Friday, July 31, 2009

Inner~View #71: Practical Insights on Changing Corporate Prayer (for the better!)

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Phil Miglioratti interviewed Andrew Wheeler Co-Director of the prayer ministry at Willow Creek's regional campus in McHenry County, Illinois and author of a new book, Together in Prayer: Coming to God in Community


Web: http://togetherinprayer.net


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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?


Andrew ~Praying 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.


Suppose a 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?


Andrew ~ 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.


The personal 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.


Finally, the 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?


Andrew ~Wow, 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 sisters!


Despite the 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:

  • Confidentiality - there must be absolute trust in the confidentiality of anything shared in the group setting. Many groups have found that a written statement of confidentiality, signed by each group member, serves as an effective starting point.
  • Grace - the group should function as channels of God's grace, not of judgment, as they hear confessions and pray for each other. A Bible study covering several examples of confession and forgiveness can be really helpful here.
  • Prayer - the leader needs to make sure that the group addresses God, not other group members - when praying for one who has confessed sin. It can be very easy to preach to other group members (even unintentionally) if the prayers are people-centered and not God-centered.


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 group.

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?


Andrew ~ 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 Lord's prayer).


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:

Andrew ~

  • Praying for lost persons
Focus your prayers on what you want God to do in a person's life; don't spend time describing changes you think the person needs to make. Rather than pray, "May John stop hanging out with people who are a bad influence" (a person-centered prayer that hasn't asked anything of God), pray something like "Lord, please bring into John's life some believers through whom you can extend your grace and love". Remember, salvation is God's work and not ours - if a lost person is going to be saved, it's going to be on God's initiative.
  • How to agree with one another in prayer
When you're praying, keep it short and focused on one topic so that others can keep up and mentally agree with you. Seek God's agenda and not your own; agenda-based prayer is one sure way to prevent any real agreement. When others are praying, enter into their prayers with them rather than thinking about what you are going to pray next. As a leader, set up your prayer time to help the group agree together - encourage people to pray multiple times (but briefly!) on a given topic if God so leads them, and lead the group in praying through one topic at a time rather than jumping around.
  • Freeing those who are reluctant to pray aloud
By all means avoid the dreaded "circle prayer" where everyone is expected to pray in turn! You will only increase performance anxiety and prevent any real agreement in prayer. Set up your prayer time by making sure that people are comfortable agreeing silently if that's how God is leading them. Remind people to pray briefly - nothing intimidates a reluctant pray-er more than long, flowery prayers. If you notice that one or more people consistently do not pray aloud during the group prayer time, meet with them separately and attempt to find out what is holding them back. Perhaps set up some prayer partnerships where people could pray out loud with just one other person rather than with the whole group - smaller "audiences" are generally more comfortable than larger ones. As their comfort level increases, you may find them more willing to participate in group prayer.
  • Spiritual warfare
Approach with caution!! This type of prayer can be very divisive if the group is not on the same page with their understanding of spiritual warfare and their willingness to participate in it through prayer. If you want to head in this direction, start with a good study about the topic (choose carefully; it's easy to go off the deep end on this one). If the group is a church-based group, the church's doctrine regarding spiritual warfare (if they have one) might be a good place to start. Also, remember that spiritual warfare is just that - warfare. There will be casualties, and your group members may suffer as they enter into this arena. That's likely an indication that the group is on the right track, but it would be unfair to group members not to understand and accept together the risks of praying this way before beginning.
  • The role of scripture in community praying
As in all things, scripture is our guide in praying well together. Passages like Matthew 6:25-34 and Colossians 3:1-4 teach us to seek God's kingdom and to have our focus on him and not on earthly things - these are important cornerstones for community prayer. Passages like Matthew 18:19-20 and the example of the early church in Acts serve as the mandate for praying together. Scripture teaches us many things to pray that we know are God's will, and also teaches us how to relate to each other in all areas, including prayer.

While Scripture thus undergirds our understanding and practice of community prayer, I'd caution against extended quotation of Scripture while praying together. Occasionally quoting a passage can serve as an encouragement to the group, but remember that encouraging, reminding, exhorting, or teaching the group is not the purpose of prayer. The purpose is to address God and communicate with him (and he already knows what the Scripture says!). Many times I've seen Scripture quoted in a group prayer setting in such a way as to be more a reflection of pride in the pray-er's knowledge of the Bible than anything else.


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.



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1 comment:

grammygail said...

Thanks for a great inteview about a book that sounds really helpful, esp to small group leaders.