Why Pray in Small Groups?
Christians pray alone. They pray in large groups in worship, and sometimes even fill stadiums to pray together. But today's Christians often find their strongest moments of prayer in small groups with a few other believers. They do other things in a small group, too : Bible study, singing, and just being a small community together with each other. Prayer is a part of a larger small-group picture.
Small-group prayer is very flexible. Most of what is done in private prayer or in public worship prayer or concerts of prayer can also be done in small groups. Plus there's the flexibility to go from one way of praying to another, which keeps giving different angles to our small-collective relationship with God. Each group develops its own rhythm, style, schedule, and history. If it is a group that meets on a regular basis, it needs a clear purpose that the members invest themselves in.
One of the most important moments for a prayer group takes place before anyone prays. It's when those present discuss what you're going to pray about. It's a time to share burdens or give praise. Always encourage them to be specific rather than general. This enables the group to pray "in agreement", together in hopes and in goals. Also, complicated prayer subjects can be led by different people who have experience on the matter. That's not to limit the prayers only to what's been discussed. Believers are often moved by the Spirit to take a different direction. The pre-prayer discussion is not there to put a straightjacket on prayer time, but to better inform and to clear the air.
People in a prayer group are free not to take part in any particular prayer or any specific exercise or approach. Most often, they'll just opt-out by shutting off their mouths and minds without anyone knowing about it. But sometimes, the objection comes out in the open. When it does, before going into prayer, find out why, and what lies behind it. The group may agree to adjust, or have further discussion, especially if it is divisive. The discussion can teach valuable lessons about the group's character and about prayer. Sometimes the best solution is for the objecting members to exercise their right not to take part in that particular prayer or method, so the rest can move on.
Formats and Methods
Most prayer group activities are done in a ring or circle. It's the most natural formation to take : each one faces most of the others, looking them in the face. It is a visible oneness (the ring) with visible parts (each person). It becomes even more so when the hands are linked, since the people next to you, the two you're least likely to look at, are drawn to you by touch. Some think there's something mystical about the ring or circle, but its 'magic' is just simple human togetherness -- unity. God takes that and blesses it, since it's what God hopes to create between us. That is what makes prayers powerful.
Most folks find it's easy and natural to stand together in a ring. And the ring itself suggests a format for sharing prayers. Each person then shares their concerns for as long as they need. Then it is turn of the next person in the ring, and so on, until done. If everyone in the ring is holding hands, one person can pass their turn on to the next by squeezing the next person's hand. Another common way is for each to share freely, in no particular order, waiting until the one speaking is finished. Many experienced leaders say that these are fine ways to begin, but after a while it may become a rut, or concentration spans lapse. To prevent this, move from one process of prayer to another. For example :
Sentence prayers : each person, one at a time, offers a brief specific concern, praise, or thanks to God, ending with "Amen" or some other refrain. No explaining it, just saying it and leaving it. (Allow those who don't want to share to say just "Amen" so it passes on to the next person.)
Silent intercessions : The leader reads a general concern, and is then silent. Time is then taken to silently pray for specific people, actions, and ministries involved with that general concern. Then, after a while, the leader speaks a word of the Bible relating to that concern, and a brief prayer on it.
Basket of prayer : each person writes just one concern that is most on their heart, onto a slip of paper. The papers are gathered in a basket, and the group prays over them. This can be done by reading each one or leaving them unread all together in the basket.
Prayer for witness : Each person in the group names one person that they most want to see turn to Christ. This would be someone from work, hobbies, family, or other non-religious activities, that they meet in the course of their daily lives. After each one is spoken, the group then prays for an opportunity for a Christian's witness to hit home.
Two-by-two : at the start, names are randomly drawn to be matched in pairs. The pairs then go to separate locations from the other pairs (like, say, one in the kitchen, another on the deck, another in the garden, etc.). The pair then takes time to minister, share, and pray with each other.
Echos : Someone speaks a phrase of Psalm or hymn or a very specific prayer. Then each person repeats the phrase, with short breaks in between each time it is spoken. This gives everyone time to think on the phrase, or to silently let it sink in, listening for some stirrings within.
Groups confessing : one approach is for a leader to talk briefly about a general kind or category of sin. All those present write onto slips of paper a few words of a specific instance where they committed that kind of sin. These are not to be read by anyone; this is between them and God. The papers are then gathered into a cooking container. All those present gather around it, and speak together a prayer of confession of being sorry for that kind of sin and expressing the determination to cease that sin. Then all take the container to a safe place indoors, or outdoors such as in a grill, and then someone lights it, allowing it to burn completely to ash. (You must have something to douse or smother it with in case of flare-up.) Once this is done, someone then says that these sins are forgiven due to Christ's work on the cross.
Strong personal needs : Sometimes, in a group setting, someone will be so hurt by life (or so moved by the group or its actions) that they will break down. Other times, composure will hold, but the need for prayer is acute and prayer is requested. Either way, see to it that the person is sitting down securely. (This sitting is known in some circles as the 'hot seat'.) Ask that person to start praying. Then bring the others present to gather around him/her, laying hands and praying until a sense of comfort about the matter comes over him/her, or that person brings it to an end.
Written responsory prayers : Liturgical church folks know these from worship services. A petition is offered, then a clear ending tag, like, "O Lord" or "in Jesus' name". Then a standard response is spoken by all, such as "hear our prayer" or "let it happen, Lord". Then someone speaks the next written petition, and so on. (The tags and response can be much less mundane than that. But simple often works best.)
When You Pray Aloud
In group prayer, there's usually time set aside for silent prayer. But most groups spend most of their prayer time praying aloud. That is how those in the group become able to pray together, at once, on one matter, in agreement. Each of us have our own strange ways of praying. That's good, because that's really you praying to God. It's good to have a simple phrase-and-response to mark the start of such prayer - such as "The Lord be with you", to which all respond "and also with you". This causes everyone to start together at the same time.
However, some of us will tend to do something else when praying aloud:
- give advice
- give pastoral-style counseling
- pass along information
- give a political speech
- talk of glory, success, or blessings.
When we're praying, many of us can't turn off our awareness that it's a captive audience. Everyone's listening, but they'd find it hard to allow themselves to talk back. They're trying to focus on God, but someone is leading their thoughts somewhere else. Look again at what's being said -- those are not prayers at all. They're not directed toward God but to the group. God knows God's own names. God doesn't need to hear the gospel, doesn't need our counsel at all, and needs our personal or political posturing even less. So who is it for? Also, such talk too often uses the words "they" and "them", with the meaning of "Them vs. Us" or "those poor deluded souls who think such-and-such". Is that really a plea to the Almighty? Or is it a rallying cry for group bigotry?
When you pray aloud in a group, there are some basic rules to follow. The first and foremost of these is to address God, and no one else. If it's not being said to God, it does not belong in prayer time. If you're saying a lot of "me" or "we" (especially when combined with "should" or "must"), or a frequent "I" that's not confessing, then it's not being said to God. The second is like unto it: keep it simple. The more you drone on, the longer and more fully explained it gets, the more everyone's mind will wander from the task at hand. If you have to explain it, it's too complex, and it's being directed toward the others and not God. If the petition is not simple in its nature, then talk about it before prayer time. That not only prevents wandering off the matters at hand, but also gets others more involved in that specific petition.
Praying from Broad to Specific
If there is no deliberate effort to keep prayer concerns as wide as God's world, your prayer groups (and people) will slowly narrow down what they pray about. Prevent this by way of a framework that addresses a broad range of concerns each meeting. This is one common and effective format:
- start with praise,
- move to introspective and contemplative prayer,
- to prayers for self and family,
- intercessions for each other and the faith challenges/opportunities faced each day,
- the congregation, then the community at large, the nation, and the world.
- bring the focus back down to one: Jesus.
- end with prayers of thanks and praise.
No matter how broad the prayer concern is, the prayers need to be specific. God didn't incarnate as a generic human, but came to be like us. And we are specific beings. Our life events, experiences, hopes, and needs are all tied to specific times, places, people, and decisions. Even on the broadest of matters. The same goes for our prayers. So it's not "Hold Dick's family together", but "Give Dick patience and insight, give Jen focus and fortitude; rebuild the love between them." It's not "grant peace in Palestine", but "release the hostages taken near Nablus; ease the maze of travel checkpoints; comfort the family of Moishe and the others who lost loved ones in yesterday's bombing; and bring jobs to those in poverty, especially Khalil and his son Ahmad". While it's not good to get into too lengthy a description, in group prayer you can give a brief narrative of what moves you to this prayer. God's already connected to us, and God's connected to them; the cycle is incomplete until we are connected to them. For that to happen, we have to care enough to get down to the details. If you know that a certain general subject will come up in prayer, someone in the group should take on the task of finding out more. The task is to focus in on what the specific needs are, and then share that with the group in its pre-prayer discussions. One can tell a more expanded story about a specific concern before or after prayer time. You may even be led by the Spirit to take action that will help in some specific way.
Group Size and Purpose
There's more about small group intercession in the intercessory prayer pages here. A group may focus on intercession, but they usually have much more to them than prayer, such as friendship, accountability, Bible study, and faith education. The patterns and balance will change with time and with new members.
A prayer circle of 5 to 12 people is about the right size. If it's smaller, it will sputter when members are absent, and will tend to think in a more ingrown way. If it's larger, the members lose touch with each other, or prayer time can get too complex and wearying. If the group gets too big, try splitting it into two separate groups, each led by someone who has responsibilities in the original group. Then pray that each group grows. It's a good idea for the groups to keep in touch regularly after that, to exchange prayer concerns and/or take on a service activity together.
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