Prayer in the Classroom

by Josh Hunt

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This is an excerpt from Disciplemaking Teachers, (Group, Jan. 1998)

Too much prayer in our classrooms can kill the disciplemaking process. This is contrary to what we are often taught. Prayer is one of those things about which we naturally think the amount we ought to give is considerably more than we give now. We may secretly imagine that what God would really like would be for us to pray all the time. We can hardly imagine it is possible to pray enough, much less entertain the idea that it is sinful to pray too much.

Admittedly, the sin of praying too much is not the worst of our sins. For most of us, it is not a problem. The very sound of it will probably send several copies of this book across the room in disgust. Before you do, please read the fine print.

Question: ever been in a class where we take announcements, take prayer requests, pray, look at our watches, and the teachers says, "Well we don't have very much time left. . . let me just summarize what I was going to tell you." In my experience this is all to common.

Here is the fine print: this kind of class doesn't make disciples. In order to turn sinners into saints, we must confront them with the truth. And summarizing a few things we were going to say after the hour is spent will not cut it. Teaching is more than telling, remember?

There is a reasonably good chance you can prepare and present a pretty good lesson and the group still not get it. Just as major leaguers can come to the plate 3 out of 4 times and strike out and still bring home more bacon in a year than you or I will bring home in a life time. Sometimes, you try your best, you give it your best shot and you still don't connect. That is a given. We try to work so that it doesn't happen very often (and we can do better than one out of four). But if all the teacher does is tell a summary of what he was going to teach the chances are almost nil that anyone one will learn anything. We have killed the disciple making process on the alter of prayer.

Now let's look at the real fine print. In my experience, prayer is rarely the problem. Prayer requests are. Some of this is good. It is community building. It is fellowship. But, when talking about Aunt Susie's ingrown toenail displaces the teaching of the word of God, we have a problem.

In my estimation, this is a major problem, especially in large classes. We spend so much time small talking, introducing one another, sharing announcements, cracking jokes, sharing prayer requests, sharing comments about the prayer requests, sharing what everyone thinks about the comments about the prayer requests, that we never have the chance to teach the Bible. This is a tragedy. An absolute tragedy. It is a sin. And you, the teacher, must stop it. You must not let it go another week. I call upon you to repent. (See, that is not such a harsh word!)

If it really were prayer that were taking up half an hour of your time, I would have no problem with that. My experience is, it is usually not prayer at all, it is prayer requests and all the attendant conversation. Again, some of this is good. We want some community building small talk. But, enough is enough.

Now the good news. This is an easy problem to solve. It amazes me how few find the answer. I have seen bright, intelligent teachers really struggle with this one and come up wanting. For the life of me, I don't understand that. One idea a lot of people have is to just limit the time for prayer requests and prayer. This rarely works. Who is actually going to stop in the middle of prayer and say, "Time's up!"? Just trying to hurry people along doesn't work. It just irritates people. So what is the answer? The answer is simple: do prayer requests last. Decide how much time you want to spend on those things, appoint a time keeper, have him or her warn you five minutes before time, and again when the teaching time is up, and pray last. You will find that talking about Aunt Susie's toenail is not nearly so interesting at the end of the hour as it was at the beginning. The guys are not nearly such wise cracks nor the women nearly so. . . (dare I say it?) gossipy.

Don't think of this as manipulation or putting a low value on prayer or anything else. It is not. It is a simple principle of time management: do the things you need to do before you do the things you would like to do. The truth is, most of what goes on in the name of prayer requests is the simple, innocent sharing of lives. Nothing wrong with that, it is just that we need teaching as well.

One of our teachers, Mike Stone, shared with me that they pass around a prayer request sheet during class. The class secretary steps out and makes copies. Then, during the last ten minutes of class, they pray over these requests. He also files these in a folder, and asks groups members for follow up. (He does this before or after class; not during class time.) He frequently shares answers to these prayer requests during class.

There are certain things in life that can't be rushed. They need some leisurely time to allow a process to run its course. Cut short the process and the results are nearly always less than satisfactory. Take making bread for an example. Or worship. Or intimate time with your spouse. Certain things don't come out the same when they are hurried. Teaching is another example. You just can't rush it. You cannot do in a dozen ten minute time slots what you can do in one forty-five minute block of time.

By the way, if the problem really is prayer--I mean bow the head, get on your face before God and talk to the Father--I have no problem with that. If a group spends half an hour in prayer and half an hour in teaching, I have no problem with that. That can contribute to the disciplemaking process, and some small talk and fellowship can contribute. We want to facilitate relationship building. But let's call a spade a spade. Let's don't call it prayer when it is really prayer requests or, just as accurately, small talk and jokes.

Rosalind Rinker suggests we not take prayer requests at all. She suggests you just take the prayer requests to the Father. You may want to do it that way. But whatever you do, jealously guard your time in the Word.

It is frustrating to the group and frustrating to the leader when a significant time is not given to study. People come to learn. Shortening the lesson is analogous to a restaurant with great service, great atmosphere, great locations, great prices but very small portions. You just go away unsatisfied.

There are a few extroverts for whom this is not true. (They are mostly the ones who keep the conversation going in the first place.) Extroverts don't mind verbalizing their complaint, because they just like to verbalize. So if you do move the prayer request time to the end, you may hear them gripe and cry publicly. They think the solution to the world's problems is more talk. They may even fight you about putting the prayer requests at the end. They may even cloak this in some kind of god-talk. This is what leadership is about. Doesn't it say somewhere in the Bible "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Ok, ok, so it is not in the Bible, it still makes good sense, doesn't it? (If you did not recognize this classic line, it is from Star Trek.) Introverts, however, who come to learn, will rarely complain about the group investing too much time in Bible study. They just silently stay away.

It is just that serious. People really will stay away. And why shouldn't they if all we do is chit chat? Everything depends on getting enough time most every week to get the job done. Don't fritter away your time with small talk. Remember the Proverb, "When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise." (Proverbs 10:19). Redeem the time. Take prayer requests last.