While nearly everyone agrees that we need to pray more as chapters, getting people to pray together is like jump-starting an aircraft carrier. Why is that?
In a timeless essay titled "Conversational Prayer Meetings," W. C. Lantz describes most corporate prayer today as standing in line at the mall to see Santa Claus: you wait for your turn. Maybe you listen to what the other kids ask for so you might get an idea or maybe you are too busy trying to figure out what you are going to say to Santa. Each person goes through their entire list and then it’s the next person’s turn.
Contrast this with a conversation with your family as you decide how to spend the weekend. One person wants to go to the mall, and that idea is discussed. Then the conversation may progress toward what work needs to be done around the house or whose friends might come over later to watch a movie with the family. But everyone is in on the discussion. Each person shows love for the others by listening and contributing to the conversation. This is how our times of corporate prayer should be, whether it’s in a small-group Bible study, a prayer meeting, at a large-group meeting, or with a group of friends at midnight in your dorm.
Can you imagine how weird life would be if all your conversations were like most prayer meetings? You’d be at a party, maybe standing in a circle with friends, and one person would talk constantly for five or ten minutes, hardly taking a breath, covering six or seven topics. Finally that person would finish, and the next person would start saying basically the same thing for five or ten minutes. Maybe the next person would squeeze the person’s hand next to them to let them know they weren’t going to say anything, but then the fourth person jumps in for their five minutes on those same topics, and so on around the circle. How boring would that be? Would you chose to stay in that conversation or would you excuse yourself to go get some more food or drink and find someone else to talk to? This is why it’s so hard to get people to come to pray corporately.
Another killer of corporate prayer can be the style called “popcorn prayer,” and for similar reasons. Going back to that party where you are all standing around in a circle, what if each person were only allowed to say one sentence and then had to wait for someone else to say a sentence before continuing? It would be difficult to discuss a topic that way.
God, our loving Father, wants to have a family conversation, not a Santa Claus line or a popcorn popper, when we pray together. He desires intimacy with us as a family. We are not strangers in the mall just standing next to each other; we’re family.
Here are some ground rules for conversational prayer (they would also work as good ground rules for having a conversation at a party):
- Stick with one thought at a time, allowing someone else to add to that topic before proceeding. I call this “paragraph” prayer.
- Proceed topically, not leaving a topic until everyone who wishes to contribute has had a chance to pray something about it.
Now there is a place for other types of prayer. Oratorical group prayer is when one person, possibly a pastor or priest, prays an inspiring prayer, usually from the front, which may cover a multitude of topics, and the rest of the group agrees, silently or not so silently, with him or her. This is corporate prayer too, but it’s not conversational prayer. It’s great to use at a large group, or when you don’t have much time to pray, so you say, “Lindsay, will you close us in prayer?”
Most people have only heard oratorical group prayer and so they tend to model their prayers on that. Oratory doesn’t mix well with conversational prayer. In other words, if you are expecting everyone or most people present to pray, you don’t want oratorical prayer—it’s too redundant, and therefore gets boring quickly. You probably want conversational prayer.
Here are some other benefits of conversational prayer:
It shows love and respect for the others present. When you are listened to and agreed with, don’t you feel respected and maybe even loved?
It’s considerate of attention span. Which is easier to listen to: a lecture or a conversation?
There is no need to have all your thoughts organized; you can go back and pray again if you missed something the first time or someone else may cover it. You can always go back and add something you think of later.
There is less self-consciousness. You don’t need to worry about taking your “turn” or making your “speech.” It can therefore be a “God-conscious” thing and not a “self-conscious” thing.
It can be deep and real. So what if the first guy took all the prayer requests you were excited about (or even all the prayer requests)? Conversational prayer, just like a conversation, can get deeper, if you let it get more specific. Just agree with what’s been said and then add to the topic, going deeper or more specific. Remember, prayer is a conversation, not a speech.
Conversational prayer cuts down on the amount of unplanned silence in a prayer. Silence is great, and should be used, as long as you tell people, “We’re going to be silent for five minutes now,” but unplanned silence freaks people out. Have you ever noticed that the amount of silence after a person finishes praying is directly proportional to the length of time that person prays? (“Oh, he’s finally done. I guess I should think about praying now .”) If the person prays long enough, the silence that follows may reach the point of no return, and you’ll have to step in and save the prayer time. If people are encouraged to pray only a paragraph at a time this rarely happens. Others are ready to agree and add more in prayer.
Because most people are more familiar with oratorical prayer, when you lead a group in conversational prayer you may need to give some instruction before you start. Explain the ground rules of only covering one thought at a time and proceeding topically. Make sure you are practicing them yourself while praying.
If your times of group prayer aren’t going well or if they could go better, then be sure to give conversational prayer a try; it might really make a difference.
(from Student Leadership Journal, vol.17:3)
Deepen your relationship with God with prayer guides and training materials from InterVarsity’s Spiritual Formation and Prayer team.