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Phil ~ How did your experience as a small group leader convince you of
the need for a book on how to pray in community?
Andrew ~ Over the years, I've led many small groups and even prayer groups that didn't pray well together. Our prayer times often dragged by, and our prayers frequently seemed to be aimed more at each other than toward God. Many times our prayers focused strictly on the surface issues in our lives. Occasionally we'd have a prayer time that seemed really meaningful, and I began to wonder why that wasn't happening consistently. The book grew out of those experiences.
Phil ~ You wrote: "Together in Prayer addresses the issues that
prevent many groups from praying in one heart and mind and experiencing
real unity in prayer." Why is this important if the small group is a
Sunday school class with a focus on teaching and discipleship?
effectively together should be important even to classes whose main
focus isn't prayer. Most Sunday school classes don't have prayer as a
major focus of their time. However, neither teaching nor discipleship
can be effective outside of God's grace, and God gives that grace
primarily as we seek him in prayer.
class session covers a particularly difficult subject, maybe one that
several of the group members are struggling with. The group could
probably benefit from a time of shared confession and prayer (per James
5:16). But such a time can do more damage than good if the group's
prayers for each other turn out to be more along the lines of preaching
than of prayer. Group members can leave a time like that feeling judged
and defensive, rather than encouraged and lifted up.
Or suppose a
class typically includes a somewhat perfunctory prayer at the beginning
of the study, asking for the Holy Spirit's guidance as the group studies
(a fairly common practice). Such a prayer would generally be uttered by
the class leader, receive a few "Amens", and make no real difference to
the hearts of the class members. But suppose the class devoted their
first 5 or 10 minutes specifically to praying for growth in the area
they're about to study. If they pray well together, agreeing and
supporting each other in prayer, such a class can approach the study
with hearts far more open to what God might teach them. The difference
in the class members' lives can be remarkable.
Phil ~ ...What about a small group that meets primarily for fellowship?
Or say, a council or committee that has a leadership function?
Jesus' promises in Matthew 18:19-20 weren't specific to the type of
group or its main purpose for meeting. Just about any group - regardless
of focus - can benefit from unified prayer. A group that meets primarily
for fellowship, for example, would probably find that fellowship
deepened by consistent times of prayer for each other. And if the group
is able to get past the surface issues of their lives and pray for the
deeper spiritual issues as well, they may find a level of support and
encouragement that they would not have imagined.
As for the
leadership council meeting, I'd expect that most such groups probably
open with the obligatory prayer asking for God's guidance - usually a
prayer said by one person to a soft chorus of "Amens" at the end (much
like the Sunday school class above). But imagine what a difference might
be made if the group really sought God together in prayer for the
decisions they needed to make, putting their own agendas aside and
intentionally seeking God's will together.
I remember an
experience I had along these lines many years ago (I won't say how many)
when several of the leaders in our InterVarsity chapter at college went
up to Cedar Campus for a week of planning the following ministry year.
It was the first time in years that our chapter had sent a team, and we
struggled a bit with the process. During the week, we came to a decision
point that we simply could not get past. I don't remember what the issue
was, but I recall that our extremely close group was significantly
divided as we left one particular planning session. When we got back
together for the next session, we scrapped our agenda and decided to
spend the time in prayer together. By the time we were done, no one even
remembered what the problem was, and the remainder of the week was not
only an effective time of planning, but the sweetest time of fellowship
I've ever experienced. Some of the camp staff mentioned to us that we
were an unusually unified group.
Phil ~ Andrew, explain what you mean by community prayer and how it is
different from most of what we call corporate praying.
Andrew ~ In
one sense, the difference is just terminology. Most people use the term
"corporate prayer" to refer to prayer in a group setting.
I like to
think of two different kinds of group prayer settings. I use the term
"corporate prayer" to refer to the setting where a "CEO-type" leader
prays on behalf of the gathered group. There are several examples of
this in the Old Testament, such as Solomon's prayer at the dedication of
the Temple and Hezekiah's prayer when threatened by Assyria. Today we
see this type of prayer most commonly when the pastor prays on behalf of
the congregation as part of the church service.
In a group
prayer setting where members are participating on an equal footing, the
term "community prayer" better reflects the environment. Additionally,
when a group prays together effectively, this enhances the group's
experience of community. The idea of "community prayer" in this sense
seems to me to reflect well the prayer environment of the early church.
Phil ~ A critical key to effective group prayer is the leader. What
skills are essential and how can they be learned?
Andrew ~ The
first thing a leader needs is a strong personal prayer life. That's not
to say that the leader has to be a "prayer warrior" per se, but a
commitment to prayer and to continually growing in prayer is essential.
I find myself at times committed to prayer but not so much to growing -
learning and stretching myself. For me, a key ingredient to this growth
is reading good books. Some of my favorites are Bingham Hunter's The
God Who Hears, Timothy Jones' The Art of Prayer, and of
course Richard Foster's Prayer.
prayer life forms the foundation, but the next thing a leader needs is a
solid understanding of the fundamental differences between private
prayer and community prayer. Private prayer operates only in the
vertical dimension, but community prayer operates in both vertical and
horizontal dimensions. Understanding the implications of the
two-dimensional nature of community prayer is key to leading a group to
pray well together, and that's where Together in Prayer comes in.
leader needs relational skills, such as the ability to discern where
group members are in their prayer lives, what fears they might have
about praying together, etc. These are the same sorts of skills that the
leader needs in order to effectively lead a Bible study or discipleship
group, and even to lead a group primarily focused on fellowship. There
are many good books on small group leadership that would cover these.
Phil ~ Small groups are safe places for individuals to examine scripture
but also to allow scripture (and the Spirit) to examine them ... What is
the role of confession in such a setting and how can the leader both
guide and guard the group through this aspect of community praying?
that's a tough one. James 5:16 indicates that we should definitely be in
the habit of confessing sin not just to God but also to one another.
That should lead, not to judgment on the part of other group members,
but to prayer for forgiveness, cleansing, and strength. Think about how
many leaders and others might not have fallen so deeply into sin if they
had practiced this regularly with a group of trusted brothers and
great benefits that can come from shared confession, this is the most
neglected area of community prayer - and for some very good reasons.
There may be a lack of intimacy or trust in a group (especially if new
people have recently joined) - and forcing confession before that trust
is built can really be disastrous.
Shared confession may not be the place to start if a group is just beginning to learn to pray together. Build some unity and community in less risky areas before moving into confession. Ideally, though, the group should grow into a level of trust that allows shared confession to become a reality. Leaders trying to move in this direction should start by analyzing the level of trust and shared commitment in the group. Then, work, on the following things:
If a group is
not quite ready for shared confession, a leader can still move in this
direction by setting up prayer partnerships with the purpose of
confessing and praying for just one other person in areas of struggle.
This is often seen as less risky than confession before the entire
Phil ~ Small
groups could be called Love One Another Communities - What wisdom do you
have for the prayer leader who wants to move beyond surface prayer
requests into praying deeply as a group for individuals in the group?
That's a great characterization. I'd suggest that love by definition
requires an element of risk - if I'm not willing to risk anything for
you, then I don't really love you. Going deeper in prayer requires a
certain amount of risk on the part of group members, but if group
members truly love each other in the Biblical sense, they will be
committed enough to each other to take a risk like this.
For the leader
who wants to move in this direction, the Bible is your best friend.
Check out the prayers of Paul for several of the churches in Ephesians
1:15-19; Philippians 1:3-11; Colossians 1:3-14, etc. You'll see that
when Paul prayed, he focused on the deeper issues of spiritual growth
rather than on surface issues. Check out also the kinds of prayer
requests that Paul gave to the churches in passages like Colossians
4:3-4; Ephesians 6:19-20; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2. Paul's requests tended
to center around the spread of God's kingdom through his message (an
interesting way of applying the phrase "Your kingdom come" from the
On the other
hand, Jesus did tell us to bring all of our needs - including the
relatively "surface" ones - to God in prayer. We see Paul praying for
relief from his thorn in the flesh, and as a result of that prayer
coming to a greater understanding of God's grace. I think the key is our
focus. Paul tells us to fix our hearts and minds on things above, not on
earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2). Even praying for "surface" issues
like health and financial concerns can become a catalyst for spiritual
growth if these issues are seen in light of God's larger work in our
lives (see, for example, James 1).
One thing to
keep in mind as a leader is that any time you move into a new area of
growth, you'll likely have some members who readily adopt your vision
and others who resist. It's even possible that you may lose some members
who are more interested in a social club than in true Biblical
fellowship. If you're committed to taking the group deeper in prayer,
you need to be okay with that. Jesus experienced times in his ministry
when followers left him due to hard teachings (cf. John 6:60-65).
Phil ~ Talk about:
Phil ~ How does an untrained small group leader begin the journey of
embracing community prayer?
Andrew ~ With prayer. Ask God to give you a vision of where to take the group in prayer and to lead you into his Word for instruction and encouragement. Pray that he will break down any resistance in the group and that he will work in other group members' hearts to lay the groundwork for the group to move forward in this area. Ask him to show you where to begin. And check out Together in Prayer; there's a whole section in the book devoted to helping leaders guide their groups in the journey of community prayer.
Phil ~ Andrew, please write prayer each reader can pray in agreement
with you as they seek to connect people to God in community prayer . . .
Andrew ~Father, teach us to pray. Encourage us to seek your face together as a group. Overcome our reluctance and forgive our shortcomings. Grant us unity as we move forward in praying together, and be honored in our prayers.