Together in Prayer

Vertical Prayer with Horizontal Impact

Starting Your Small Group in Prayer

This article was published in the training tool called Corporate Spiritual Disciplines for Small Groups.

One of the foundational values shared by many small groups is the value of “knowing and being known”. Some groups are very intentional about this, while others experience it as a by-product of group activities and time spent together.

One of the best ways for small group members to know one another deeply is to pray together. Yet, many small groups struggle to pray together effectively, resulting in either a relatively shallow community prayer life or maybe none at all. This article is intended to help you lay the groundwork for a fruitful and effective small group prayer life.

Prepare the foundation
To get your small group started in prayer, you’ll need to do three things. First, recognize how group members feel about prayer – both private prayer and group prayer. Be sure to encourage people to express any reservations or negative experiences they have had – encouraging our groups to grow in prayer begins with understanding and addressing any obstacles that members may feel.

Second, you’ll likely need to cast a vision for community prayer, especially if your group is not in the habit of praying together. I recommend studying together the early church in prayer through the book of Acts (cf Acts 1:14; 1:23-26; 2:42; 4:23-31; 6:4; 12:5,12; 13:3; 16:25; 20:36). Note the varying circumstances surrounding prayer and God’s responses.

The final step of laying the foundation for a strong community prayer life is developing the group’s commitment to absolute confidentiality regarding any items shared. Hopefully, your group has already built a level of trust to help with this foundation. Some groups find it helpful to develop a formal confidentiality agreement and have each group member sign it; this can be especially useful if the group is relatively new or has new members.

Provide the Framework
As you start your group down the pathway of praying together, instruct members clearly. Some may be used to “anything goes” prayer times, but agreeing on a common set of guidelines and expectations will help everyone participate on an equal footing, regardless of their individual level of experience in prayer.

Many groups find it helpful to divide the prayer/sharing time by person, rather than having everyone share first and then having everyone pray. There are several advantages to this approach: better control over the time that each member takes, assurance that each group member is covered in prayer, ease of remembering the prayer requests, and improved participation. One way to accomplish this would be to evenly divide the time allotted to prayer between individuals, and ask each member to spend half their time sharing their requests, then pray for the other half of the time. For example, if a 6-member group were going to share and pray for 30 minutes, each person would get a total of 5 minutes in turn – 2 ½ for sharing and then 2 ½ for the group to pray. 30 minutes may seem like a long time to pray, but arranged this way, the time speeds by and people stay engaged.

Whether or not your group chooses to follow a format like this, be sure to establish some framework that provides time for each person, so that no one dominates the time and no one is left out. Be sensitive, however, to the Holy Spirit’s leading for occasions when you may need to make exceptions to your normal pattern in order to focus on one group member who is in a time of special need.

Preserve the Focus
Encourage group members to share personal prayer requests, rather than a steady stream of needs for family and friends. The occasional crisis in the life of a friend or family member may be a valid prayer concern, but a consistent external focus can indicate lack of trust in the group, lack of accountability, or issues that the person may be trying to hide from the rest of the group. Focusing on personal requests also helps the group to stay engaged; generally, the group will find it more meaningful to pray for each other than for friends and family members that most of them will never meet.

Additionally, urge group members to think beyond the surface in their lives when sharing prayer requests. Jesus encouraged us to rely on God in prayer for our daily needs, but his instruction on prayer and the examples of his own prayers went much further. Thus, in the Lord’s Prayer, we’re taught to pray for provision of our needs (daily bread) in the context of God’s name being honored, his kingdom coming, and his will being done. We pray for ourselves, but our overriding concern is that God be glorified in our lives as He answers prayer – just as Moses prayed for the salvation of Israel out of a primary concern for how God’s name would be viewed among the nations.

There are many ways to help group members think past the surface as they share their prayer needs. A study of the prayers of Paul in the Epistles may be a good place to start. Or you could start the sharing time by asking the group to focus on one or two questions, such as “What are you most grateful for today? What are you least grateful for today?” or “Where do you most feel God’s encouragement right now? Where do you most feel your faith being challenged?” If you start the sharing time this way, give people a few minutes of silence before having the first member start their sharing time.

Pray to the Father
Community prayer is fundamentally different from private prayer because of the added “horizontal” dimension. Private prayer involves only the “vertical” dimension of the believer’s relationship to God, but community prayer adds the horizontal dimension of relationships among the believers. Praying in community can best be thought of as “praying to God with people”. It’s easy to miss one of these dimensions as you pray together, but clearly establishing some guidelines will help group members pray together effectively.

Pray briefly. Nothing discourages wide participation in prayer more than the an individual praying long, winding prayers. Such prayer causes people to disengage as their thoughts wander. Long prayers also intimidate others who are less experienced in prayer, keeping them from participating. Finally, long prayers communicate to the rest of the group that the one praying is not interested in the participation of others, and can subtly damage the unity in the group.

Encourage the group to limit their prayers so that others can participate. Remember the example I gave above – if half of the 30-minute prayer time is devoted to sharing and half to prayer, that would mean that each of the five group members would have an average of 30 seconds praying for the person who shared! Five people each praying brief, direct prayers will be much more engaged than four people listening to one person dominate the entire prayer time.

Address God. One of the biggest temptations of community prayer is addressing our prayers to each other, rather than to God. Individuals may use prayer to speak into each other’s lives rather than lifting them up before God. Our task in intercession is to speak to God on behalf of one another, not to presume to speak to each other on behalf of God. Well-meaning group members can significantly damage relationships and even faith by counselling or preaching in prayer.

To avoid this, teach the group to focus their prayers on what they are asking God to do, rather than on changes they want individuals to make. Grammatically, if God is the subject of most of the verbs in our prayers (“Lord, please strengthen and encourage Joe”) rather than a person being the subject (“Lord, may Joe have faith to trust in you”), then our prayers have the needed vertical focus.

Agree together. The major difference between praying in community and praying alone is the additional God-provided power that comes from agreeing together in prayer (Matthew 18:19-20). Instruct the group to enter into the prayers of the one who is praying, rather than thinking about what they will pray when their “turn” comes. Encourage them to pick up on each other’s prayers and topics rather than always introducing something new as they pray. As a group, seek God’s will and leading for one another rather than having individuals each pray their own understanding into situations.

Propel the Group Forward
Most groups begin their prayer lives praying for group members. As the group grows in prayer, you may want to stretch by incorporating shared confession (James 5:16) to further deepen your relationships. Additionally, you may decide to adopt a “prayer mission” – a focus on something outside the group, such as a ministry, a missionary, or a world event.

At each step in your group’s prayer journey, communicate expectations clearly. Remind the group often of principles of effective group prayer. Your group’s growth in prayer will be reflected in deeper relationships with each other and with God.