How did Keisha move the group toward growth in prayer? Like worship, the prayer life of a group evolves as members learn about prayer, learn from each other and grow more comfortable together. Although the leader has some goals for prayer life in mind, he or she also understands that it may take time to reach those goals. If the activities allow the spiritually new people to get involved in prayer early in the group’s history, they’ll be included as the group advances or tries new things. Bringing a group through the steps of prayer means knowing that groups take these steps at different rates and begin and end in different places.
Step 1: Introduction. The leader may open and close in prayer. Doing this for a few weeks, while keeping the prayer time short and unthreatening, may be most helpful for everyone. Times of silent prayer and reflection may be appropriate here, as well as during other times of group life. Sometimes silent prayer is seen as elementary, but it can be significant, especially since our campuses often lack quiet. (See the Small Group Idea Book for a guided silent prayer exercise.) A group member may open or close the group in prayer, but ask ahead of time to avoid embarrassment in front of the group.
If a group includes people who aren’t Christians, are inexperienced in prayer or are new to each other, they may need to spend some time in this step. If a group’s purpose is evangelistic, there may be no prayer time. However, if seekers are coming to a group that has more than an investigative focus, some prayer is appropriate and probably expected. One doesn’t need to be a Christian to address God.
Karen, who occasionally visited Keisha’s group, said that being included in the prayer time, hearing others pray for her and praying herself were among the biggest things God used to bring her to faith.
Presenting prayer as something natural and easy is the best way for people to learn to pray. A one-to-one talk outside of small group or the prayer discussion described in step two provides an opportunity to express concerns and needs about prayer and be reassured.
Step 2: Prayer Discussion. After a few weeks or at an appropriate time, the leader may ask the group what their experiences have been in prayer, especially group prayer. This may also be a good time to talk about questions or frustrations with prayer. You could use the Bible study in the previous sidebar to get people thinking about prayer. Then follow up by asking the group why Christians pray together and sometimes out loud. You may want to add some of the following insights.
Praying together brings unity and encouragement, increasing our faith. Praying together may have given the early Christians the courage in their Acts 4 prayer. When we hear others pray, we also learn about prayer. For example, Amy discovered new ways of praying by watching other group members—Rick’s casualness in praying showed her that she could talk to God as a friend, and Elizabeth’s habit of including Scripture when she prayed inspired Amy to do the same.
Praying out loud builds our relationships and community. For example, one night after discussing the passage in John 8 where a woman is caught in adultery, Keisha asked her group about ways they condemn people like the religious leaders condemned the woman in the passage. Amy told about some judgmental feelings toward her family. Hearing Rick, a young pray-er himself, bring her need before God encouraged and touched Amy and deepened her friendship with Rick as well.
Obviously, we want to beware of prayers designed to impress each other, and certainly there is always a time and place for private prayer. However, praying out loud gives us more incentive for personal prayer, which then brings enthusiasm for prayer back into the small group.
The leader should also talk about some prayer goals for the group. This entire discussion could take part or all of a small group time, possibly including a Bible discussion on Acts 4 or on one of the other prayers in Scripture, such as Nehemiah 1. The leader might then talk about taking steps, possibly small, to reach some of the leader’s goals while integrating some of the ideas and experiences of the group members into future prayer times.
During the prayer discussion, Hae Won, Amy’s friend, said that she couldn’t imagine ever praying out loud. Keisha quickly reassured her that God hears silent prayers and that when she was ready, the group would welcome her verbal prayers as well.
Amy couldn’t believe how much she learned about prayer in that one night. For example, she never knew why Christians prayed in Jesus’ name. Now she knows how easy and important it is to talk to God in a group setting.
Keisha was also encouraged by what happened after the group discussion. Group members were honest, and some took risks in prayer. The group had agreed on some prayer goals, and Keisha knew that conversation with God would now be more central in her small group meetings.
Step 3: The Sound Barrier. The goal here, which may have been started with the prayer discussion, is to give the group a safe and simple way to begin praying aloud. One exercise that works well at this step is to give the group the introductory words to a sentence and ask individuals to complete the sentence in prayer randomly, one person at a time. Members can pray more than once. The sentence beginning could reflect the passage studied and might include: “Jesus, I thank you for … ”; “Lord, I praise you for … ”; and “Lord, I’m sorry for … ” You might also begin with “Jesus you are … ” and complete the sentence with different names of Jesus, like “the good shepherd,” “the vine” and so on.
Another way to break the sound barrier is to ask everyone for a prayer request. Prayer then moves around the circle with each person praying for the person on the right. This may be challenging for some, but it does give members who are new to prayer some ideas of how to pray. At this step the group might also write prayer requests on cards and split into twos to pray at the meeting and/or during the week as prayer partners. Don’t forget to talk about answers to prayer the following week.
Step 4: Modified Conversational Prayer. At this stage the leader is challenging the members to pray conversationally, while guiding them through the process. For example, the leader may read each petition of the Lord’s prayer followed by a time for the group to respond to God as Father, and then to his holiness, our daily needs and so on.
Before Christmas, Keisha asked each member of the group to give a number of prayer requests. During prayer, Keisha introduced the name of each person and a number of people prayed through that person’s requests.
Step 5: Conversational Prayer. The group is comfortable with praying out loud and listening to each other. Now they might be ready for some intensive prayer for one person who has a special need.
Rob’s mother had been sick with cancer for a long time. One night, after asking Rob for his permission before the meeting, Keisha asked him to sit in the center of the group for special prayer for him and his family. First Keisha asked the group to be silent and to think about how Jesus might have them pray for Rob’s family. Then the group, listening to God, each other and the Scriptures that God brought to mind, prayed conversationally for Rob, who was visibly moved and encouraged. Keisha could hardly believe this unified prayer was coming from the same people who had started praying together in September.
Some groups may have two prayer times, one where they may respond conversationally to the passage—possibly in praise, for friends who aren’t believers or for a world concern—and a second focusing on personal needs.
Although it is a worthy one, conversational prayer may not be the goal of every group. Some people will never pray out loud in a group setting. Still, it is the leader’s job to think carefully about the prayer time of the small group and to direct that time. The goal is to get the group thinking and talking about prayer and then doing it! Taking ideas from the group as well as using other creative prayer, worship and music ideas can make this a natural part of the meeting everyone looks forward to.
My sophomore year I had no space in my life for Dave, and, tragically, on some days there is little space in my life for a vision of God. This can happen in our small groups as well.
Keeping our small groups focused on God through worship and prayer, as the early Christians were in Acts 4, protects them from becoming academic discussions, one-sided conversations or social clubs. We are constantly reminding ourselves that God is present with us and desires our communication, our adoration and our obedience. He wants to teach us, hear us and refresh us for the week ahead. He may shake up our world. Very different people may learn to pray together. And people like Amy may learn how to pray and find that to be the most meaningful and encouraging part of their small group experience.
Long, J. (1995). Small Group Leaders’ Handbook: The Next Generation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.