We’ve all been there. Sitting in a living room, having just finished a Bible study, your small group now turns to a time of prayer by soliciting requests. Sally shares about her cat Freckles. Freckles is old and has a bad hip—so she asks for healing for Freckles. You can’t quite imagine the apostle Paul praying for his sick cat, but you don’t want to be a jerk so you join the others by bowing your head and praying for Freckles.
Something doesn’t seem quite right, but you’re not sure why. This repeats itself throughout the meeting and from week to week. A single man shares about being really busy at work and requests prayer for energy. A couple shares about their upcoming trip to Colorado and asks for traveling mercies. Someone else shares about his second cousin just diagnosed with breast cancer. Your group dutifully bows their heads in earnest prayer. A newly married couple in the group shares a praise: marriage has been better than they could have ever imagined. Smiles and prayers of thanksgiving go up to God.
You wonder, Is this what small group prayer is all about? The prayer requests are near and dear to each person who shares, yet they seem to lack depth. They’re not shallow, but they’re also not substantive and seem to miss the bigness of God. They hover on the surface when your group is longing to go deeper with one another and with God. What should you do?
Navigating the Tension
There is a tension in prayer. We don’t want to be cynical, hard-hearted, nit-picking prayer police who point out the shallowness of other peoples’ requests. And we know that God desires for his people to pray with freedom to ask God for anything. Jesus doesn’t just throw out things like “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7) without really meaning it. If Jesus meant you can only pray for the really important or spiritual stuff he would have said so.
Yet Jesus makes answers to prayer conditioned on faith (Matt. 21:22), asking in Jesus’s name (John 14:14; 16:24), abiding in Christ (John 15:7), persistence (Luke 18:1-8), having right motives (Jas. 4:3) and asking according to his will (1 John 5:14). And then we get verses that tell us just to ask (Matt. 7:7-11), to pray without ceasing (1 Th. 5:17) and to bring all of our anxieties and concerns to God in prayer (Phil. 4:6). So what should we do if our small group prayer times seem unusually skewed towards asking for stuff (petition), interspersed with some prayers of thanksgiving? What do we do if many of the things we pray for skim along the surface without ever getting deeper?
Praying is a learned skill that takes time, discipline, and work. Corporate prayer is shallow because private prayer is infrequent. Recognize that we all have room to grow in learning to pray to God together. Be gracious with one another. Yet learn to guide a small group’s prayer time. Here are a few suggestions.