Prayer is at the very heart of the Christian life. Not only is it obedience to God’s command, but it is a vital means of our receiving his ongoing grace for our spiritual survival and thriving. And the joy of prayer — communing with God — is essential to what it means to be Christian. Without prayer, there is no true relationship with him, and no deep delight in who he is, but only glimpses from afar.
As Jesus teaches, private prayer (or “closet prayer”) has an important role to play in the life of the believer. We develop our various patterns and practices for secret prayer in the rhythms of our unique lives. We find our place and time to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). Amen to private prayer. It is crucial. But there is more.
Pray with Constancy
Prayer begins in secret, but God doesn’t mean for it to stay in the closet. Prayer is for all of life, and especially for our life together in community. When we follow the lead of the Scriptures, we not only practice prayer in private, but take its spirit of dependence and trust into the rest of the day, and into times of prayer together with fellow believers.
Likely you know the verses that lead us to whisper prayers long after we’ve left the closet. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2), “pray at all times” (Ephesians 6:18). Jesus said that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). These texts charge us not to stay all day in the closet, but to carry a posture of prayer in the soul as we give ourselves fully to our daily tasks and engagements — and that in a moment, we be ready to go consciously Godward in the car, waiting in line, before a meal, in the midst of a difficult conversation, and in anything else.
“Everywhere God is, prayer is,” Tim Keller writes. “Since God is everywhere and infinitely great, prayer must be all-pervasive in our lives” (Prayer, 28).
Pray with Company
And the highpoint of prayer all-pervasive, outside the closet door, is praying together with other Christians.
Arranging for accompaniment in prayer takes more energy and effort than a whispered prayer while on the move. It takes planning and initiative and the syncing of schedules in a way that private prayer does not. But it is worth every ounce.
And so we have at least two fronts to a healthy life of prayer. We pray personally, in the secret and on the move, and we pray corporately, resisting the privatizing of our prayers, not just by asking others to pray for us, but especially by having others pray with others.
Christ and His Company
If any human life would have been fine without regular company in prayer, it would have been Jesus’s. But again and again we catch glimpses of a life of prayer that was not only personal but corporate. “He took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28), and he responded gladly to their inquiry, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), with a communal prayer to “our Father,” marked by the repeated use of “we,” “us,” and “our.”
The classic text on Jesus’s letting others invade his prayer space is Luke 9:18: “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him.” Rarely did he part company with his men (and only then to pray, Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16), and doubtless one of their most regular pursuits together was prayer. Keeping such company in prayer must have played a part in “the boldness of Peter and John [who were] uneducated, common men,” but it was recognized “that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Jesus’s communal prayer with his men then led to communal prayer in the early church they led. It is explicit at nearly every turn in the Books of Acts.
“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14; also Acts 2:42).
“They lifted their voices together to God” (Acts 4:24), and the filling of the Holy Spirit fell after they prayed together (Acts 4:31).
The church chose the Seven, and “they prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6).
While Peter was in prison, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:5), and when he escaped miraculously, he found “many were gathered together and were praying” (Acts 12:12).
It was “after fasting and praying” that the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas out on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:3), and “when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23).
Even in jail, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
And in an emotional goodbye to the Ephesian elders, Paul “knelt down and prayed with them all” (Acts 20:36; also Acts 21:5).
Five Counsels for Praying with Company
And our need for God’s help today is no less, and prayer together remains a vital means of God’s ongoing grace in the Christian life and for our communities.
That the early church prayed together is plain; the details of how they went about it are not. Which is fitting. There is no one pattern for corporate prayer, whether it’s in twos or tens, hundreds or thousands. The practices of praying together vary from family to family, church to church, and community to community based on context, leadership, and shared history. Wise leaders are observant about what habits and practices are already at work in the group, which ones are helpful and could be encouraged, and which ones might prove unhelpful in the long haul and could be replaced.
Here are five lessons learned in leading small-group prayer in recent years. Maybe one or two would be good for a family, community group, or church you lead or are a part of.
1. Make it regular.
Make regular prayer with company a part of your weekly or biweekly routine. Instead of just hit-or-miss, have some planned time and place to gather with fellow believers to pray. As for how many weeks or months you commit, make some finite pledge together, rather than a world-without-end-amen kind of plan. When the specified time is up, renew or reconsider. Regular prayer commitments without an end date tend to fizzle over time, and then prove discouraging for future engagements.
2. Start with Scripture.
Christian prayer at its truest comes in response to God’s self-revelation to us. It is, as George Herbert wrote, “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” And so it is fitting to begin sessions of corporate prayer with some anchor in God’s own speaking to us by reading a passage or referencing some place in Scripture as a kind of “call to prayer.” We inhale the Scriptures, and exhale in prayer.
3. Limit share time.
It can be easy to let the sharing of requests cannibalize the actual praying together. Keep your introductions short, read a passage, and go right into prayer. Encourage people to share their requests by praying them with the information needed to let others in on what they’re praying.
4. Encourage brevity and focus.
The corporate setting is not well served by rambling. It tries the attention and focus of even the most devout prayer warriors, and contributes to setting a length standard inaccessible to many, and a poor model to everyone. At suitable times, urge short, focused prayers, and perhaps even include a season of one-sentence praises or thanks which can encourage more people to participate.
5. Pray without show, but with others in mind.
“The highpoint of prayer . . . is praying together with other Christians.”
Remind yourself that corporate prayer is not for impressing others — some personalities especially need the regular prompt — but for gathering others up with us in our praises, confessions, thanksgivings, and requests. However, minding our own penchant for praying for show doesn’t mean we forget or neglect the others gathered.
Good corporate praying is not just directed to God, but has our fellow pray-ers in view. Which means, like Jesus, we pray most often with “we,” “us,” and “our,” and both with authenticity and with candor that is appropriate for those assembled.
Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines is a call to hear God’s voice, have his ear, and belong to his body.
Though seemingly normal and routine, the everyday “habits of grace” we cultivate give us access to these God-designed channels through which his love and power flow — including the greatest joy of all: knowing and enjoying Jesus.