Starting and Revitalizing a Prayer Group in Your Local Church
By Rev. Marsh Hudson-Knapp
The Kick Off: An uplifting spiritual event can sometimes launch a prayer group. In Fair Haven we hosted a Life in the Spirit workshop and a prayer group sprang from our desire to explore and develop our new life and gifts from the Holy Spirit.
Some churches feel a move of the Spirit in times of trouble or of promise, and gather people to pray. Trouble often motivates us to reach out to God! Other churches have a small or large group of people who deeply believe in praying and they simply want to get together.
Gathering: Where will you gather the first times? A large room with a few people lost in it makes it very difficult to establish a sense of intimacy. A small, cozy space can feel more secure, either in a home or in church. As people come together, something to drink (and occasionally to eat) can be comforting. A warm cup of caffeine-free tea can warm the body and soul especially in cold weather.
Setting the Atmosphere: People’s initial experience can help to set the tone for time together. Starting your session by singing praise music can be a way of inviting in the Holy Spirit and opening up your hearts to God. The music should help you to relax and open to God and one another. You will want to pick music that comforts your community. Selecting a few songs from a praise cassette or CD and duplicating the words can invite people to participate. (Be sure your church has a copyright license for this.) Play your music loud enough so that people will not feel too self-conscious about their own voice, but not so loud as to be unpleasant.
For about a year we did a guided imagery meditation on scripture to open our time together. This lifted us beyond ourselves and into the spiritual-imaginative realm. In our Fair Haven prayer group we now gather in a circle for opening prayer. Some stand or sit depending on what works for them. Opening prayer wants to have some time for quiet, and the group is discouraged from offering a lot of prayer requests at this time. Sometimes we say the Binding Prayer if there seems to be some spiritual resistance or problem facing us. We encourage different people to take turns leading us in prayer. Regardless of the specific practices, the group wants to begin by setting aside this space and time as sacred and calling forth the Holy Spirit.
A Program? For a number of years we used various study materials to get us started in our growing and thinking. Any of the programs about healing by the Linns (Denny, Sheila and Matt) are excellent. Audio and video tapes are available on loan to provide the “teachings” that a beginner might not be able to provide. Sometimes we have used group experiences from the Serendipity Bible. They invite people to explore and share about our lives and the Bible. We also used C. Peter Wagner’s materials on spiritual gifts for a time, exploring a different gift each week. We also have used 12 step materials. Over the years we have come to minimize the programs and maximize the sharing and prayer which are the real heart of prayer group.
Sharing: Often before we begin sharing, and always when someone new arrives, we remind ourselves of the few basic ground rules for prayer group.
Confidentiality: Nothing that anyone shares in the room goes out of the room, unless someone is planning to act in a way that is harmful to others or themselves. People have to feel secure that no one else will hear what they share, unless they give their permission.
Acceptance: When people share, no one is allowed to pass judgment on others. Rather, we strive to always accept each person and love them. Knowing that you can share what you think and feel without fear of judgment creates trust and helps the group move to a deeper level.
Acceptance involves active listening. Showing your concern by looking carefully at the person who is sharing, repeating back what you hear them say (from time to time), making a guess at what they might feel and asking them if you are right, asking questions that invite them to tell more, all help the person to KNOW you are really listening and loving. Their trust in you and in the group will deepen.
Acceptance is not thinking about what you will say while others talk. Acceptance is not FIXING others. Acceptance is listening actively with love which creates a safe space.
The group may set some time limit for each person if the group’s time together is limited or if some people need help limiting themselves so everyone can have an opportunity to share.
Modeling: Some people in the group will stay with your group not just for one meeting but year after year. Even one person who consistently comes to pray can keep the fires burning. That person can help by sharing their own prayer needs and their sense of what God is doing in their life, and by modeling openness (without overdoing it). We try to open the door for people to talk about anything that is concerning them. We trust that bringing whatever is inside us out into the open in an atmosphere of love and into the presence and power of Jesus can promote healing.
Praying: Each person who comes to prayer meeting is invited to share any requests or joys before they receive prayer. We do not REQUIRE anyone to share much other than their name, or to receive prayer or to pray for others, especially when they are new to the group and learning what happens.
When someone wishes to share and/or receive prayer, we ask them what they want us to ask for. Sometimes people ask us to pray for someone they love. They sit as a proxy through whom we pour our love and prayer. Usually we also take a separate time to pray for the person themselves however. Some of us tend to avoid sharing our own life and feelings by taking care of others.
After a person makes their wishes clear we gather around and lay hands on them. If there is a larger group people farther away lay their hands on others who are closer. Sometimes we seat the person receiving prayer near to people who are unable to move from their chair. Sometimes people pray without touching, especially if they have a cold and feel concerned to not pass germs.
As we pray, each of us seeks to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes no one will speak a word, and other times one or more persons will feel led to speak a prayer. Prayer time can range from total silence, to speaking images of healing that someone “sees” in their prayer imagination, to healing of memories prayers led by a group member (if the person receiving prayer wishes to do this). The Holy Spirit often gives various people a different prayer focus, and sometimes the Spirit inspires a person to pray in tongues or to sing in the Spirit.
When to stop? Sometimes the person receiving prayer senses that they are at peace and the prayer is complete and will say, “Thank you!” Other times people offering prayer feel that their prayer is complete lift up their hands and return to their seats. Both pray-ers and prayees seek to listen to the leading of the Spirit and to the needs of each other in drawing prayer to a close.
After prayer we pause to see if anyone had any image or word while praying that they might want to share. This may be comforting or challenging and may or may not make immediate “sense” to the person receiving prayer. We also make a time for the person to share anything they my want to debrief after they have received prayer.
Who Comes to Prayer Group and When? Many people in prayer group tend to invite others to join us, sharing what has happened in their lives and faith. Generally people who want to grow into a deeper relationship with God, and folks who want to risk a deeper openness with others come to prayer meeting.
People come with all kinds of problems. EVERYONE has some need for God. We do not try to solve each other’s problems, but we do seek to listen, to care, and to serve as a channel for God’s love to pour into each person who comes. In Fair Haven we have been able to be quite flexible about time. Some people have committed themselves to come at 7:00 and stay until everyone has received prayer – which on some occasions may be as late as 11:00. Their regularity makes it possible to invite other to come and go as they see fit. Some come late and/or leave earlier. Some can come only for a few minutes to receive prayer and then need to leave.
We meet for prayer EVERY week on the same night. The regular time makes it possible to invite someone and if the Spirit doesn’t get them there until 3 or 7 weeks later we will be at the same place and time. Also, most of us have enough needs for God in one week to make us glad to receive prayer again each week.
Closing: When everyone has received prayer, or if many people are leaving, we share a closing prayer, giving thanks to God and praying for angels to guard and guide us home and through the week. Sometimes we bring others outside the group to Jesus and intercede for them. Then, with hugs, we are on our way, recharged for another week.
Stalling Points: Sometimes the group has gone through dry spells – long periods when it seems like nothing is happening. This happens in our personal prayer lives as well. From time to time we need to talk with people in the group and those who are missing to see if we need to readjust our process or schedule to meet their needs.
Any week of being truly alive can bring each of us strong feelings to process. Often the group stalls when we start doing denial or acting out through our addictions instead of working through our emotions and experiences.
Sometimes the group has to talk about the disruptive behavior of a group member. Speaking the truth with love helps. Also, ask God’s grace to treasure your diversity!
Renewing the Group: At points when the group seems to find itself in a spiritual desert, experimenting with different approaches to prayer and the group process can be important. What connected us powerfully to God at one point my not help us at all other times. Following the Holy Spirit is an eternal pilgrimage. Individual members of the group can do their own exploring and bring back experiences to share. Sometimes an audio or video tape can stimulate the group to new experiences and learnings.
Praying for the life of the group can reconnect us with God also. Sometimes group members will pray each day for the Holy Spirit to bless the group and will pray for one another.
Exploring a different approach to prayer (confession, healing the family tree, inner healing, etc.) can be intellectually as well as spiritually nourishing. Special events like a house blessing can enrich the group. Sending group members to a renewing experience (like a revival) also can be revitalizing.
Each time a new person comes to prayer group become a slightly different group so we need to build trust anew. This is both challenging and renewing. Integrating some new friends require real adjustments and negotiation as we seek our new way of being together. Remember, though, that every person in the group has a lifetime of experiences – joyful and painful – that can enrich others if we share them. The energy for ongoing life often comes from stepping past our fears and denial and opening up on a deeper level to one another and to God.
The Role of the Holy Spirit: A key factor in the power of prayer is the Holy Spirit. Our Fair Haven group began with a Life in the Spirit seminar when people learned about the Holy Spirit, many chose to put their whole lives into God’s hands, and let the Spirit fill and use every element of their lives. Sometimes a group finds it difficult to be open channels when they have not opened themselves fully to God’s Holy Spirit. You may want to learn more about baptism in the Holy Spirit or to have a Life in the Spirit seminar in your area to help people open the door to God in this special and deep way.
Blessings: People want to know what to expect when they come to prayer meeting for care. Expect always to be deeply loved and surrounded by God’s care and presence. Expect God to be working within you for wholeness and health. When we tune in to God’s plan God ALWAYS worked with us. (Romans 8) Sometimes astounding physical, emotional and spiritual healings occur on a very quick basis. Sometimes we see little change for some time. Like medicine, prayer needs to come in more than one dose. It needs to get into our system to renew us! Sometimes healing come according to our expectations or way past them. Other times God works bringing peace and love in stunning ways while external circumstances show little change, or even get worse. But continually we are drawn closer to one another and to God.
Sometimes fervent prayers have disappointing answers. One time after months of very encouraging prayer, a longtime group member became very ill with his cancer and suddenly died. It shook everyone in the group and we then worked the process of our grief’s and doubts and our relationship with God. It was painful but REAL. God was gracious and helped us find healing for our disappointments and doubts. Other times, friends with cancer and other problems have received breathtaking healings. Regardless of our concern for worldly results which sometimes cause us to try to manipulate God or control that which we cannot, we continually come back to our central abiding purpose: connecting with one another and with God in the deepest, most real ways possible.
The grace of deep friendship is probably one of the most remarkable blessings of prayer group. Many people become close friends with others, more able to share than ever before in their lives. Likewise, our relationship with God grows deeper. We learn to hope and doubt, rage and laugh, let go and reach out with God. You can literally see the strength that this brings to each person’s life. May you have the hunger for that kind of fellowship and connection with others and with God so that nothing will stop you from starting, sustaining, and renewing a prayer group in your church or community!
Rev. Marsh Hudson-Knapp
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”