Today I’m delighted to talk about prayer with my good friend, Andrew R. Wheeler. Andrew organizes the prayer ministry of the elders and Sunday service teams for Willow Creek Community Church–McHenry County. A member of the Church Prayer Leaders Network, he maintains the website Together in Prayer as a resource for churches growing in prayer ministry. He is the author of the excellent book, Together in Prayer.
How important is it for Christians to pray together?
The early church set the pace and the importance of praying together. In Acts 1:14 we see how the disciples joined together in prayer as they waited for the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49). This prayer formed the backdrop of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Again, we see in Acts 2:42 that praying together was one of the four pillars of the early church, along with the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and fellowship. All through the book of Acts we see a church at prayer – interceding for Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:12); commissioning Paul and Barnabas as the first missionaries (Acts 13:1-3); Paul and Silas praying together while in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25).
The epistles continue this emphasis on praying together. We tend to read the epistles with Western eyes – individualizing the commands and teachings. But the original audiences for most of the epistles were churches – communities. Generally, the commands and teachings have their primary application to bodies of believers, and secondary application to individuals. So, for example, when Paul exhorts the Colossians to devote themselves to prayer, and to pray for him (Colossians 4), he’s not referring primarily to the prayer closet. We apply these commands to the prayer closet, and that’s not a bad application, but that’s not the original focus.
In many churches today, the best place to really pray together in a meaningful way is in the small group setting. This is the setting where we are at our most vulnerable and accountable. I really think that the strength of the prayer movement within a church’s small groups will help determine the ceiling on the church’s effectiveness.
Why do people have trouble praying in a group setting?
Many people have difficulty with prayer in a group setting because of the difference in the relational dynamic from a private prayer setting. Private prayer is basically a one-dimensional activity, with the only relationship in play being the one between the pray-er and God. Community prayer – praying in a group setting – adds a horizontal dimension. I like to think of community prayer as “praying to God, with people”. Each of those aspects has implications for how we pray together, and balancing those two dimensions is the key to praying effectively.
When we pray alone to God, we pray to One who sees our hearts and is able to move past the words to the thoughts behind them. God tracks with our prayers because, ideally, He is the One leading us to pray in the first place. But when we gather to pray, we pray with others who cannot see into our hearts and who cannot necessarily track with us. When we take the “anything goes” mentality from our prayer closets to the group prayer setting, it doesn’t translate well.
Paul recognized a similar problem when it came to the worship service. He gave specific instructions to the Corinthian church in the second half of 1 Corinthians 14 as to how they were to worship together – in an orderly way that glorifies God. The theme of those instructions was that individuals needed to rein in their own participation in the worship service to make room for everyone to participate and allow God to move through multiple people. This same theme applies to our group prayer times today.
What are your “top tips” to help groups pray together more effectively?
I like to think in terms of the “ABCs” of community prayer – Agreement, Brevity, and Christ-centeredness.
Agreement means that we’re praying together in one accord and it’s really the main ingredient that distinguishes community prayer from private prayer. It means that we come together seeking God’s agenda rather than each person bringing his own agenda, that we listen to each other as we’re praying rather than focusing our thoughts on what we’ll pray when our “turn” comes, and that we’re praying alongside each other, picking up the theme rather than skipping around with each person praying a different topic.
Brevity may be the single biggest hurdle for most groups to overcome in praying together effectively. We tend to take our somewhat long-winded closet prayer patterns and bring them to the group setting. This is where the idea of submitting to each other and valuing the contributions of others in the group – as in 1 Corinthians 14 – comes in. When I pray briefly, I make it easier for other group members to track with me and to pray alongside me in agreement. When I limit my own prayer time, I communicate to the group that I value their contributions to the prayer time and foster the environment of really being together in prayer.
Christ-centeredness is the key to honoring God with our prayers and seeking His will. Matthew 6:33 tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and God will take care of our physical needs. Focusing on kingdom prayers is a way of seeking God’s kingdom first. This isn’t to say that we don’t bring material needs before God, but they should not dominate our prayers.
Christ-centeredness also means that we’re addressing God in our prayers rather than addressing group members. We’re asking for His intervention rather than putting pressure on group members to change.
Can you expand a bit more on the idea of praying to God rather than praying to people?
Perhaps the biggest subtlety to community prayer is keeping straight the vertical and horizontal dimensions. Going back to the idea of “praying to God, with people,” we often skew this a bit and end up praying more for people to hear than for God to hear. Usually, this isn’t a heart problem with pride the way it was for the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14) but it still shifts the focus away from God and onto people and circumstances.
Here’s an example. Suppose John, a member of our small group, is struggling financially and has been out of work for some time. A typical prayer for John might sound something like this: “Father, may John have the faith to trust in your provision in his time of need. May he be diligent in his search for a job and may he grow spiritually through this time of trial.”
Did you notice how this entire prayer was about what John needed to do? Have faith, be diligent, grow spiritually – these are all things that the prayer directs at John. John, if he’s present, is going to feel more burdened after this prayer than before it; more importantly, this prayer asks nothing of God and leaves no room for His work.
Consider a different frame of reference. “Father, please strengthen John’s faith and encourage him as he goes through this difficult time. Provide for his needs and guide him to the job that you have for him. Open doors for witness to others in need and bear much fruit in this chapter of John’s life.”
This prayer asks nothing of John, but everything of God. Strengthen faith, encourage, provide, open doors, bear fruit – these are all things that God is being asked to do. A prayer like this will encourage John as he senses God on his side. Further, such a prayer anticipates God’s work in John’s life and gives Him the glory.
How important is praying briefly? How do you encourage it?
As I mentioned earlier, for most small groups, getting in the habit of praying briefly will make the single biggest difference in their effectiveness in prayer. Prayer is conversation with God, and group prayer is the group’s conversation with God. Any conversation dominated by one or two people is far less engaging and less interesting than a conversation in which multiple people are participating. And in a prayer setting, praying briefly encourages others to participate and values the work of the Holy Spirit in the entire group rather than just in one individual.
Most small groups can benefit from a brief period of instruction or “rules of the road” prior to praying together. I encourage brief prayer by emphasizing the need to value the prayers of others in the group. I invite people to pray multiple times on a single topic if they feel so led, limiting each individual prayer to allows others to participate. And I stress the need to stay on one topic at a time, allowing others to come alongside that prayer in agreement.
For example, suppose a group member is in the hospital. A typical prayer for this situation would cover the group member’s health and healing, the doctors and nurses, peace for the family, financial provision, etc. Covering the topic so completely leaves little room for others to come alongside the prayer in agreement – they’re left with either repeating what was already said (which God does not need) or moving on to another topic.
But suppose a group member opened the prayer time by praying for God’s healing, then another added prayer for the doctors and nurses, another prayed for the family and someone else prayed for financial provision. Such a prayer gets the whole group involved and enables a level of agreement that you don’t see when one person dominates the prayer.
In a small group setting where we’re praying for each other, I like to break up the time and focus on one person at a time. Rather than have everyone read a litany of prayer requests (which tends to take most of the prayer time and causes everyone to forget the things that were mentioned early on), I divide the time up by person. So if we have 6 people and 30 minutes to pray, each person gets 5 minutes. I have them share what’s on their heart for the first half of that time (or less) and then the group prays for that person for the remainder of the time. That way, each person is covered in prayer and the time really moves, keeping the group engaged.