ELEMENTS OF A PRAYER MEETING – Roy MacIntyre June 2009
Prayer groups are made up of human beings and as such will mean there is on the one hand giftedness both in natural gifts and spiritual ones and on the other hand weaknesses and shortcomings. A worthy goal of prayer group leadership is to see that gifts are encouraged and enhanced. It is obviously helpful to find ways of managing the kinds of weakness that may interfere with the work of the prayer group, the praise and worship of God.
If a prayer group member has gifts and they are being unused or even underused this can be a problem for the individual and a loss to the prayer group. Leaders who keep their prayer groups alive and growing are quick to identify the gifts of members and to motivate them into action. I will leave that whole process for another time. What I mainly want to look at today are challenges many prayer groups face from time to time.
I think a good place to start is getting an answer to the question, what is the purpose of a prayer meeting?
If we think about it we can see that the primary purpose of a prayer meeting is the praise and worship of God. In other words we express our love of God in praising Him and coming into worship and adoration of God. With this as our priority everything else that happens in a prayer meeting should flow and never contradict the purpose of praise and worship of God.
To start with let me describe a template or format for a prayer meeting that has been proven effective in achieving its purpose. Let me preface this with saying that this is not something to be thought of as carved in stone. Rather it is a guideline. Prayer groups are obviously free to modify their meeting as the Spirit leads. And when the Spirit moves He will lead the group to true praise and worship of God. Nevertheless, what I am presenting here is a tried and true method of bringing God’s people into a level of praise and worship that will foster expression of His manifold gifts that will blaze forth in their many and diverse forms.
Many of the elements of this template can be found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, verses 16-17. Dwell in the Word, teach and admonish, sing hymns and spiritual songs, give thanks all in the name of Jesus.
Intercessory and Deliverance Prayer before the meeting by core members, music ministry and others. The more time given to this the better the outpouring of the Spirit at the meeting is likely to be.
Opening prayer can be said by the leader before or after a first song.
Four to Five powerful praise songs that will get the prayer group on their feet and shake from them the cobwebs, the burdens of the day, the reluctance to praise God with mind, voice, body and spirit. Sometimes, if there is some sluggishness in the group, an action song may help to get the group into praise. I remember reading the Cross and the Switchblade about a ‘Jericho March’ to get people moving and alive in the Lord.
On the other hand, if there is already a free movement of the Spirit, action songs may, in fact, dampen the praise. The prayer meeting leader needs to be attentive to the leading of the Spirit and the music ministry needs to be in tune with the leader. So, by the time we have completed these vigorous praise songs the prayer group should be spontaneously praising God in the full freedom of the Spirit.
At this point the leader has a few choices. She or he could give a brief teaching. This teaching will be designed to serve the purpose of further bringing the group into the worship of our awesome God. Some groups take a moment to welcome, honour and bless new members at this point as well as those in need of prayer or who are celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
A series of more worshipful songs is next and will be sung to help bring the group into the experience of awareness of the presence of the Lord among us. These worship songs that bring the group deeper and deeper into the experience of the Spirit of God will foster the manifestation of God’s gifts. The process is that when we praise and worship God He blesses us with His gifts.
The gift of tongues is expected and often in the poignant silence after singing in the Spirit a word of knowledge, prophecy, exhortation or vision may be shared with the group. The leader will invite and encourage members to speak out these messages from the Lord while at the same time trying to maintain the sense of the presence of God among the group.
Some groups have an admirable practice of having someone keep track of the content of the Word gifts to make a summary of the messages given to the members by the Lord. Some prayer groups keep a written record of what the Lord has spoken to the group. This can be especially important when the prayer group is discerning how the Lord is moving in the group.
It is also a noble practice to allow a period of silence after each word so members can absorb and integrate each message from God. Often a period of general silence to contemplate all of the messages takes place toward the end of the time for Word gifts.
The second opportunity for teaching is when the time for the Word gifts has come to an end. Longer teachings and more informational talks are better placed here.
Brief Sharings or testimonials usually follow the Word gifts. These should be about current ways God is working in the sharer’s life and follow ABCD rule. The ABCD rule is simply this: keep the sharing Accurate/Authentic, be Brief, be Christ-centered and Do not preach.
Prayers of Petition and Thanksgiving follows the sharing and ends with concluding prayers. Most prayer groups say an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be to conclude. One I know also adds the Memorare of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
A Final Hymn or Hymns of Blessing and Welcome usually brings the prayer meeting to an end.
Fellowship is a very important part of a prayer group and is usually following the meeting. This is the time to connect, welcome, pray with individuals and have some food and beverage together. Get to know one another’s needs to connect with them, show them love and pray for them. Every prayer group should do what they can to encourage people to stay for fellowship.
Individual Prayer for those in need should be carried out in a place that offers sufficient privacy to protect the individual’s confidentiality.
So that is the Template or format for bringing a prayer meeting through the joyful praise to the deep contemplation of the presence of God; the teaching, the sharing, the petitions, the fellowship and the individual ministry to foster the life of the prayer group. The actual meetings should start on time and a good time frame is from 1 to 1½ hours for weekly meetings followed by fellowship.
Every prayer meeting is unique with its particular character. In a real sense it is not just an effective format that brings about a powerful meeting, it is, of course, mainly God Himself Who manifests Himself and that work is entirely His. Every meeting is different from every other and it is not helpful to compare this meeting to that one. We simply start each meeting looking to what God has in store for us. He may bring us to mountTabor or He may bring us through the desert.
When the praise and worship of God has succeeded in following the leading of the Spirit a number of fruits will generally manifest themselves in the meeting and will tend to carry beyond the meeting. We can expect joy that will go with the members as they return to their homes and daily lives. We also look to experience faith that God is really in control. We grow in trust that God is looking after our lives. We become imbued with a desire to pray and read the Scriptures and to witness to others of the goodness of God. We will have a loving care for each other that is evident in the fellowship at the meeting and beyond. And we will come away with hope, optimism that everything is in God’s hands with the knowledge that we do not have to worry about anything.
Challenges in prayer meetings
Now that we have looked at how a prayer meeting can bring a tangible experience of the presence and power of God in our lives let’s take some time to look at what can interfere and undermine these good fruits of the Spirit of God.
New Comers: In most prayer meetings new comers are welcome and encouraged to return. However, one must ask how long will it take for a person to feel part of a prayer group. Well, the short answer is it varies according to the person. Some individuals are integrated in the first meeting. It may be as if they have found their home. Most, however, take some time to feel welcomed, accepted and part of the prayer meeting. Leaders will be attentive to new members for several months helping them feel welcomed, prayed with, informed about the life in the Spirit and about events that will help them spiritually and give them a sense of being a part of the group.
New comers can have a dampening effect on the meeting if regular members are self-conscious. This is especially true if there are a number of new comers. Regular members may be fearful of turning the new comer off. So, the sooner the new members are integrated the better. Life in the Spirit seminars can be effective in helping integrate new members into a prayer group. Leaders need to be sensitive to the possible effects of new people in the meeting. They can acknowledge the new members and introduce to them what they might expect and at the same time encourage the regular members to feel free to allow the Spirit to manifest Himself in them.
Parachutes: What are Parachutes? These are people who have had leadership roles in prayer groups and for one reason or another join a new group. Parachutes are sometimes looked upon with suspicion by long term members. Those suspicions can extend to many and varied themes. Sometimes, the regular members will experience envy or resentment at the parachutes. Leaders may want to include parachutes into leadership roles too soon. This should be avoided unless there is a process of integrating them that involves the whole prayer group. Such a process will help to dispel unwarranted suspicions. Otherwise, parachutes should be content to wait until they are fully integrated into the group before accepting a leadership role. This may be in the order of one year or more.
Cliques: Small groups or factions can form in a prayer group. One form of this group can act as a shadow core and notice all the things that go wrong in the prayer meeting. This negative focus can undermine the prayer meeting purpose and stifle the Spirit.
More often there are less malicious cliques in prayer groups. These may not intend any harm and do not have a negative focus but the mere fact of always being seen together by other members can lead to resentment, alienation and suspicion. Members of the music ministry, for instance, can easily find themselves separate from the other members because of their need to be together, practice, setup and put equipment away. Fellowship time, therefore, is necessary for the music ministry member to integrate with other members. Continuing to play together after the meeting is generally not recommended since it may further serve to divide.
Obviously cliques or natural groups within prayer groups need to learn to mix with others and avoid huddling together as separate groups. Leaders will need to be sensitive to such groups and intervene to encourage them to mix. The more negative cliques may need to be taken aside in prayer in an effort to help them avoid the destructive negative focus. Leaders should listen to their valid feedback and help them integrate into the whole group.
Baseball Novenas: This is an apt metaphor for a leader who thinks that she or he is responsible for everything in the prayer group and tries to micromanage the activities of the prayer group. Leaders need to learn to delegate responsibilities. There are two reasons for this. It obviously will relieve the leader of all the work and it will give others, especially those who have not yet served a prayer meeting, the opportunity to take some leadership role. It is also good for the baseball novena leader to learn to let go and trust God. The baseball novena is a leader who feels he must play all nine positions on a baseball team.
Intransigent Leaders: Unfortunately for various reasons some leaders get stuck in their roles and become comfortable being the leader of the parish prayer meeting. My experience is that if someone gets into this kind of leadership rut they are not aware of subtle suggestions that they could consider moving on. The other part of this problem is that members often don’t want to hurt the leader’s feelings by forcing the issue. The results are that the prayer group gets stuck and likely the prayer meetings will also stagnate.
God’s Spirit that aims to renew and regenerate can be stifled with a leader in place too long. Unfortunately, sometimes the reason for a stuck leader is because nobody else in the prayer group is willing to take the role. So, what to do?
It seems reasonable that leadership in prayer groups should be addressed annually, biannually and not longer than triennially. This review of leadership could be seen as a process of regeneration for the whole prayer group. Ideally, this process would include and be preceded by a period of prayer and fasting. When a prayer group takes the time to pray and fast seeking God’s direction it is amazing what God will do for that group. There will be no worries about hurt feelings. In fact, the prayer group is likely to be renewed and given new life. This is true even if there are only minor changes made in the leadership core group.
If the leader is fearful of losing his position and is defensive about it members could suggest prayer and fasting to discern what Jesus wants to do with His prayer group. I know from experience that God can move in situations like this with prayer, fasting and a spirit of love.
All prayer groups no matter how small should have a leadership team or core group and they should meet to pray and organize regularly apart from the prayer meeting. If your prayer group is small then there will be more time to pray and less time needed to organize but they still should meet regularly. Leadership teams give opportunities for regular members to explore their potential as leaders and they give God the opportunity to raise up the ones He wants.
Prayer groups need live music, teaching, service to see that all the requirements to have a successful prayer meeting are in place. If you don’t have one or more of these ask the Lord to send them to you. After all it is His prayer meeting. He will provide to those who persevere in prayer.
Without effective leaders and leadership teams the items I discuss from this point on would be quite difficult if not impossible to address. So, let me now speak to some of the problems that may manifest themselves within the prayer meeting itself.
Inappropriate Discussion is something that I have seen more and more in prayer meetings. Remember the purpose of the prayer meeting is to come into praise and worship of God that brings the fruits of joy, faith, trust, thirst for God in prayer and scripture, love of one another and desire to share God with others. So, in terms of inappropriate discussion let me give a few examples of what I mean.
I was at a meeting where a leader introduced a question for sharing/discussion of how each person was hurt by the Catholic Church. First of all this kind of discussion did not and would not achieve the purpose of a prayer meetings and secondly, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Church.
Let me digress for a moment. Archbishop Miller in a recent talk spoke about the Church. He said, “The Church is not our Church”. He then quoted Jesus, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church.” In other words the Church to which we belong is not our Church it is the Church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we should not think that somehow we know what needs to happen to fix our church. Rather we need to trust that Jesus is doing what He needs to do in every age to bring about the salvation of His people. It’s His Church and He alone knows what it needs. Our role should be to be docile to the Spirit so that we can know what Jesus is doing and what He wants from us in the process of building His Church.
We should also not confuse the weakness of individuals within the Church with the Church, the Virgin Bride of Christ. If God could make a donkey prophecy He can use the people in His Church to bring about what He wants. So our roles and practices should manifest a love of Christ’s Church and not be joining his enemies in criticism of His Church. There may be a place to discuss certain problems but certainly not in the context of a prayer meeting.
I have seen other discussions in prayer meetings that ramble around and around with little point or direction and get so bogged down in the human spirit that the meeting fails to give what a prayer meeting is meant to give – joy, faith, piety, trust, love, hope… Is there really a place for discussion in a weekly prayer meeting?
If there are some items that need to be discussed should they not be addressed after the meeting? I think they could. Otherwise, prayer group could set aside a separate time apart from the regular meeting to discuss a certain topic that needs to be addressed. This separate time should also include coming into the presence of the Lord through praise and worship but the goal would primarily be to deal with the issue or issues at hand.
Inappropriate Sharing is another problem encountered in prayer groups. Sometimes, even when individuals are advised of the ABCD rule of sharing they go off on irrelevant tangents and unnecessary details that defeat the purpose of the prayer meeting.
Perhaps we have all seen cases where people have attempted to advance ideas, programs or activities that are contrary to sound doctrine or just inappropriate for the prayer meeting. The prayer meeting leader needs to ready to intervene in such cases to bring a peaceful end to sharing that does not meet the ABCD criteria.
I was at a meeting where an individual began to ramble on in an inappropriate and too personal a sharing. The meeting leader simply strolled up to the individual put her arm around her and quietly led her to her seat while affirming her – what a beautiful docility to the Spirit! Even if you do not have the skill of this particular woman in handling inappropriate sharing, you, as leader, must intervene to bring an end to something that is distracting the meeting from its purpose. Inaction can be harmful so we need to do our best to handle inappropriate sharing at our meeting.
Inappropriate Teaching: A first principle of teaching t a Catholic Charismatic Prayer Group is that whatever is being taught is not contrary to Catholic doctrine, moral teaching or Church law. Secondly, ideally, the teaching be based on Scripture, taken from Scripture or at least has Scripture as its reference.
Most teachings at prayer meetings will be relatively brief – not more than 10 minutes. Longer teachings can be appropriate at times. Teachings should have a beginning, middle and end. This means that they should not be a rambling discourse with a great deal of repetition and redundancies. The ABCD rule should apply here.
Teachings should be informative, interesting and uplifting even if they are admonitions or calls to repentance. And I would be careful in attempting any admonitions. This should come after careful discernment. Being informative will equip the members with the kind of knowledge that will help them witness to their faith in Jesus. It is probably a gift to make a talk interesting and or uplifting but careful preparation will help this. And remember practice makes perfect. Ultimately, if a person’s teaching continues to be rambling, boring and lacking useful information leaders might have to conclude that the person just may not be called to be a teacher.
So, to sum up, whether a person is ineffective in teaching or teaches contrary to our first principle the leadership team needs to assess and take action to correct, to train, to limit or to terminate ineffective teaching. Notwithstanding these warnings, there should be some teaching at every prayer meeting. Therefore, if you do not have teaching at your meetings pray and discern asking the Lord to raise up among you someone who can serve to teach. ARC is hoping to offer more extensive training in the area of teaching but that must be left to another day.
Inappropriate Advising: I have notice two kinds of advising in prayer groups, natural advice to someone about the problems in his or her life and advice that seems to come from God almost as a command. The key thing about advice is to know your own limits. As Jesus implied… make sure you have taken the plank out of your own eye before attempting to take a splinter out of the eye of a prayer meeting member. Therefore, we do not offer advice as if it is the absolute truth. Rather we offer our suggestions tentatively and humbly knowing we could be wrong. This leaves the person with our suggestions and the responsibility to discern in prayer before deciding what he or she will do.
The second type of advice I have found to be far more damaging to members and that is when advice is given as if it is a command from God. I know a woman who had an extraordinary experience from God in a particular crisis in her life. Unfortunately she was new to the Charismatic Renewal and was advised thusly: Because you have been given this exception experience of God you must now give yourself to manifesting the gifts of the Spirit for the prayer group and parish. Accordingly, the leaders badgered the woman and on the one hand demanded she give service and on the other they made her feel guilty for not complying.
The law of Love is the law of Freedom. Any advice must always allow the person to be completely free to make his or her choice. Any other advice is not from God.
Inappropriate Prophecy and related gifts can be another concern for prayer group leaders. On the one hand we want to encourage all the gifts at our prayer meetings and in that regard we overlook minor errors or discrepancies. The idea is that as members manifest the gifts they will grow in docility to the Holy Spirit and their inspired word will grow in effectiveness and accuracy.
Paradoxically, often the main concern is for members who regularly manifest the prophetic gifts. Unfortunately, some members who have proven gifts can also get off track in the manifestation of these gifts. Some warning signs are: Too many prophecies at one meeting; Prophecies that are frequently too long; Prophecies that are confusing; and Prophecies that contain errors.
Inappropriate prophecies do not inspire the members of the prayer group and sometime they even create frustration, anger and resentment. Be careful though, remember love believes all and sometime we may feel a particular prophecy is not from God and another member will say how it had a powerful effect on him. Again this is an item for the core group to discern.
I remember one prayer group where a woman who had a definite prophetic gift began to take more and more time at the meeting with many and long prophecies. The leaders discerned that something had to be done. They prayed and fasted and two of the member when to her lovingly and asked her to reign in her prophetic gift. The woman humbly responded. Order and peace were restored to those meetings. The woman herself also felt better with the guidelines given to her by the leadership.
The wounded member is commonly present in most prayer groups and sometimes there may be several wounded members. One reason for this is that the need for God’s healing power and the love they expect to get from prayer group members. If someone says the occasional off the wall remark or prayer or they get slain in the Spirit and lie on the floor for the whole meeting this does not necessarily constitute a problem. However, if the wounded member’s behaviour interferes with the focus of prayer something may need to be done. Problems occur when the wounded member prays too much, reads lengthy treatises rather than scripture or reads scripture too often and too long. If the wounded member attacks another member during the prayer meeting there is a problem. If the member preaches, sees too much of the Devil and not enough of God and so on, this also constitutes a problem. In any of these cases the leadership must intervene. Sometimes it may mean asking the person to cease coming to the meeting. Nevertheless, this must be addressed in a loving and caring way. This can mean offering options to the member so that they could continue to attend the meeting provided they don’t break the agreement.
Criticism is the final challenge to prayer meetings that I would like to address. It is easy to criticize. I have heard criticism of the music ministry or particular members of it, I have heard criticism of meeting leaders, I have heard criticism of the teaching, I have even heard criticism of the food served at the meeting and even of those who served it.
Friends, there is no place for criticism at prayer meetings. In fact, what those in service really need is not criticism but encouragement. Make it a point to say thank you to those in service; musicians, singers, leaders, teachers, servers and so forth. People in the service of God and the prayer group often come under attack. If we are attacking, blaming or criticizing those in the service of the Lord who do you think we are with – whose side are we on?
Support your Leaders: Recall Sirach 2: 1-5. Therefore we must recognize that anyone in the service of the Lord will come under attack. In fact, my experience is that when the Lord is about to do a great work His enemy really pulls out all the stops to attack, discourage and try to defeat God’s people and His plan. Therefore, we should pray for those in service of us and encourage them realizing that they are on the front lines of the battle between God and the Evil one. And remember leaders are but human beings with many weaknesses. So, we all need to support those in our service with prayer for them and encouragement.
Openness to Feedback from prayer group members is a hallmark skill of an effective leader. This is the healthy alternative to criticism. When leaders are open to feedback then members will feel safe in giving it. If members feel safe in giving feedback they do not need to sink into criticizing. So, effective leaders are humble and therefore non-defensive and open to hearing from members.
Sometime what members have to say may not be helpful, valid or true but they should be respected as they give their comments. Never dismiss anyone’s feedback – it could be from the Lord. In either case members should be advised that there feedback will be brought up with the core and this should be done. Later the member should also be given feedback as to accepting the suggestions or not for the present.
The key thing in being open to comments from members is to show them love and respect. Often the feedback will be valid and useful for the prayer group. This should be prayed over and discerned in terms of coming to understand, accept and, as required for the growth of the prayer group, put into practice.
Insurmountable Differences: If differences become insurmountable what should people do? Differences can come from different views on ministry, music, leading a meeting, and so forth but more commonly from personalities. I believe ever effort needs to be made to keep individuals in a prayer meeting. By this I mean pray, discuss lovingly, get an outside mediator or something of this sort to try to reconcile any differences. Sometimes it ends up not being feasible to accommodate for differences without diminishing the effectiveness of the members. In that case, and as a last resort, one person may do well to move to another prayer group. In this regard, I note St. Paul’s difference with St. Mark also called John Mark in the New Testament. After his experience with Mark, Paul refused to have him in his company any longer. This does not mean there was not love and forgiveness but for the good of the Gospel they went their separate ways. This is still an option today in our prayer groups, although as I said it should be a last resort.
Love: In the early Church it was said, “See these Christians how they love one another”. A mark of a Christian should be to love the Lord, God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength and one’s neighbour as oneself. (Matthew 22: 37-39). When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbour?” He gave the Good Samaritan parable in reply. Jesus points out the extend of loving your neighbour in Luke 6: 27-29 when he said love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you, bless those who curse you and so forth. So if we are to treat our enemies with love how much more should we love our brothers and sisters in the Lord! St. Paul gives us a guideline in Romans 12: 9-13 of how we should treat each other and in 1Cor 13: 4-8a what love looks like.
St. Paul in Col 3:12-14 tells us to put on compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, forebearing one another and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And about all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. We must indeed forgive 70X7 if we are to be forgiven by our Father in heaven.
So, our prayer meetings need to be sanctuaries of love where every person is welcomed, accepted, encouraged and offered all the fruits of the Spirit to give him hope in his life. If people feel genuinely loved at the prayer meeting they will come back. So, don’t let criticism, gossip, rivalries, hostilities, immorality and the like a place in your prayer meeting; but make it a place of welcome and love so that all will say about us, “See how these charismatic Catholics love.”
Remember what Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father Who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name. And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ The will of the Father is that we love God completely and our neighbour as ourselves.
St. Paul echoes the same thought when he says, ‘If I speak in tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have and if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.” So, once again I encourage you to do everything in your power, prayer, fasting, trusting in God so that He turns your prayer group into a sanctuary of love. In this sanctuary will be manifested the true gifts of God to heal and restore His people.
Your parish prayer meeting is the heart of the Charismatic Renewal. Its life and effectiveness will bring the many, who need to know and love God, to a new life in the Spirit. This is our mission, with God’s grace and mercy we will be instruments of the Spirit as He renews the face of the earth.