There are lots of reasons why people find it hard to pray out loud in small groups. Maybe English isn’t their first language, or they’ve never prayed out loud before. It could be that they’ve just become a Christian and don’t know what to say. Some people are shy, or they worry about what people will think of them if their prayers are short or they stumble over their words. Other people have grown up in a church culture where prayer is a private activity.
So how do we help them overcome their worries and pray out loud in our small Bible study groups? Before we jump in with some ideas (which I’ll get to soon), it’s worth thinking about why we want people to pray out loud. Why can’t we just pray at home or in silence? Here are a few reasons why corporate prayer is beneficial and worth pursuing in our small groups:
1. Audible prayer is an encouragement to those who are listening
Jesus prayed out loud so that those who heard him could know joy in him (John 17:13). In the same way, when we pray for each other out loud, we have an opportunity to “encourage one another” and to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24-25). Praising God, declaring truth in prayer about God that assures us of our salvation, and asking God for his help out loud are also valuable ways that God’s people can “draw near” to God “in full assurance of faith” (Heb 10:19-22).
2. Praying together is the pattern set for us by the early church
After the ascension of Jesus, the early Christians devoted themselves to gathering together and praying (Acts 1:14; 2:42; 12:12). Like them, we’re living between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and his second coming. Gathering and praying together are part and parcel of life for those who believe Jesus is now seated as God’s king and are waiting for him to return.
3. Praying together goes hand in hand with sharing our struggles
In James 5 we’re encouraged to pray together when we’re sick and as we confess our sins (Jas 5:13-18). A small group environment is a safe place to help people search their hearts to see how God’s word is convicting them of sin. Audible prayer in a group environment is also a way to “exhort one another” so that sin doesn’t harden our hearts towards God (Heb 3:13).
In the groups I’ve been a part of, it’s been rare to have a week without someone suffering or facing ill health, so turning to God as we share our struggles is a natural and comforting expression of faith and dependence on Him. Interestingly, James also says that when we’re cheerful, we should sing praise—I assume this is audible! (I wonder if it would be useful to do more singing in our small groups.) It’s one reason why at the beginning and end of each term, our women’s Bible study groups sing a song of praise when they meet together for announcements.
4. Audible prayer is a good use of the power of our tongues
The Bible has much to say about the harm caused by our tongues (James 3, for example). Paul commands us to put away falsehood, anger and corrupting talk; instead, we should speak truth and use only words that build up, so that we may give grace to those who hear (Eph 4:25-32). Using our tongues to pray is surely a constructive way to harness the potential for good with our words.
5. Jesus and the apostles taught the flock how to pray
Jesus taught his disciples how to pray; the writers of the New Testament taught the church how to pray (e.g. Matt 5:44; 6:5-8; 9:37-38; Mark 12:40; Luke 11:1-4; Phil 4:6-7; 2 Thess 1:3, 11-12; 3:1-2). But Jesus didn’t just give his disciples the theory; he often took his disciples with him when he withdrew from the crowds to pray (Matt 26:36-45; Luke 9:18, 27-30; 11:1-3; John 17). Similarly, praying out loud is a concrete way of modelling to others how to pray.
It’s worth taking the time to explain these reasons, rather than just assuming that people understand already. Grounding motivation in God’s word is a great way to encourage people to step outside their comfort zone. You might like to consider covering this material at the beginning of each term, and taking new members through it to help them settle into the group.
What I intend to do for the remainder of this article is to outline a few ideas to help draw people out a little, and help them gain the skills to pray out loud.
Explain Christian prayer
We often take it for granted that everyone knows what Christian prayer is about, but it’s now less and less likely that people have had modelled to them what it is to pray to a living God in a personal way with assurance that he hears. It’s worth explaining a few fundamentals such as:
- Even though other people are listening to our prayer, we’re praying to God. That’s why we pray “Dear God”.
- The Bible teaches us that through his death and resurrection, Jesus has made it possible for us to pray (Heb 10:19-21) so that’s why we close our prayers with “In Jesus’ name we pray”.
- Jesus’ death and resurrection have given us access to the throne room of God, so we can be sure God hears our prayers and we can approach God with confidence (Heb 10:19-21). That’s why we don’t need to impress God with fancy words.
- Because of Jesus, we don’t pray to a distant God—we pray to God as our Father (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6) so we can pray “Dear heavenly Father”.
- We close with the word “amen” as a way of inviting others to affirm our prayers and say they agree. Saying “amen” at the end of the prayer is also a great way for us to encourage a new person in the group.
- When we pray on our own, we use the word ‘I’. But in a group setting, we’re inviting others to pray with us and to say “amen” to our prayers. So that’s why we pray using the word ‘we’. For example, “We pray for June’s mum—please help her to recover quickly from her surgery.”
- Because we’re praying in a group setting, it’s important to pray with a clear and fairly loud voice rather than a whisper. This is especially important for people who are used to changing their tone of voice or lowering their voice when they pray. Some people have grown up thinking this is more respectable to God. But whispering makes it hard for others to hear, especially if you have hearing impaired people in your group, mothers with little babies, or you meet in a noisy environment.
You’ll be surprised how much more comfortable some people feel to pray out loud once they understand these basic elements of prayer. It’s like giving them the club T-shirt so they feel part of the group.
Model short and simple prayers
Jesus’ warns us not to pray with “empty phrases”, “many words”, and “long prayers” for pretence, thinking that this is what will impress God (Matt 6:7-8; Mark 12:40). This doesn’t mean long prayers are never okay. But it’s worth making a conscious effort to model to others that short prayers with simple words are not simply adequate, but heard by God just as much as longer prayers. This is especially important with people who struggle with English, literacy, and concentration (for example, some who are ill or elderly). Long prayers with complicated words or Christian jargon make it very hard for people to understand and follow along. And if that happens, it defeats the purpose of praying out loud together.
Here are some examples of short, simple prayers:
“Dear God, thank you for our time together today. Help us believe that your word is living and active. As we study the Bible this morning, give us understanding so that we may love Jesus more and more.”
“Dear heavenly Father, we praise you that because of Jesus, you forgive us our sin. When we feel like our sin is too bad to be forgiven, help us to remember that Jesus’ death is the perfect sacrifice for all our sin.”
Naturally, it’s hard to always pray at a level that everyone will understand, especially if there are non-Christians or new Christians in our group. Sometimes, this creates opportunities for explanation or to make a time to catch up over a meal or a coffee. But if you know your sheep, then you can cater the prayer times so that they don’t feel excluded by lack of understanding, or overcome with anxiety that they can’t pray with the ‘sophistication’ of the rest of the group.
Teaching and praying and speaking in such a way that people can understand is a Biblical principle that Paul explains clearly in 1 Corinthians 14. In this chapter, Paul commands the gathering church to conduct their activities in an orderly manner, ensuring one person speaks at a time and that tongues and prophecy must always be interpreted so that the whole church is built up. This is why Paul says that words that are not understandable exclude the outsider and inhibit a person from understanding God.
Give people the opportunity to prepare their prayer beforehand
If someone’s shy or English isn’t their first language, they often find it hard to pray on the spot. Try suggesting they prepare the opening/closing prayer during the week and offer to read it through and help them with their English expression. Make sure you say positive encouraging comments, especially if you do need to correct an aspect of the prayer.
Once someone is willing to pray, it’s helpful to ask if praying first will help them feel less nervous. For some people, having to wait until last makes them very anxious.
Prepare a selection of Scripture based prayers
Write out a few prayers based on the Bible, print them out and ask each member of the group to choose one to pray out loud at the end of your Bible study time. You could also write prayers that reflect the words and teaching of the study you are covering that day.
This method has the added bonus of teaching people to pray scripturally-based prayers and to expand what they pray about. Paul’s prayers are often long and complex and could be too hard for some in your group. Personally, I find them hard to pray all in one go because his knowledge of God is so deep. But don’t abandon Paul’s prayers altogether—break them down and paraphrase them if you need to. You could also select one idea at a time.
Here are some examples:
Dear heavenly Father, we bring before you our missionary family, the Griffiths. We pray that that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured as the Griffiths talk to Portuguese people about the gospel of Jesus. We ask all of these things in the name of Jesus. (2 Thess 3:1)
Dear Father in heaven, help us to truly believe that you are always close. Help us not to be anxious about anything. When we’re worried, help us to pray to you with thanksgiving in our hearts. As we pray, remind us of the peace we have in Jesus that can calm our hearts and our minds. We ask all of this in the precious name of Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7)
Dear God, your word tells us that when Jesus comes back, he will appear in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And that no one knows when he will return. Please help us to be ready for his return. We pray this in the name of Jesus. (Matt 24:29-44)
Dear Father in heaven, help us to bring honour to Jesus. Help us do good works and understand you better. Please give us your power to keep trusting Jesus and to be joyful, patient and thankful to you. Thank you that you have given us eternal life by taking us away from the rule of Satan and bringing us into the kingdom of your Son by saving us and forgiving us our sins. In Jesus’ name we pray. (Col 1:9-14)
Prepare a selection of topics and people to pray about
You could include:
- Missionaries by name with their latest prayer points
- The ministry team, leaders and leaders of your church
- University ministries and Scripture in schools in your area
- Kids’ ministry leaders in your church
- Non-Christian friends and family by name—that they will hear the gospel and have faith in Jesus
- For discipline and consistency to draw near to God by reading the Bible and praying every day
- Marriages in your church or group
- Mission events coming up
- Specific sin that people have shared about and need help with
- For the development of the fruit of the Spirit—picking one area of growth to focus on (Gal 5:22-23)
- For those who are elderly, sick, and grieving in your community or church.
- For federal, state and local government and our prisons
- For Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith in Jesus
- Praise and adoration—don’t forget this. Sometimes it’s worth asking people to pray 1-2 praise points that start with the words “Dear God, we praise you that you are…” or “Dear heavenly Father, we give you praise that Jesus is…”
In my experience, more often than not people don’t understand the difference between praise and thanksgiving, so they revert to thanking God for something he has done for us. Whilst thanksgiving is good, it is useful to teach our people to praise God for who he is. Here is an example:
“Dear Father in heaven, we praise you that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. We give you praise that by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. In Jesus’ name we pray.” (Col 1:15-16)
Some weeks, you could try printing out a sheet of paper with some topics to pray about, including some options of pre-prepared prayers.
Divide the group into smaller groups of twos or threes
This is a good way of reducing the size of the ‘audience’ and helping people feel more comfortable, thereby reducing the anxiety someone may feel about praying out loud. In our women’s groups, at the beginning of each year, I divide the group into smaller groups of 2-3 women. Whenever we divide up into smaller groups for prayer, the women meet with the same 2-3 women. This is a great way for women to follow up prayer points and get to know each other better, sharing their lives as they pray.
It’s also an opportunity to allow other people in the group to exercise leadership. To help facilitate the small group prayer time, I appoint a leader of that little group. The task is for that leader to make sure prayer actually happens and that everyone gets a turn—we all know how easy it is to share prayer points and never pray or for one person to continually take up the prayer time with their points. I encourage this leader to be sensitive to the women who are still uncomfortable with praying out loud and to take the time to find ways to get together with the women outside the Bible study time and to follow up prayer points. This is a way of training up potential Bible study leaders or giving people the opportunity to lead even though they might not be capable of teaching a group.
On the issue of small prayer groups, it’s worth bearing in mind dynamics between men and women and married and single people. Some married couples are happy to be in separate prayer groups, others aren’t. A person who isn’t comfortable praying out loud may find it easier if their spouse is in the same group. If small prayer groups are meant to encourage the members to freely share in a secure environment so they can take the step of praying out loud, same gender groups may facilitate this.
Ask everyone to write out one prayer point
Give each member of the group a piece of paper. (If you’re into nice paper, go for it! Otherwise, plain old paper is fine!) Ask them to write their name on the top and then one prayer point for themselves based on the study or something more general they are happy for others to know about. Then, going around the group each person can either pray for themselves, or you could ask everyone to pass their piece of paper to the person sitting on their left and that person prays for the person whose name is on the piece of paper. You can then encourage everyone to keep the piece of paper in their Bible or on the fridge door (where thy will see it regularly) and to pray for that person every day that week. This can be done in a large group, or you could divide the group into smaller groups of twos or threes.
But even here it’s a case of knowing your flock. Some people struggle with literacy—either because they never learnt to read or write, they can’t write in English, they’re not confident writers, can’t spell well or their writing is illegible. Other people find it hard to read and pray at the same time. If this is the case, you could make writing optional and say, “If you prefer, you can say your prayer point”, or “You don’t have to pray exactly what the person next to you has written—you can ask them to tell you their prayer point or pray using your own words”. But make sure you leave enough time for this exercise or those who struggle will get stressed.
It’s a common problem that some people find it easier to give general prayer points. So they start their prayer point with “Pray that people will…” I like to encourage people to use the word ‘I’ or ‘me’. For example, “Please pray that I will…” or “Please pray that God will help me to…” Using these types of guidelines helps people to think about how God’s word applies directly to them.
Notice what people pray about
It’s amazing how encouraging it is when someone follows up on what we’ve prayed about. It could be as simple:
“I really appreciated what you prayed for the group.”
“I loved the way you tied your prayer point to the application that flowed out of our study. Thank you.”
“I noticed you said in your prayer that you have been really tired… is there some way I can help you or I can be praying for you during the week?”
“Thank you for your prayer for me, it really comforted me that you took the time to pray for me.”
This is a great way of getting the message out that prayer matters, and that it’s a corporate activity we can do to help each other. Remembering what someone prayed about and following up the next week has the same effect. Praying repeatedly about an issue can mistakenly be seen as repetitive and useless. But Jesus tells a story about a persistent widow who kept coming back to the judge with her plea and was finally granted her request. Jesus told this parable to teach his disciples to “always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8).
Most years, I give the women in my group a notebook to record each other’s prayer points. This helps people who aren’t confident praying out loud for three reasons:
- They can use their notes to pray during the week and thereby still feel useful and involved in the prayer life of the group even if they don’t yet feel comfortable to pray out loud.
- As they get used to praying during the week for the group members using their notes, their confidence to pray out loud for those people in the group grows.
- It helps them remember what people have shared so they can more easily pray for them out loud using their notes as a guide.
As an added bonus, at the end of every 6 months, it’s a wonderful source of thankfulness to look over the notes has everyone kept to see how God has answered the group’s prayers. In itself this can be a huge encouragement to pray out loud in the group setting.
Give people time to transition
For some, hearing the biblical motivations for audible prayer and using the above tips quickly warms them to the idea and they take the leap. For others, their confidence builds more slowly. This means it’s worth thinking of ways to give people time to transition. For example, if you’re inviting everyone to pray working your way around the group, you can suggest that if someone doesn’t want to pray, they could tap the hand or shoulder of the person next to them and that this is completely fine. Another idea is to allow someone who’s not quite comfortable with praying out loud, to share ideas for prayer or their own prayer point and then get someone else in the group to pray their points.
Train your leaders
If we want to create an atmosphere where all members of our small groups feel comfortable to pray, then we can’t be the only one modelling it. So we need to take the time to train our leaders in the motivations for audible prayer and the kinds of things that are helpful and unhelpful to encourage people to pray out loud. Why not gather your leaders or other mature Christians in your small group(s) and work through the Bible passages I mentioned earlier and brainstorm ideas on what works and what doesn’t? Your leaders might even give you some ideas that have worked in their group. On that note, what have you found helpful in your groups?
Available online for comment at http://gotherefor.com/ideas