the salvation of Israel through David’s dynasty; the growth of the gospel and of believers; the coming of the Kingdom of God; the renown of God. In short, they are God-centred, not self-centred, prayers. They are full of thanks to God, rehearsing his holiness and saving power, and asking him to fulfil his plans to save the world.

Paul sets an agenda for prayer meetings in 1 Timothy 2:1-7. Read this now.

We are to pray for everyone, with the focus upon godly living and the salvation of all. Of course, we can bring our personal needs to God in prayer (see 1 Pet 5:7; Matt 6:25-34). By bringing all matters to God, even the minor details of our lives, we express faith in God’s rule over all things. God has committed himself to provide and care for us.

Collecting prayer points

The old routine of collecting prayer points is a mixed blessing. It is good to hear others’ concerns so that we can pray very specifically. It is one of the key ways we express our love for each other. But this routine does present some problems. It takes a lot of time, and the actual praying gets tacked on the end of the discussion. It can become repetitive, with the same issues being raised every week. It can be difficult at certain stages of the group’s existence for people to be honest and open with their prayer requests. The main problem, however, with sharing prayer points is that it promotes self-centred praying.

Beyond our personal concerns, what should the group be praying about? Our prayers should reflect God’s purposes in his world, so we should pray for:

  • Gospel preaching. The group might adopt a missionary or evangelist for whom they can pray, as they keep track of his or her activities and needs.
  • Unbelievers. Pray for the salvation of your unbelieving friends and families. Pray more widely for the conversion of those in positions of power, of people who have a public profile, or even of neighbours whom you don’t know.
  • The growth of the church in godliness. Pray for your church’s programmes and plans. Perhaps adopt a particular ministry, such as Sunday School, and pray for it for a period.
  • Our own growth in godliness. This is an important focus for the group. Pray about your responses to the sermons you hear. Pray about the Bible studies you do in the group—that God will help you to apply what you learn to your mind and behaviour. Most groups need help in doing this, lest they drift into their own concerns rather than God’s concerns, as expressed in the Bible passage. We need to learn to pray with ‘open Bibles’, rather than forgetting what we have just studied as we start our time of prayer.

The group dynamics of prayer

It can be hard to get everyone in a group to pray out loud, especially when the group is quite new and people are not yet comfortable with each other. How can we make this easier for each other?

  • Leading in prayer. When we pray with others, we are not only praying to God, we are also leading others in prayer. This is true in any Christian context, such as conferences, committees and church. We must be conscious of others, not in order to impress them; on the contrary, we must seek to serve them. Here are some practical tips on serving people in prayer:
    • Use the plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’. This signals that we are all praying, not just the person speaking.
    • Say short prayers so that everyone can maintain attention.
    • Avoid jargon or complicated expressions; use language that everyone in the group will understand.
    • Don’t switch into an unnatural ‘prayer mode’. Use your normal voice and keep a normal posture.
  • Form smaller groups. Reducing your group size into twos or threes for prayer can lower people’s anxieties and allow them to pray more openly. Single sex prayer groups can have the same effect.
  • Formulating prayers. When time is spent discussing what we want to pray, people are often more confident and willing to pray. A sense of unity in prayer is developed, making it easier for people honestly to say ‘Amen’ to each prayer. Discussing and formulating prayers before praying need not make praying a formality; it simply brings the group together in their support of the prayer.

Prayer partners

You might wish to form ‘Prayer Partnerships’ within your group where small groups of people regularly pray together. This tends to build more prayer into group life, as well as deepening some of the friendships in the group. There are endless possibilities for how such a group might operate. Here are but a few suggestions:

  • Pray together only during group meeting time.
  • Pray together during the week, outside the group time.
  • Pray for each other during the week, without meeting together.
  • Change prayer partners every few weeks or months.

Exercise

Is your group too narrow in its prayer concerns?

What ministries could you adopt for prayer? List a couple here.

Does your group suffer from the ‘prayer point routine’? How could you improve upon this?

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