The two subjects sure to tickle the guilt-bone in your typical evangelical churchgoer would be evangelism and prayer. We love to speak of the power of prayer and affirm its importance for the church, but seldom do our professed values translate into actual attendance and engagement at the called prayer gatherings of the local body. Every pastor knows that the hardest meetings to “sell” are those that feature prayer as the main ingredient. So for many, the prayerlessness of the local church testifies to a lack of spirituality, to an absence of heart, and to a dreadful carnality within the communion of saints. Without disputing that perspective, I would point out another dimension of the prayerlessness problem. So many times, corporate prayer among believers is inhibited by factors outside the heart and conscience of the individual believer. So often, prayer meetings are not well attended simply because they are not well led. Apart from the forces of darkness, the greatest hindrance to vital corporate prayer may be the dysfunctionalities of the prayer meeting itself.
The temptation for the spiritual leader may be to bemoan the indifference of his people rather than do what can be done to make the prayer meeting a more attractive option for those who have a kingdom mindset and a heart for prayer. We may say to ourselves that corporate prayer is so important that one ought to join in no matter what the conditions. Or, we may say to ourselves that corporate prayer is so important that we need to do all we can to make it meaningful and satisfying to those who come. For those who take the latter approach, I offer the following eight practical suggestions for leading a prayer meeting. They won’t compensate for stony hearts, but they will help maximize what sensitivity of soul there is in the busy, caring Christian.
(1) Reduce distractions. So many prayer meetings are wrecked by simple logistical factors. To maximize real engagement in prayer minimize distractions, such as noise. Many people get lost in prayer meetings because they cannot hear what others are saying. This potential pitfall is easily sidestepped by aligning chairs that face toward each other and holding your meeting in a location that will insure quiet. Extraneous noises like traffic or a running air conditioner or water fountain are all it takes to frustrate some praying believers. Soft-speaking believers combined with noisy appliances can prompt some saints to tune into Jeopardy rather than venture out to a poorly planned meeting for prayer.
(2) Promote vocal involvement without pressure. A prayer meeting is not to be a spectator sport. It is to be a vital group conversation with the Almighty, and there is no better way to ensure someone’s heart-involvement than to provide real opportunity for voice involvement. At the same time, we don’t want our prayer meetings to scare away new participants, even new believers, who are frightened by real or perceived expectations. Balancing these two values speaks to the issue of size in praying groups. A group that is too large (more than 12) is likely to silence all but the most confident praying saints. A group that is too small (two to four) may be a place of pressure for the novice who is not ready to speak out. Therefore, I advocate organizing prayer groups of five to 10 ideally, with a clear invitation to all who attend toward either vocal or heart-only participation.
(3) Make it positive. There is a story of a man who comes to a poorly attended prayer meeting and prays: “God bless we faithful few who have come to prayer meeting while everyone else is out there having a good time.” Yikes! Did someone actually say that out loud? I guarantee that many have had such a thought. Due to the ever-present desire and need for crisis-response prayers, it is too easy for prayer meetings to become rather negative in tone. Not fun, and not really biblical. When all you think about is the decline in Western culture, the victims of earthquakes, and the list of ill friends and relatives it is hard to avoid an ungodly heaviness of heart. No wonder prayer meetings are a drag to so many. Wise leaders, then, will do what they can to create a more positive tone. This can be done in a number of ways. A leader can provide and invite positive news, “praise-reports,” to balance out the focus on crises. Also, the leader can exemplify an upbeat, hopeful tone by praying with gratitude and with some energy of voice. Finally, the leader can encourage and exemplify a focus on proactive (offensive) rather than reactive (defensive) prayers by focusing on advancing Christ’s kingdom and praying specifically for lost men and women, for ministry effectiveness, and for missionary success. In this way, the leader can communicate expectancy and then bless the faithful with news of how God has answered.
(4) Make it personal. That is, be alert to the personal issues and concerns being brought to the prayer meeting. Praying saints are also social saints, so the leader will want to insure that everyone at the meeting is at least somewhat familiar with those with whom they pray. Therefore, the leader should briefly provide introductions when needed. Prayer meeting is not a time for back-row, anonymous, or secret believers. Gather everyone in a tight-knit group, and allow (in most cases) for personal prayer requests. The prayer request portion can easily be allowed to go too long. Be alert to that danger, but do seek to discover what burdens have been brought to the meeting that may be lifted heavenward.
(5) Mix it up. If you are leading a regular prayer group, try to stay out of ruts. Exercise your creativity and provide some variety of form and style for the praying saints. Our God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This does not mean our prayer meetings must be. A little time and thought can go a long way toward making good meetings great meetings.
(6) Use formal prayers and songs. The evangelical church has a bias toward spontaneous prayers that is hardly justified. Without becoming rote and meaningless, written and recited prayers can add quality, depth, and uniform participation to a prayer meeting. Hymns or songs are the most appreciated and biblical form of these prayers. The most frequent biblical command is to praise the Lord and the second most frequent is to sing. For some prayer leaders the use of music may be quite easy, but for others there is a notable fear factor. Consider these suggestions: (a) if you pick well-known hymns and choruses which are easy to sing, leading a group in musical praise is not hard at all; (b) part of the sacrifice that honors our Lord is to risk “sounding bad” in order to bless the Lord and others; (c) if you just cannot there will usually be someone in your group up to the task of leading. Prepare them ahead of time for this role.
The “659” Model
One model for corporate prayer meetings that I have used and enjoyed has been what I call the 659 model. I called it “659” because that is what time the meeting began, but also because it delineates the flow of the prayer gathering. We begin with six minutes of musical praise from songs that are pre-selected, followed by five minutes of Bible readings. Each participant is encouraged to pick a favorite passage (no more than 15 verses) to read for the group. Then we go into nine minutes of prayer, with the understanding that no single prayer is to last more than a minute. 659. Once we complete the cycle we repeat it, once, twice, or three times. It is amazing how rapidly an hour or more passes. The variety keeps the mind and heart fresh. 659 is one of many creative models for prayer groups. Try it, and let’s give our God no rest until He makes Jerusalem a praise in all the earth. (Isaiah 62:6-7)
(7) Engage the mind. You may be the kind of person who always finds corporate prayer easy and engaging, but many do not. Distractions and boredom happen, and they are used by the enemy to frustrate us and shut down real prayer. Understanding this reality directs the leader toward ways to keep prayer partners alert and focused. This begins by arranging a room that is comfortable without being too comfortable. Such mundane things as room temperature and seating quality can impact spiritual warfare. A great room for prayer will allow participants to sit, kneel, stand, or walk around during prayer. Create a climate of freedom with respect to posture. I, for one, do better when I change bodily position during prayer as the physical movement helps me stay mentally engaged.
The most common way boredom is reinforced, and focus is diminished, is by long, dull prayers. Listening to someone go on and on about one subject, or a laundry list of subjects, is not mentally tolerable for the average churchgoer. Great prayer meetings will be marked by a series of short, one-subject prayers. “Long in private, short in public” is a great rule for praying. Prayer leaders should model this in their own public prayers, but also teach and encourage it in others.
(8) Lead. The church is crying for leaders. Our prayer meetings desperately need help from leaders who will arrange the context, give direction, provide motivation, increase a feeling of belonging and security, and deal with problems when they arise. That last one may be the hardest element of good prayer leadership. Sometimes there are individuals who need to be spoken to because they are praying too quietly to be heard, or they are preaching mini-sermons rather than offering true prayers, or they are dominating the meetings with their many words. For the good of the whole, and for the good of the kingdom of Jesus, gently speak to the brother or sister.
There is something for us to learn from the poor attendance at our prayer meetings. It is more than just a statement about the spiritual condition of the contemporary believer. It may also be a cry for better leadership in corporate prayer. Jesus said, “My Father’s house is to be a house of prayer.” When we really believe this, we will do what we can to make that house of prayer as appealing as possible, and full of eager worshippers. I believe the prophet has prayer in mind when he writes Isaiah 62:1: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, Until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, And her salvation like a torch that is burning.”
Dan Hendly pastored Covenant PCA in Palm Bay, Fla. for 24 years.