Prayer is not just bringing our petitions and expressions of thanks to God. Building a strong and intimate relationship with God involves communication – and communication involves both talking and listening to God.
Prayer Planning Guide
We encourage you to download and print this discussion guide to better facilitate discussions about the structure of small groups with decision makers at your church. Downloadad guide now
To explore the topic of small groups further, additional downloads are available below.
“We pray because we want to thank someone or something for the beauties and glories of life, and also because we feel small and helpless and sometimes afraid. We pray for forgiveness, for strength, for contacts with the One who is, for assurance that we are not alone. Millions in AA groups pray daily to a Higher Power, begging for help in controlling their addictions. We pray because we can’t help it. The very word Prayer comes from the Latin root precarius – a linguistic cousin to precarious.” Phillip Yancey(1)
“The spiritual life has to do with how God relates to us and how we in turn relate to God. Prayer is the essential expression of this relationship.”
“Prayer is initiated by God. No matter what we think about the origin of our prayers, they are all a response to the hidden workings of the Spirit within.” Both quotations from Marjorie Thompson(2)
From these quotations, we see that prayer is not a mere formality, but is a resource for many moments in life. It is not something we do merely for the sake of procedure or decorum. Prayer acknowledges that God is present with us at all times and in all places. Prayer honors God as Creator, Lord, and Savior. Coming before God in prayer is an act of worship. God initiates prayer and it is a gracious gift from God who desires a personal relationship with us.
Prayer is a personal experience. Imagine meeting your best friend for coffee at a favorite place. Your friend knows everything about you—and loves you anyway. Your friend sees your potential and wants the best for you. Your friend is ready and willing to listen any time of the day or night and responds with love and concern.
Prayer is intended to be a personal experience and intimate connection with our loving God. We can talk to God any time about anything that concerns us—e.g., desires, passions, concerns for loved ones, fears, anger, struggles, hurt, joys, repentance, everyday experiences. Prayer means building a relationship—helping us to grow closer and more intimately connected with God. Prayer allows God to work in our lives and change us. As we grow through prayer, God will reveal more about himself to us.
Steve Burger from the Department of Christian Formation describes this as communion with God. He says, “This suggests an intimate fellowship with God that includes speaking, listening and being with God. Some of my best prayer times have been resting in God. I’m neither, saying anything or listening for anything, but amazingly enabled by God to be, to rest, and to abide with God. Prayer is all the ways we communicate with God. When we establish a regular rhythm of prayer, we ensure that our prayer life is intentional and given priority.
As Covenanters, we are a devotional people. Believing that God desires an intimate relationship with us, we are committed to a lifestyle of worship characterized by both individual and communal expressions of devotion and prayer. Our daily prayer practices (both praying individually and praying in community) empower us for living a life that is rooted and grounded in Christ.
In our church, we pray often, together in community and individually, communicating with God using words of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.
Does the goal statement describe the prayer life in your church? The Intentional Discipleship Prayer Planning Guide helps churches explore this question. For most churches, prayer provides a basic ingredient that brings their life together. Wherever the church community gathers, prayer naturally becomes part of the gathering. Even in these churches there may be a need to step back and consider the current prayer life in the church and identify ideas for enhancing it.
The Planning Guide for Prayer invites a group of interested people to discuss the community prayer life and the personal prayer life as it is supported and encouraged by the church. The guide begins with a consideration of prayer from a scriptural and personal point of view. Next it moves the group to describe the current state of prayer in the church and then list some alternate futures and ideas for the church to consider. The discussion will consider both the prayer life of the church as a community and the prayer life of individuals.
The final step will identify two or three ideas that the group wants to implement and then create an action plan to put those ideas into practice. The desired outcome for this discussion is that the congregation experience prayer as a powerful Christian formation resource, both in the context of the church community and in the prayer life of individuals.
PERSONAL PRAYER/PRAYING INDIVIDUALLY
God invites us into a personal relationship through prayer. God also invites us to deeper levels of intimacy that will move us beyond communication (i.e., words and concepts) to communion (i.e., beyond words). This movement requires risk, as we bring more of ourselves into God’s presence and receive more of God’s being into ourselves. We rest in God’s presence. All of life becomes prayer as we expand our awareness of God in our lives (I Thessalonians 5:17).
The opening paragraph describes an incredible experience of prayer, but for many, this is not their experience in prayer. Their prayer is much more basic. For example, “Help me make it through this day.” Or, “Destroy that cancer that grows inside me.” Or, “Protect me from the evil of drug, or drink or sex or temptation.” Prayer like this is often the first response for the Christian, and many times, the non-Christian alike. “God, help me.”
Many researchers have explored the prayer patterns of Christians and non-Christians. Researchers have regularly asked: ‘How often do you pray?’ ‘What do you pray about?’ ‘Does God answer your prayers?’ And even, ‘Will prayer make a difference in the successful treatment of cancer patients?’ Prayer arises as a common experience, but how frequently do people pray, and what do they pray about?
The Pew Research Forum from 2007 reported that 58% of this American sample prays daily and another 17% prays weekly. This means that 75% of the American population prays at least weekly, or at least wants people to think that they pray weekly. Let’s translate this into a real life picture. Imagine a bus bringing commuters to work. If that bus carries 40 passengers, 30 of them pray at least once during the week. On the opposite end of the spectrum, only 7%, or three people on that bus, never prays. The chart below provides a complete picture of the results.
Frequency of Prayer, Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life Poll June 23, 2008(3)
Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans ages 18 and older, this extensive survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life details the religious affiliation, religious beliefs and practices, as well as social and political attitudes of the American public.
It is encouraging to learn that so many people pray regularly, especially when many of us think that we are alone in this pursuit of the infinite, or at least in the small minority. This high percentage response regarding the frequency of prayer invites the next question. “What do these people pray about?”
In another, less scientific survey, US News and World Report(4) joined with Beliefnet to identify the topics or concerns that people include in their prayers. The article reports that “we pray about nearly everything.” Some of the areas mentioned in the survey include health, money, relationships, and fixing problems like a car that overheats or healing a pet chicken.
Many of these issues come under the heading that Richard Foster calls Simple Prayer. “In Simple Prayer we bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all. Like children before a loving father, we open our hearts and make our requests. We do not try to sort things out, the good from the bad. We simply and unpretentiously share our concerns and make our petitions….We ask for food, favorable weather, and good health. In a very real sense we are the focus of the simple prayer.”(5)
There is nothing wrong with praying the Simple Prayer. It is important to remember that the Bible includes many examples of Simple Prayer. Elijah and Moses asked God for food. The psalmist continually asked God for forgiveness and rescue from his enemies. Jesus healed many with a prayer and a touch. Jacob asked God to protect him and his family from his brother Esau.
The US News and World Report survey also notes that prayer is not always about us and our needs. “Of those who took the survey, more than 1 in 3 said that the most important purpose of prayer was ‘intimacy with God.’ Another 28 percent said that the most important purpose of prayer was ‘to seek God’s guidance.’ The key here, says Robert Orsi, the chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, is that prayer may be many things, but the unifying theme is that it’s “about relationships between a particular person and a religiously significant other.”(6)
Foster also identifies and explains this transition. “In the beginning we are indeed the subject and the center of our prayers. But in God’s time and in God’s way, a Copernican revolution takes place in our heart. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, there is a shift in our center of gravity. We pass from thinking of God as part of our life to the realization that we are part of his life. Wondrously and mysteriously God moves from the periphery of our prayer experience to the center. A conversion of the heart takes place, a transformation of the spirit.”(7) At this point, our prayer changes. It moves beyond a focus on our needs, to communion with the eternal other, God, the King of the Universe. This change begins to more closely reflect the description of prayer in the opening paragraph.
So how does change take place? It begins by praying about what we see, feel, fear, and desire. Foster urges people to “carry on an ongoing conversation with God about the daily stuff of life, a little like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. For now, do not worry about ‘proper’ praying, just talk to God. Share your hurts, share your sorrows, share your joys — freely and openly. God listens in compassion and love just like we do when our children come to us. He delights in our presence. When we do this, we will discover something of inestimable value. We will discover that by praying we learn to pray.”(8) In addition to supplication and intercession, our prayer now includes adoration, confession, and silence.
As we spend time praying our words of adoration and confession, we begin to know God more deeply. As we move beyond the simple prayer, we often introduce other forms of prayer that help us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of God. For example, many people pray the Scripture. They read and contemplate a passage of Scripture. They place themselves into the story as a participant. They seek insight into God’s word, but also insight into their own lives and relationships with God. Some will conclude this prayer by responding in words or writing the insights gained from this dialogue between the temporal and the eternal. Many people find it helpful to set a daily time and place for this encounter.
Other people enjoy spending time with God in silence or centering prayer. Sarah Park McLaughlin says, “Regardless of the time and place we choose, the purpose of silence is to allow space in our lives for God, and even though we may feel as if we have no time for silence in between rushing to and from work and to and from soccer games to evening meetings, we owe it to ourselves to make time. It is rewarding to give God a chance to transform our harried life into one that glorifies him.”(9) In our modern world, we run at full speed and feel that there is no time to stop and be with God. McLaughlin encourages us to give our time to God and let God take care of the details.
We all want to feel close to God, but no one feels that way all the time. Even the saints throughout history went through periods of despair. They wrote about periods of spiritual dryness—when they were persecuted or when God seemed remote and unreachable. When these periods of drought occur in our lives we are again in the company of people from the Bible. Job was a committed follower of God. Even when he lost everything, including his wealth, family, and health, he remained faithful. Foster says that during difficult times, people “discovered that the secret of Christian growth can be summed up in one word: perseverance.”(10)
Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Church, confesses that prayer has not always been a central focus in his life and ministry. He says, “Several years ago the Holy Spirit gave me a leading so direct that I couldn’t ignore it, argue against it, or disobey it. The leading was to explore, study, and practice prayer until I finally understood it. I obeyed that leading. I read fifteen or twenty major books on prayer, some old and some new. I studied almost every passage on prayer in the Bible. And then I did something absolutely radical: I prayed.”(11) That becomes our invitation, as well. We can talk about prayer. We can read about prayer. But to learn about prayer, we need to actually pray.
Prayer is not difficult, but our prayer lives can be enhanced when we open ourselves to learning from others and sharing our experiences. Churches can encourage the prayer life of individuals by providing opportunities for people to come together to learn, experience, and practice prayer.
As we consider some possible ideas for expanding our personal prayer life, it is helpful to put this list of possibilities into perspective. Simon Chan provides four caveats to keep in mind as we consider lists of spiritual exercises. “First, offering a number of helps is not to suggest that spiritual proficiency depends on being adept in as many of them as possible. It is only to suggest the variety and range of possibilities that are available for advancing spirituality…. Second, spiritual helps are like other skills that we acquire, say, through reading a book or serving an apprenticeship. Above all, they come through practice…. Third, in the final analysis the exercises must be integrated into a larger pattern of living. This can be done by a rule of life that enlarges the framework of our Christian existence to include the world…. Finally, much depends on proficiency in the use of the tools. To press the analogy further, a few basic tools in the hands of a master carpenter produce works of fine craftsmanship. The same can be said of spiritual tools. It is not always the latest spiritual technologies that help make better Christians…. But what counts, ultimately, is what use we make of them.”(12)
Acronyms have been developed to provide structure and guide a person’s prayer time.
- ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (or intercession). Some prefer changing the order to CATS.
- CHAT – Confess, Honor, Ask, Thank
- PRAY – Praise, Reflect, Ask, Yearn
- PRAY – Praise, Repent, Ask, Yield
- PRAYER – Praise, Repent, Ask, Yield, Expect, Rejoice
- SOAP – a straightforward devotional strategy for small groups but could also guide an individual – Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer (pray about how God will shape your lives according to his Word).
Adoration invites us to focus on God and express our love.
Art and prayer, both viewing and creating art, can provide helpful resources for prayer.
Confession is described in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Contemplative prayer allows us to rest in God, focusing on God our creator, redeemer, and friend.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that encourages us to abstain from eating, or from other distractions, in order to focus on God.
Fixed-Hour Prayer or Divine Hours is a discipline that encourages the person to stop and pray at fixed-hours during the day.
Journaling prayer uses the process of writing to help us process what we learn through God’s word.
Lament and struggle prayer is a gift, enabling and empowering us to speak our pain with honest emotion in the context of conversation with God.
Prayer Calendars can be developed to encourage the person to pray for different needs, people, or concerns on each day of the week.
Parable Walks (Walking with God) allow us see evidence of God and reflect on God’s teaching in the things we encounter as we walk in nature or through our neighborhoods.
Prayer of Examen (Reviewing Your Day) encourages us to review the events of the day seeking to become more aware of God’s presence and the motivations and outcomes of our actions.
Silence/Solitude before God invites us to attend to God and listen for God’s voice.
Supplication or Intercession is described in Luke 11:19, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” describes this form of prayer.
Thanksgiving is a prayer that thanks God for blessing and provision.
The ID article, “Ideas for Personal Prayer” provides additional ideas for personal prayer and more detailed descriptions of these practices.
There are many resources on prayer that would be helpful guides for small groups or Sunday school classes. The Department of Christian Formation has also developed two prayer experiences or retreats to help people expand their experience of prayer.
Those seeking to explore personal prayer more deeply may find the books listed in the end notes, and the additional books listed below, a helpful place to begin their journey.
PRAYING TOGETHER/PRAYING IN COMMUNITY
God wants us to communicate with him individually and together, in community. For those involved in the life of a church, it seems that every time two or three people are together we pray. The church community prays during worship, small group meetings and classes, and board and committee meetings. It also organizes groups or prayer teams to gather expressly for the purpose of prayer. This emphasis on prayer acknowledges God’s presence and invites God’s forgiveness, wisdom, guidance, or blessing.
In describing the prayer of the early church as suggested in Acts 2:42, the Covenant Book of Worship reminds us of the importance of prayer in the life of the community of faith. Finally, the apostolic church joined for prayer…. Praise and adoration, confession and complaint, petition and lament were all present in the prayers of the community. Prayer may be mentioned last (in Acts 2:42), because in prayer the community responds to the acts of God in text and memory, to the joys and sorrows of human companionship, and to the saving work recalled at the table. To pray is to acknowledge the presence and power of God and God’s stewardship over the life of the whole community in its personal and corporate realities.(13)
A primary place where prayer happens in the church is during our gatherings for worship. We experience Christ among us. We offer our worship. We confess our sins and receive assurance of God’s forgiveness. We seek God’s help for the prayers of the church (i.e., our own needs and the needs of others). We offer prayers for unique purposes (e.g., litanies, offering of our tithes and gifts, communion, baptism, benediction).
The Covenant Book of Worship adds several ideas to our understanding regarding prayer in worship. All the prayers in a service are offered to God as expressions of “our prayer,” whether they are free or directed, led by the pastor and selected laity, read in unison or responsively, or arising spontaneously from the congregation. They express praise and thanksgiving, confession of sins, confidence in God’s forgiveness, supplication for our own needs, and intercession for the needs of the world.(14)
Prayer in the context of worship often includes invocation, prayers of the church or pastoral prayer, confession of sins, The Lord’s prayer, and the benediction. Some churches also include times of silence which encourage the worshiper to communicate personally with God and reflect on the insights and experience of worship.
Prayer also maintains a significant role in the special services of the church. In the Service of the Table (Communion) and baptism, prayer is offered to set aside the common elements of wine, bread, and water for a holy purpose. The marriage ceremony includes many prayers of blessing as the couple joins together as husband and wife. At other times, congregations offer prayers of blessing as they receive new members, install new officers, confirm youth, and send teams out to mission experiences.
In small groups, praying together is a vital component. What better activity can a group do together than talk with God? Sharing prayer requests, listening to how God is answering prayers, and praying for each other within the faith community is a privilege and opportunity to engage with others on our journeys of faith. The following list provides some suggestions for prayer practices within small groups.
- Pop-corn prayer – encourage (but do not pressure) each person to offer short, spontaneous, one or two-sentence prayers. It can be helpful to identify a person to begin and end the prayer time.
- Record the group’s prayer requests and answers to prayer in a journal.
- Instead of sharing prayer requests before prayer encourage participants to pray their requests.
- Guide the prayer time based on the acronyms, ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication or PRAYER – Praise, Repent, Ask, Yield, Expect, Rejoice
- Bidding prayer – The leader introduces an area for prayer, like “the needs of the world,” and the group follows with both silent and audible prayers until the leader moves the focus to a new area for prayer. Closing this time of prayer with the Lord’s Prayer can be meaningful.
Meetings in churches usually begin with Scripture and prayer. In some churches, this action is required by the church constitution or policies. This time is not a magic bullet or an idol that we bow to for instant solutions. Rather, it is a time of quiet centering, allowing all participants to move from their lives on the street and into their life together with God. The team has come together for a purpose, but few have thought much about that purpose since agreeing to participate in this session. This time for Scripture and prayer also encourages us to remember that God is a member of this team.
Often the Scripture provides insight related to the discussion that will follow. What does God’s word say? What did this word mean to those who first heard it? What does it say to God’s people today? Praying at the conclusion of this discussion allows us to come before God, seeking insight, wisdom, and leading in order to accomplish the task for the meeting.
When the church gathers around a person or family in need, it ministers by sharing comfort, strength, and courage. Prayer is a crucial part of this ministry. In Arthur A. R. Nelson’s book, Prayers Public and Personal(15), the index provides a rather comprehensive list of the needs that the church addresses through prayer. This list includes prayers for: a pregnancy at risk, a child born with physical challenges, adoptive parents, a struggling adolescent, marriage crises, moving to retirement living, and those caring for aging parents. The book also includes prayer for needs like lingering illness, depression, facing surgery, death, financial crisis, and unemployment.
Many churches organize their prayer ministry to share needs like these and allow the congregation to pray for God’s intervention and solution. The phone tree has served this need for years, but the advent of email makes the sharing of prayer requests quick and easy. Some churches also develop prayer teams to gather weekly to pray for the prayer requests that surface as part of their life together.
Prayer means building a relationship—helping us to grow closer and more intimately connected with God. Building a healthy, vital relationship requires time and patience. Prayer allows God to work in our lives and change us. As we grow through prayer, God reveals more about himself to us. As you continue to explore types of individual prayers, and prayer in community, you will find a rhythm of prayer that works for you. Engage the disciplines for growing closer to God. God wants us to grow, and God is the one who gives us the desire to grow. God is already reaching out to us. We just need to keep showing up, even when we don’t particularly feel holy or loving or eager. And we can trust that if we do so, God will show up, too.
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).
- Phillip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
- Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 1995, 2005)
- Pew Forum, June 23, 2008 http://religions.pewforum.org/comparisons#
- Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, US News and World Report, (12/12/04), http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/041220/20poll.htm
- Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, San Francisco: Harper, 1992, page 9. Like Celebration of Discipline, Foster’s work on prayer is a classic collection of prayer resources for those seeking a closer relationship with God
- US News and World Report
- Foster, Prayer, 15
- Foster, Prayer
- Sara Park McLaughlin, Meeting God in Silence (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1993), 24
- Foster, 15
- Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998 second edition), 11
- Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998), 126-127
- The Covenant Book of Worship (Chicago: Covenant Publications, 2003), 6
- The Covenant Book of Worship
- Arthur A. R. Nelson, Prayers Public and Personal, Chicago: Covenant Publications, 2011)