I’m not going to lie to you. For a long time, I was not the biggest fan of group prayers.
These were especially common in my college- and young-adult days, when there seemed to be a perception for whatever reason that closing in group prayer was more appealing or helpful (or perhaps less intimidating) than choosing a single individual to do so. From group to group, the nature of group prayer varied, but it almost always fell into one of the following patterns:
- The “blank space” prayer: a single individual opens the prayer, which is then followed by a period of silence wherein other believers may pray aloud, and after a certain period of time either the same or a different individual closes the prayer
- The “popcorn” prayer: Believers close their eyes and anyone and everyone prays into the silence as they feel led, either once or multiple times
- The round-robin: One believers starts off by opening the prayer, and then the prayer “passes” from believer to believer, eventually being closed where it began
I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I always found this sort of group prayer to be incredibly awkward. All too often, the silence – intended to make space for other believers to participate – simply stretched and stretched until I felt compelled to break it with something, anything. When believers did offer prayers, they were often in uncertain and mumbled bursts. Those who didn’t like praying out loud, or weren’t accustomed to it, never seemed particularly motivated to do so by this practice. And all of this disregards the potential presence of visitors or non-believers, who might be unable or unwilling to participate in such a prayer time and feel conspicuous by not doing so.
In the times that group prayer wasn’t handled in this way, it was shoehorned into the last fifteen minutes of a Bible study as we were broken up into groups and assigned a topic to pray with each other about. Those moments got super-awkward, as the topics were often personal and the group members didn’t know each other all that well; the bad planning meant that we all had to endure a round of stilted, vague, and sheepish prayers that didn’t bother addressing anything we’d come to study. Oops.
The thing is, I think it’s important to pray around/with other believers. I am often inspired by hearing people’s prayers. I like learning new ways to pray and discovering the ways in which believers around me address and relate to God. Moreover, praying with others has a serious impact. The New Testament church spent a great deal of time praying together, and God promises that His presence is where two or more gather in His name (Matt. 18:20). While I wish I saw less of “the group prayer” styles mentioned above – which can strike me as inauthentic and a bit harried – I’d like to see more believers praying together, generally.
What might that look like, if we get away from the “group prayer” format mentioned above?
The fondest memory of group prayer that I have actually comes from college, when the women in my dorm Bible study were deeply overwhelmed and convicted about the people we loved who didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, Christ. Desperate to pray for those people, we canceled the nightly study and came together for a “prayer time,” instead.
There were pillows scattered all over the room so that people could kneel and pray if they wanted. Some people prayed sitting up in chairs. Some stood and walked around. Our group leader opened the evening with a small prayer, and then we scattered in the room to pray individually…but we did so in the company of others. More than once I fell silent, listening to someone praying aloud, mentally joining in with their prayer. Bibles were open so that if people wanted to pray Scripture they could do so. And as the evening progressed, groups of two and three specifically began to pray Scripture together: first one, then another, and then the last. Additionally, the prayer meeting ran for the full hour of Bible study, which meant people could come and go as they liked.
That was probably the last time I’ve ever had such an experience, and it was deeply meaningful to me; I felt the presence of God there in the room with us, and praying with those women bonded me with them in a way few other things did. I sometimes long for a similar outlet now, but these kinds of “prayer sessions” have been limited, in the churches I’ve attended since leaving home, largely to pastoral staff or particular prayer teams. In the interest of encouraging others to participate in “group prayer,” then, or in hopes of making it easier for believers to pray around or with other believers when they feel the need, some tips on solving the group prayer dilemma:
1. Devote an entire service/session to prayer. Don’t shoehorn it in at the end or at the beginning. Dedicated prayer needs time to unfold. Don’t bother with a lesson or a study that night, or even with fellowship. Prayer only. This also helps avoid the awkwardness of having a visitor expecting a “study” and getting caught up in instead in something entirely different.
2. Permit come-when-you-can. Sometimes when I pray I need five minutes. Sometimes I need an hour. The same goes for other people. I think the best practice for a group prayer session is to open a time in which people can come by to pray for as long as they need or feel compelled to pray. If that’s five minutes, good. If the whole hour, good. Have the facilitators or leaders commit to the entire hour.
3. Encourage people to pray as they feel led. Make it so that people can sit and pray. Or stand and pray. Or kneel and pray. Or walk and pray. Out loud? Sure. Silently? Fine. (A caveat here: I do think it helps to maintain a “quiet” or reflective atmosphere, so if you have any really loud or “yelling” supplicants, maybe find a place for them where they can do their thing without disrupting everyone else).
4. Start individually. Don’t force people to partner up or break them arbitrarily into groups, at least not at first if you can help it. Don’t force everyone to participate in some immediate “group” prayer. Give people time to start praying on their own and finding a mindset where they can be completely focused on God. If leaders or members do want to facilitate group prayer, then they can wait until after a short time has passed and then begin volunteering to pray alongside those who are already praying. People can also volunteer to pray Scripture together: either by several members praying the same Scripture separately-but-together, or by each member praying a different Scripture.
5. Have Bibles present. Encourage people to pray the Word directly. This can often facilitate prayer in groups simply because people will often be drawn to pray together over a certain verse or promise.
6. Have an issue or idea around which you are focused. If you are praying for people, give different names to different groups and have them pray over that person. If you are praying for a particular issue or problem, have the group zero in on that. Giving people a “prayer target” helps group prayer sessions remain productive and focused and also facilitates more ease among the group.
7. Have a dedicated beginning and end, and clear instructions. Have someone formally “open” the prayer session, and have someone formally close it. Let people know they’re welcome to pray as they feel led, to come and go as they like, and to use the Scripture tools that are around. Group prayers suffer when people feel awkward, strange, or uncertain of what precisely they need to do – so be clear about what the purpose of the time is and how it will be accomplished.
I often wonder: if believers spent as much time in prayer with each other as we do in fellowship, what would happen? I am quite certain God would move, powerfully, and that He is often only waiting for us to ask. But if nothing else, praying together bonds us with our fellow believers, changes us into what God wants us to be, and grows us through the mere act of submitting ourselves to God as a body. And that alone matters an awful lot.