You have to be connected relationally in order to grow spiritually. But that doesn't mean all aspects of your personal relationship with your heavenly Father should be made available for public consumption.
A common concern among group leaders is that prayer time at the end of group meeting can feel shallow, stale, or awkward.
Whether or not you normally do anything to observe Lent, this is a time of year when your group members are either more contemplate or want to be more contemplative.
Since I was a kid, I’ve found a passage in Genesis 32 weird and confusing. You know the one I’m talking about. When Jacob wrestles God.
We talk all the time in groups about how the key ingredient of personal spiritual growth is trust in God. That sounds simple, right? But actually trusting is hard. It's counterintuitive. It feels dangerous.
Perhaps the most important tip I can give you to improve the quality of your group's prayer time is to follow up on prayer requests. There is no better way to reinforce the value of group prayer than to ask members what has happened with their past request. First, it shows you care. Second, it gives the entire group an opportunity to celebrate God's faithfulness.
Here are three simple ways to follow through on prayer requests:
- Record them Keep track of prayer requests in a notebook, prayer journal, or a file on your computer. This helps you share them with absent members, email them out during the week, and revisit them . . . which brings us to the second way to follow through on prayer requests.
- Revisit them Make a point of asking what happened with past requests . . . especially those that include a critical date. As a group, take some time every few months to review past requests and get updates.
- Celebrate them Answered prayer requests are milestones that build our faith in God's faithfulness . . . if we remember what he's done. When you hear about an answered prayer, remind the group that it was something you collectively prayed about, and take the time to celebrate what God has done.
Routine can be good. Most of us wouldn't be able to maintain physical fitness without stability and predictability provided by habit. But routine can rob a group's prayer time of its energy and vitality. By injecting a little variety into the structure of your group's prayer time, you can keep things fresh.
Timing is critical. If prayer has become an afterthought in your group meetings, maybe it's because prayer comes after everything else. Doing prayer time last isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, lots of groups share more deeply after they've had a good discussion. But if other parts of the meeting tend to run long, it's tempting to cut prayer time short or rush through it. If that's a consistent problem in your group, reserve time for prayer between your relational time and discussion time.
Varying formats can keep things fresh. People connect to God in different ways. The same is true of prayer. Some people gravitate toward the linear simplicity of the "pray for the person to your right" format. Others prefer free-flowing, unstructured prayer time.
Here are some ideas for adding variety to your group prayer times:
Night of Prayer Take a week off from your study to focus on prayer. Break into groups of three to five people and pray through some specific topics. Spend about five minutes praying through each topic. Here are some topic ideas:
- Your families
- Your neighbors
- Your boss or co-workers
- Your pastor
- Your community
Men's Time / Women's Time (for Married Small Groups) Men and women will often share more when the opposite sex isn't present. Gather husbands and wives in separate rooms to discuss prayer requests and pray. To stimulate conversation, have a facilitator in each room offer a few prepared questions, such as
- What is going well, where would you like to improve, and what is one thing we can pray for you about?
- How are you doing as a spouse?
- How are you doing as a parent?
- How things are going at work or in managing your home?
- How things are going in your relationship with God?
Directed Prayer Requests (related to the discussion time) Relate your prayer time to your group discussion. For example, if your discussion was about Influence with Outsiders, ask each group member to identify one person in his or her spheres of influence, and what he or she would like to see God do in that person's life.
Prayer Poster Put a large poster board or foam board on an easel and ask everyone to write their prayer requests (large and legible) on Post-Its or 3x5 cards. Attach the requests to the poster. This helps prayer to resonate with those who are visually oriented.
Prayer Partners Individuals or couples can pair up for prayer. For six weeks, the prayer partners share prayer requests and pray for each other during prayer time. They also commit to touch base between meetings to see how things are going or share additional prayer requests.
Adopt a Ministry Adopt one of North Point Ministries' Strategic Partners or Intersect Partners and spend time praying for them.
Shallow, inauthentic prayer is one of the biggest factors in undermining a group's prayer life. Here are seven factors that kill authenticity and stunt growth, as well as some strategies for combating each factor.
- Too many prayer requests (multiple for each person in the group) When people share multiple requests or go into exhaustive detail about a request, it leaves no time for actual prayer. It also causes some group members to check out mentally. One thing you can do to avoid this is begin prayer time by asking, "What is one the one thing you most want us to pray for this week?"
- Shallow prayer requests ("Please pray for my neighbor's grandmother's cat, who ran away") When people request prayer for things that seem trivial, that they just came up with on the spot, or that they aren't praying about, prayer time starts to seem like a waste of time and group members check out mentally. Avoid this by urging group members to focus their requests on something personal. It's okay to ask, "Is this something you're praying about yourself?" or "Is there anything going on with you that we can pray about?"
- Group members who never have prayer requests When someone in group consistently says, "I can't think of anything" or "I'm good" during prayer time, it sends the message to the rest of the group that he or she isn't willing to be authentic and transparent. That makes everyone else hesitant to be authentic and transparent. One of the best ways to encourage people to open up is to use directed prayer. It provides focus. Instead of making a general request, ask something like, "What can we pray for regarding your relationships at work?" Another thing you can do is send out an email or text to let people know ahead of time that you want them to think about their prayer requests. Some people are contemplative. Some people need some time to think and dig into what's going on in their lives.
- Lack of transparency Sometimes group members make personal requests, but they're still "surfacey." You get the sense that they're probably holding back what's really going on in their lives. One of the best ways to encourage others to be authentic and transparent is to model authenticity, transparency, and acceptance. Be vulnerable when you ask others to pray for you. Remind your group that respect and authenticity are values covered in the Group Agreement, and that they don't have to worry about being judged.
- Prayer time dominators When the entire time allotted to prayer ends up focused on one person in the group (not because of an isolated situation requiring care), group members get resentful and bored. If this happens in your group, you may need to have a one-on-one conversation to remind the person of the purpose of group prayer: "I know you have a lot going on you'd like us to pray for, but others in the group also need the opportunity to share their concerns. I'd like you to try to limit requests to two minutes. If you have additional requests, you can send them out in an email."
- Problem-solvers Sometimes, a group member will try to solve others' problems rather than listening, acknowledging, and committing to pray. Remind your group that the purpose of prayer time is to share your burdens and take them before God. It's not to solve one another's problems. If a member continues to problem-solve, have a one-on-one conversation focused on how it makes other people feel and how it undermines the group's prayer life.
- Repetitive prayer time Prayer time feels dry when group members offer up the same requests week after week. To avoid this, you can mix things up by changing the structure or format of your prayer time. The next post in this series will explore how to do just that.
In my last post, I wrote about four barriers to great group prayer. One of those barriers was group members' lack of experience with prayer. So, let's dig a little deeper into what that barrier looks like and some things you can do to overcome it.
Group members who don't have a lot of experience with prayer usually struggle in two ways:
- They lack knowledge. Some group members just don't know how to pray. Maybe it's new to them, or maybe they've prayed privately but never in a group. One way to overcome this hurdle is to devote a group meeting to prayer. During the discussion, define or explain prayer and then lead your group through focused prayer based on the discussion. There are lots of ways to teach the principles of prayer. One is the ACTS approach in which you give your group a brief description of four aspects of prayer using the ACTS acronym:Adoration Acknowledging who God is, worshiping him, and praising him for his character and attributes. Confession Confessing sins to clear away anything that breaks fellowship with God. Thanksgiving Acknowledging that God provides for our needs, and communicating gratitude for what he has already done and provided. Supplication Presenting our requests to GodAfter explaining each aspect, encourage group members to think about what they would like to say to God in that area. Lead a time of prayer where members pray out loud about that area. You may also want to provide group members with a note card or "cheat sheet" to help them remember how to incorporate each aspect into their personal prayers.
- They lack confidence. It should come as no surprise that people who don't know how to pray will be reluctant to do it out loud. Walking group members through the ACTS approach to prayer will probably alleviate some confidence problems. But you can also help them build confidence by creating some low-intensity baby steps that allow them to practice:
- Ask a group member to pray before the group eats dinner or dessert. (You may want to talk to the group member ahead of time, so you're not putting him or her on the spot.)
- Have each person in the group write one prayer request on an index card and pass it to the person on his or her left. Then have each person pray out loud for the request on the card.
- Split up into groups of two or three for prayer time so no one has to prayer in front of more than two other people.
In the next post, we'll take a look at what to do when your group's prayers lack authenticity and depth.
Many factors can restrict the growth and development of a Community Group's prayer life, but most of them fall into one of four categories. The first step in leading your group over, around, or through these barriers to great group prayer is being aware of them.
Here they are:
- Group members lack experience with prayer. Most Community Groups include members who have no experience with group prayer. In fact, some group members have no experience with prayer at all. Groups attract people from diverse religious backgrounds. Some group members have no religious background at all. Others come from a tradition where faith was kept private. It's not surprising that group members lack experience with prayer.
- The groups' prayers lack authenticity and depth. Shallow, inauthentic prayer definitely undermines a group's prayer life. That kind of drab prayer experience can be a result of a number of factors from people who never have prayer requests to those who dominate prayer time.
- The groups' prayer times lack structure and variety. Routine can be good. Many of us wouldn't be able to maintain physical fitness without the stability and predictability of habit. But the same characteristic of routine that provides stability—the ability to perform an action without giving it much thought—can rob a group's prayer time of its energy. By injecting a little change into the structure of your group's prayer time, such as altering the timing and format, you can keep things fresh and vital.
- The group doesn't follow through on prayer requests. Maybe the most important tip I can give you is to follow up on prayer requests. There's no better way to reinforce the value of group prayer than to ask members what has happened with their past requests.
Over the next few posts, I'll dig more deeply into each of these barriers and talk about ways that you can avoid or overcome them.
Why prayer? This might seem like a strange question. Everyone knows prayer is one of the basic building blocks of just about any religious faith. It stands to reason it would be a central feature of life in a Community Group, right? But as we begin this series of posts on prayer, it's worth taking a step back to address some fundamentals.
Answering "why prayer?" will help you develop a clear understanding of what's at stake if your group doesn't experience a rich prayer life. I couldn't possibly write an exhaustive list of reasons why prayer is important to every group, but here are three major ones:
- Sharing prayer requests builds community. One of the central purposes of Community Group is to be an environment where people can experience accountability, belonging, and care. Sharing prayer requests helps in the development of each of those building blocks of authentic community. Sharing prayer requests and celebrating answered prayers together also drives relationships deeper.
- Prayer is an opportunity to invite God into the group. When we pray, we open a line of communication between ourselves and God. It's not that he's passive, waiting for us to initiate communication. It's that prayer is a way of inclining our hearts and mind toward God and acknowledging our dependence on him. By doing this is a Community Group setting, we invite his involvement in the growth and development of the group.
- Prayer creates opportunities to see God work. Few things blow up our faith like seeing God answer prayer. Praying as a group multiplies this effect. If a group member asks God for help getting out of debt and a year later he's out of debt, that's exciting. But what's even more exciting is if the group spent that year praying alongside that group member. Then, God didn't just answer the group member's prayer; he answered the prayers of everyone in the group. Everyone's faith grows as a result of God's faithfulness. Group prayer also ensures we don't miss God's answers to our prayers. Sometimes frustration and disappointment can blind us to the way God is working in our lives. We completely miss what he's up to. Other people may see what we can't and point us in the direction of God's faithfulness.
Each of these reasons for group prayer is about setting the stage for God to work in our lives through the Community Group experience. There's a lot at stake if prayer isn't a regular and significant part of your group meetings.
Starting next week, we'll talk about some common barriers to group prayer and how to overcome them. In the meantime, enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday . . . and know that we're thankful for all you do each week to lead the people in your groups so well.
You already know that prayer time is one of the three key elements of a Community Group meeting (along with sharing and study). Group prayer is an essential part of a healthy group. But you may have found that your group's prayer time leaves something to be desired. You're not alone.
Maybe prayer time has become an afterthought, squeezed into the last five minutes of the meeting. Maybe group members aren't participating, either because they won't pray out loud or they won't request prayer for themselves. Maybe prayer time is just dry and boring.
We want you and every one of your group members to experience the way that rich corporate prayer can connect you to God and to one another. So for the next couple weeks, we're going to feature some posts about praying in group. Some will be practical. Some will delve into the theory behind the practice. We want to give you a variety of helpful resources, regardless of how you are or are not currently struggling with prayer in your group. We want to:
- Give you some guidance for casting vision for dynamic prayer in your group
- Help you help your group members to step into meaningful group prayer no matter where they currently stand
- Provide you with some easy, practical approaches to group prayer to help you figure out what works best for your group
Tune in Wednesday when we'll dive into the question, Why prayer?
Praying out loud is one of the most intimidating things for people new to group. And why wouldn't it be? We (and by "we" I mean Christians who've been in groups for a while) treat it like a public speech or a poetry slam or something. We expect—or at least hope for—eloquence, beauty, and wit. Some part of us likes religiosity. We prefer five-dollar words to fifty-cent ones. Too often in group, praying publicly can be a kind of performance piece. Those new to community sense the pressure.
Let me offer up a confession: If eloquence, beauty, and wit are the standards by which public prayer is judged, I'm mediocre . . . on my best days.
That's because I can't plan out what I'm going to say ahead of time. I used to, but I can't anymore. Doing so plays into many of my greatest weaknesses. I'm an editor by trade. I get paid to manipulate language. I'm good at it. But editing prayer isn't a healthy activity for me for these reasons:
- It's image management. I want to sound smart and wise when I pray. Who doesn't? But what kind of prayer can I offer God if I'm primarily concerned with how I'm perceived by the people sitting in a semi-circle beside me with their heads bowed? Not a particularly genuine one, that's for sure. And why does it really matter if I stumble over my words when I pray? Why does it really matter what others think?
- It's an attempt to dress up what's going on in my heart in religious robes before presenting it to God. Editing is the art of creating clarity by stripping away the rough edges and unnecessary bits of language. It's like sculpting. Chip away at some ugly, unwieldy block of words for long enough and you may just end up with something beautiful and profound. But I'm convinced that, when it comes to prayer, God wants to hear our rough drafts. He's okay with the unrefined bits because he knows what we're trying to say. He just wants us to go ahead and say it. Cleaning things up ahead of time is just a way for me to exert control, but God wants me to give him control.
- It's not relational. I rarely plan out what I'm going to say to people I love. We just talk. When I plan out a prayer, I tend to treat God less like my heavenly Father and more like someone I'm trying to sell a timeshare in Florida. That's no way for me to treat the creator of the universe.
- It prevents me from being fully present. There was a time in my group experiences when I spent most of prayer time ignoring what everyone else was praying so I could think through what I would say. Have you ever done this? Yeah, I know. Don't feel bad. It's not just you. But let's face it: if that's not missing the entire point of praying with others, I'm not sure what is.
Now, what I'm not saying is that people who pray eloquently are poseurs or terrible human beings. Some people are gifted that way. They can reel off amazing impromptu prayers. I'm not one of those people. What I've learned over the years is that trying to be one of those people isn't particularly healthy for me. It doesn't do me any good.
When I look at how Jesus instructs the disciples to pray in Matthew 6:5–15, I think his advice boils down to three points:
- Focus on God.
- Keep it simple.
- Keep it real.
For me, that means embracing my mediocrity as a public pray-er, rather than trying to fix it.
So, as you encourage your group members to open up and pray aloud in group, don't forget to let them know they don't have to be eloquent. They just need to focus on God, keep it simple, and keep it real.
Do you study the Bible or do you read it? In this short video, Eugene Peterson (A Long Obedience In the Same Direction) breaks down the difference between studying and reading.
Have you ever had one of those Community Group experiences where, during prayer time, people scramble to come up with "safe" prayer requests? You know, the kind of requests that avoid revealing what's really going on in their lives. Have you ever been asked to pray for someone's aunt's friend's cat?
Here are five simple things you can do to avoid that kind of experience in your group.
- Cultivate your own prayer life. If you're not praying regularly—for your group members and for yourself—you're going to have a hard time being vulnerable in your own requests. And if you're not vulnerable, there's a good chance no one else in your group will be vulnerable.
- Follow up on prayer requests. Asking for updates on requests from previous weeks communicates that you are praying for your group members. If your group members know you care, they'll take prayer time more seriously.
- Begin prayer time with a question that provides some direction. Ask your group members something like, "What's been weighing on your heart lately?" or "What have you been praying about today?" You're not likely to get a cat request in response to a question like that.
- Set a standard. It's okay to tell your group in a diplomatic way that you will never ask them to pray for something or someone you aren't praying for and that you ask the same of them. If this is the standard in your group, it tends to weed out this-is-all-I-can-think-of-at-the-moment prayer requests.
- Divide and conquer. If you lead a married group, separate out by gender for prayer time. There are just some things people don't want to talk about in front of others' spouses. You don't have to separate every time you pray, but doing so once or twice a month is a good way to increase the openness and accountability in your group.
So, don't let your group get stuck in a cycle of shallow prayers and no real accountability. If you feel things sliding in that direction, take action sooner rather than later in order to get things back on the right track.
What other things do you do to increase the quality of the prayer times in your group?
Have you ever thought to yourself that it would be great if we celebrated communion every Sunday at church . . . or that Night of Worship should happen more often? Communion is a powerful time of corporate worship, right?
Well, communion doesn't just have to happen on Sunday mornings or at Night of Worship. Community Group is a great place to celebrate it too.
In fact, celebrating communion with your Community Group is a great way to help your group members connect relationally and spiritually. It can be a powerful shared experience.
Good Friday week is coming up. It may be an opportune time to do celebrate communion with your group. So, we want to make you aware of a resource we've put together. We're posting it now so you have a couple weeks to talk to your group and prepare before celebrating. (Don't worry. It won't take you a couple weeks to prepare, we just want to make sure you have more than enough time.)
Download Celebrating Communion in Group (PDF). It includes instructions for sharing communion as well as a Leader FAQ that answers the most common questions you and your group members may have. If you have additional questions, contact your Groups Director. He or she is always happy to help.
Have you ever celebrated communion in your group? If so, how did it go?
In Monday's post, we talked about the importance of sharing tasks in your group in order to promote participation. Leading prayer time is one of the most important tasks you can share, but it's also one of the most delicate. Some group members may be comfortable taking the lead. Others may not even be comfortable praying out loud.
So, how do you encourage group members to lead prayer time without pushing them too far out of their comfort zones?
This answer may seem obvious, but I'll throw it out there anyway: Ask.
Sounds simple, right? But asking doesn't necessarily mean waiting until prayer time rolls around and then inquiring whether anyone in the group wants to take the reins. You can do it that way, but it probably won't yield the best results . . . especially in the early stages when group members are still getting to know one another.
If your goal is to promote participation, asking for volunteers isn't the best approach. Instead, think about those in your group who might be willing and able to lead prayer time. A few days before the group meeting, reach out to one of them with an email or a phone call to ask if he or she would lead. The one-on-one contact conveys your respect. It's a direct invitation for that person to engage at a deeper level in the life of the group. Having the conversation ahead of time also allows you to answer questions and provide coaching if necessary.
On the night of your group meeting, you'll be able to make a smooth transition into prayer time, led by your group member. This will set the stage for you to be able to reach out privately to other group members in order to share responsibility for prayer time and other tasks. It's a strategic approach that will help you to cast vision for a group experience in which all of the members share responsibility for building community.
What approaches have you taken to encourage your group members to step up and lead during prayer time?
When I see friends I haven’t seen in years, they usually ask, “So, what have you been up to?” There’ve been times when that question was discouraging. On the inside, my response was, “Nothing has changed since the last time you saw me. I’m still single, still live in the same house, and still work at the same company.”
If we've been given a "New" Testament, does that mean the "Old" Testament is obsolete? There aren't many church-types who would give a hearty, "Yes!" to that question, but many of us ignore the Old Testament to the extent that an outside observer might assume Genesis through Malachi doesn't really apply to us anymore. So why do we gloss over the Old Testament?
Having Communion in Groups goes back to the 1st Century (Acts 2:42-46). One could argue that communion is best practiced in a small group because it captures the essence of community through the opportunity of increased intimacy and authenticity. It's a great chance for you to share with your group what God is doing in your life as you examine your heart the week before taking communion. What is communion? Communion is worshiping our Heavenly Father by remembering Christ’s death and resurrection. It's reflecting on your relationship with Christ and examining your heart. It provides the opportunity to be honest with God by confessing and repenting of sin.
When should your group have communion? Communion can be done any time in the course of a group, but it might make sense to have it at the end or the beginning of a study. Or consider having communion around an important date for the group (one-year anniversary of the group, group multiplying, holidays, etc.)
Who is communion for? Communion is primarily for those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior—those who believe that Christ died for their sin and rose to bring them eternal life. However, Communion can also be a great opportunity to share Christ with those that don’t know him. It may even provide an opportunity to ask unbelievers how they would feel about trusting Christ.
Keep in mind that some of your group members may not be Christians. If they're uncomfortable with it, it's okay for them not to participate in communion. Be mindful of how to facilitate this tension, and clearly communicate in advance what's going to happen during communion. Stress that you'd still love for them to be there.
Considering different backgrounds: Communion is practiced differently depending on your church background, and most likely your group members are from different backgrounds as well. Have a general conversation with your group several weeks before you do communion to find out their different backgrounds and views. Ask what their thoughts are on communion and about their past experiences.
Do you have any other thoughts about how you've facilitated communion in your group?