How we receive prayer points in our small groups will reveal our real beliefs about prayer. It will also show how well we love the people in our group.
If the group is working well, building trust with each other and with God, then people will feel able to seek prayer for things that are more personal.
When items for prayer are shared, how the group responds will speak volumes about whether it is safe to have personal and painful things prayed for. If the group is working well, building trust with each other and with God, then there will be safety for unresolved distress and pain to be present and acknowledged. People will feel able to seek prayer for things that are more personal. They will be ready to express deep hurts and longings.
But there are some common mistakes we can make in our response to what is shared—mistakes that will undermine the trust that is needed in the group. We can offer responses that reveal a lack of faith, or a lack of wisdom or compassion. Here are some (imagined) group members who each have a distinct response to someone else’s prayer point. You may have been in a group with someone like this (or you may have been this person):
When people share something for prayer with a group, it often lands as a problem they are in the middle of—something that distresses them because it is unresolved. Adam Advice-giver jumps in to tell the person what they need to do.
Adam’s eagerness to give advice might, in part, stem from a desire to help a brother or sister in distress, but it might also indicate discomfort with unresolved problems. It might communicate to the person making the prayer request that their problem is no big deal—that it might even be resolved without taking it to God. After all, Adam Advice-giver has such ready access to a solution; it seems the group doesn’t need to pray at all!
A group leader can pre-empt the drift into advice-giving, by reminding the group, before anything is shared, that this group listens well and doesn’t give advice. If the advice is already out there, a group leader can thank the advice-giver for their concern and then underline the point that the most important thing is to take it to God in prayer.
There is a second version of the ‘jump-on’ response to a prayer point, which comes from Ivy I’ve-got-a-story-like-that. This group member leaps into the prayer point to tell the story of the time something similar happened to them.
The best version of what’s happening here is that Ivy I’ve-got-a-story-like-that is trying to build a connection based on common ground; it’s a way to let the person sharing know that they are not alone. But usually, it moves the sharing in unhelpful directions. Instead of listening well to the person sharing, the storyteller has shifted attention onto themselves. They have moved attention off caring for the person and onto the topic of what is being shared.
As with Adam Advice-giver, it might be the case that Ivy I’ve-got-a-story-like-that feels distressed about the difficult situation, making them feel uncomfortable. This uneasiness is covered by doing something that often works well in a social setting: sharing another story that shows common experience.
This is not a moment to smooth over something challenging or unsettling. Pain needs to be allowed and acknowledged.
However, this is not a moment to smooth over the awkward discomfort of something challenging or unsettling. If we are going to build trust, distress and pain need to be allowed and acknowledged.
Ivy I’ve-got-a-story-like-that is mistakenly trying to save the group from weeping with those who weep. By jumping in and redirecting the conversation, this action will do the opposite of what a healthy group is aiming for when they move into prayer time.
You might begin to think that the previous two have made the mistake of talking when they should have held their tongue. However, Noni No-response, who stays quiet—maybe out of shyness or a fear of getting it wrong—has also missed a moment of grace.
Noni No-response may have been spooked by Adam and Ivy, feeling that she has no solution and no stories about a similar thing. Fumbling around for some relevant Bible verse or platitude and coming up empty, Noni says nothing. It might be that Noni believes approval only comes by saying the ‘right’ thing—silence means playing it safe.
But this means she misses the opportunity to offer the welcome and acceptance made possible through the gospel of the Lord Jesus. When someone shares a trouble or concern for prayer, we don’t want to leave them hanging. To say nothing and leave the moment unacknowledged is heartbreaking.
A group leader—especially if they are directing the process of people sharing things for prayer—will let the person sharing know that they have been heard, and understood, and cared for.
Let’s turn to some more positive group members. Valerie Validator is a reflective listener who is able to offer a brief statement that provides validation to the person sharing.
For example, if a group member has spoken about some surgery that is coming up, Valerie might say: ‘Oh, that sounds serious, I can see you are worried about that.’
Notice that Valerie has focussed on the emotional aspect of the prayer point. If the person sharing was more stoic and not showing any emotion, Valerie would probably respond with something like, ‘Oh, that sounds serious. Does it worry you?’
Most of us say things in groups, feeling unsure about ourselves or our prayer requests. It is like we have made an offer to connect, and we are looking for a response. When Valerie Validator steps in, we know that our underlying feelings have been recognised, along with the presenting issue or problem.
Some group members will naturally share at the level of feelings, which will create a closer group. Other group members will need more time to warm up to the idea that it might be safe to share like this, and Valerie Validator can help them get there.
Honestly, some prayer points that get shared with the group are vague or meandering. When that happens, Clarence Clarifier—who likes to ask questions and reframe things to facilitate a better understanding of the person/situation—is a very helpful group member.
For example, if a group member is telling a long story about a difficult person at work (and no one is quite sure where the story is headed and how it might be something to pray about) Clarence might step in with: ‘What is it you’d like us to pray for?’ or ‘It sounds like you need lots of patience dealing with them, can we pray for that?’
The aim is to help the person reflect on what they want prayer for … to hear the need, and to better understand the person sharing it.
Clarence asks for something more focused in expressing the need. Or Clarence suggests a fruit of the Spirit, to help frame the prayer point and redirect the request towards God’s good work in the life of that group member.
It’s not that Clarence believes God won’t listen and answer unless things are clear. Rather, the aim is to help the person reflect on what they want prayer for; to sharpen the sharing so that the group gets to hear the need, and to better understand the person sharing it.
One way that we can show how we love one another is by getting better at hearing the prayer points of others. We can get better at avoiding the traps and validating the person and their need to bring this request to our loving Heavenly Father.