Used by permission of Evelyn Christenson Ministries.
Find it hard to pray out loud in a group? EVELYN CHRISTENSON outlines six simple rules for women in this six-part excerpt from What Happens When Women Pray. And men might learn a thing or two as well …
- “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6:7-8
“Well, I suppose you all know how to pray. I won’t fit into this group.”
With that remark, Betty, my neighbor, joined the three of us meeting in a home on our block to pray for the coming Billy Graham Crusade. There she was, apparently wanting to take part, but scared to death to pray aloud, even with only three other women present.
There are thousands of people just like Betty. They are all over the country – in neighborhood prayer groups, in midweek services, and in special prayer sessions – and they are not praying audibly for only one reason: they don’t know how to.
We have found in our prayer seminars that about 50% of those participating have never prayed aloud before. They come from a great variety of churches, Protestant and Catholic, but talking with God in the presence of others is a very real problem to them.
My response to my neighbor, Betty, was: “Oh, yes, you certainly will fit into this group. It’s really not difficult. After we hear the prayer requests, we all are going to pray just one simple sentence on each one.” And we did. The three of us, who had prayed for years, prayed one simple sentence following the request, and so did Betty! In fact, as we concluded that session, she had prayed four times, audibly.
What happens when we put ourselves on the level of the most inexperienced at praying? Many of them hear their own voices in prayer for the first time.
The rules we applied that morning were the ones our women devised in 1968 to implement our method of praying together – praying about only one subject at a time, with one person praying aloud while the others in the group are praying silently on the same subject.
There are six S’s, six simple rules to follow, whether one is a participant or a prayer group leader, experienced or shy and untrained. These six rules serve as effective tools to help a prayer group get started, to encourage newcomers, and to motivate timid people to pray aloud. But a prayer group doesn’t have to stay with these elementary rules. It’s exciting to know that the participants can go on and graduate into effective, fervent, spontaneous praying.
Suppose your present prayer group is not going very well with no one wanting to join or perhaps not coming back after trying it once. Or, suppose you would like to start a prayer group in your church or in your neighbourhood. You may find that these six S’s are just what you need to encourage 100% participation.
1. Subject by subject
The first ‘S’ is Subject by subject – praying in one accord about only one subject at a time. As one person prays out loud, the rest pray silently on the same subject, not planning their own prayers in advance. This assures complete concentration and fervent prayer on one request at a time. Also, in this way no one is deprived of the privilege of praying for the request before going on to another.
You may be accustomed to praying around the world, mentioning every person you know, every missionary in many different countries. And you may be tempted to pray this way as a prayer group leader. But your part is only to announce one subject for prayer at a time, then pray a short sentence prayer yourself. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a list ready and to say, “Right now we are going to pray one simple sentence about so and so.”
Then, as the leader, pray one simple sentence and wait for others to pray audibly on the same subject before going to the next request. Because the participants will have to ‘shift mental gears’ before going on to another subject, it’s a good idea to pause between subjects. Then the group will be prepared to pray again.
As the participants learn to pray together, subject by subject, prayer gains momentum and becomes more spontaneous. When this happens, the leader may simply lead away in prayer on a subject rather than announcing it. When those in our groups become proficient in this method, their spiritual pulses will be throbbing together in such a way that each one will begin to sense the direction of the Holy Spirit when it is time to start a new subject. Everyone in the group will then have the freedom to initiate a new topic for prayer. It may take a while, but this is our goal. They won’t need a leader anymore!
I remember the first time I tried this with my group in 1968. I had always come to the prayer meeting with a written list of requests at which I would peek with one eye. That day I told God I was going to hide the list and trust him completely to bring to our minds those things he wanted us to remember in prayer. Checking the list after we finished praying, I was delighted and amazed to find that he had moved someone to pray about every single request I had written down!
When praying subject by subject, everyone is free to pray audibly in turn. But whether praying audibly or silently, all are praying together on the same subject, not planning their own prayers in advance, and multiplying the power of all the prayers that are ascending simultaneously to God’s throne.
2. Short prayers
Short prayers, are the secret of the success of small group prayer. Just one, or only a few sentences from each person on each subject allows time for all to pray if they wish. No one should be forced to pray aloud, but let prayer be something spontaneous, something a person wants to do, even if it’s only to hear her own voice in prayer.
As leaders we are responsible to see that the prayers are short. How are we going to do this? Superimpose our wills on our groups and say, “Look everybody, let’s pray short prayers?” No, but at first we will have to go back to basics and start praying just one simple sentence ourselves in order to get the shy, untrained ones to pray. We make the rest of the group more comfortable by being careful how we pray.
Isn’t God much more interested in the short statement of a newcomer who has never prayed audibly before than he is in an elaborate prayer uttered by someone who has had years of practice? It may be that we prayer veterans are inhibiting the shy ones. Some of us may even have an idea that God hears us for our ‘many words’.
Christ had something to say about this when he was teaching his disciples to pray. He said:
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6:7-8
Do we think we’re going to be heard because we give an introduction, three points, and a conclusion to everything we pray about? God knows all we need, and all we have to do is to lay our requests before him. Just think of all the requests that go unremembered when someone dominates the group with lengthy prayers on one, two, or even three subjects!
Now there are times when long, involved prayers are very much in order. If you are asked to lead in prayer at a meeting and respond by praying one simple sentence, you will probably jar the whole group! Long prayers are appropriate at the right time and in the right place, but that time is not when the shy and untrained are learning to pray.
3. Simple prayers
The third ‘S’ is ‘Simple prayers’. Those who have never prayed before will find it possible to utter one simple sentence from the heart when the leaders and other participants avoid using complicated phrases and a special prayer vocabulary. When we leave our high-sounding theological expressions for when we are alone in prayer and make our short prayers simple ones, then the newcomers will feel comfortable about praying one simple, uncomplicated prayer themselves, and will be more liable to return the following week.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, I learned a valuable lesson from one of our church leaders during our Week of Prayer in 1970. He was an Irishman with a beautiful accent and a rich vocabulary. Whenever he prayed aloud our hearts soared heavenward. But we had a problem. When he finished praying nobody else dared to follow him! Why, I wouldn’t be caught dead praying after he had just uttered his long, beautiful prayer, couched in lofty theological phrases! I can remember even my husband hesitating a bit to close in prayer after this man had prayed so eloquently.
As we approached that 1970 Week of Prayer, I wondered what was going to happen in a group he would be leading. I soon found out, for one night he and I were leading our respective groups in areas separated only by a plastic curtain. As I presented the prayer requests to my group, I found it difficult to concentrate because I was so curious to learn what was happening on the other side of the curtain. Have you ever had your ear tuned in one direction while your voice was aimed in another?
I heard him open his prayer group with just one simple sentence. Astounded, I listened. But he didn’t say another word. Soon, one by one, all the people in his group prayed their own simple sentences. Then he prayed another sentence on the next subject and stopped. Once again each one prayed. I was acquainted with everyone in his group, and I knew that many of them had never prayed aloud before; but that night every single person in his circle prayed aloud. What happens when we are willing to put ourselves temporarily on the level of those who don’t know how to pray? We encourage them to pray with us.
Back in 1968 when we were practicing and experimenting with all these methods, eventually a whole room in our church was filled with women praying; but Eva, a woman who lived next door, declared that she would not join the others in prayer. She said she had never prayed out loud in a group and she never would.
I knew that Eva’s family had a very fine devotional life. She was a great Christian. This wasn’t her problem, but praying aloud with others was. She would shake her finger at me in other meetings and say, “Don’t you ever call on me to pray; don’t you ever call on me.”
I assured her that we never call on anybody to pray, but still she didn’t come to our prayer meetings. As we drove up to the church, we would see the curtains part as she peered out the window, but that’s as close as Eva got. then one day, without explanation, she joined us. She came every week after that, but never prayed out loud.
When summer came round, we moved our meetings to one of the parks in town. It was at one of those park sessions that I had a distinct impression from God that Eva was going to pray that day. But as I led the group in prayer, mentioning one request after another, she didn’t utter a word. Though it was past time for us to start home, I kept adding requests and waiting for her. Suddenly, Eva began to pray. She forgot all the rules she ever learned. It was like Niagara Falls breaking loose! That day Eva prayed around the world.
When we had our Week of Prayer in January 1970, one of the groups praying was made up of men, including the minister and the chairman of the church council … and Eva! Again my ear was attuned in another direction. Guess who prayed first in that group? Eva! She has said to me since, “Eve, if I can do it, anybody can.”
4. Specific prayer requests
Specific requests listed and specific answers noted are a great encouragement to continuing and expanded prayer. Use a notebook, file or folder for this.
If groups start falling apart, and they may, or if people suddenly aren’t interested, the best way to get things going again is to encourage them by showing specific answers to their specific requests. Whip out that little book in which requests and answers are recorded and point out how God has used the prayer group to change circumstances and individuals. Spend time in prayer praising God for his specific answers. Then watch as new life floods your prayer-group!
As the specific answers to their prayers pile up, you will begin to see the group members change as well. By keeping records, the individuals who are praying start to see their own value in prayer, and this is important.
Date your specific requests and date the answers. God is not controlled by time as we human beings are. He sends his answers down to earth when he knows best. Therefore, if we keep track of time – how long God takes to answer our prayers – we’re going to learn some tremendous spiritual lessons about how God operates. As weeks and months and years come and go, we will see that his timing is always perfect.
We will also learn some whys when we keep track of how he answers. It may be that we are not ready for some answers. My two prayer partners and I prayed every week for two solid years before I had my first neighborhood Bible study. I wasn’t ready and God knew I wasn’t. If we keep a record of the specific timing of our requests and God’s answers, then we can look back and see many of the reasons for his delays and his withholdings.
God may answer our prayers not only at a time when we least expect, but he may answer in a way we don’t expect. We will be astounded at how God answers prayer. He may answer in a way that is completely opposite to the way we think he should. He knows what is best for us, and he never makes a mistake.
Our women experienced this great joy in praying specifically in May 1968, when we were preparing for a mothers and daughter party. Ruth Johnson of ‘Back to the Bible’ program, a ‘daughter’ of our church, was to be the speaker. We set aside a room for prayer and asked the women who came to the church to work (to prepare food, set tables, or decorate) to spend some time, equal time if they could, in prayer, praying specifically for Ruth Johnson. What a great moving of God there was at the party that night.
On the following Sunday, with my little notebook in had (I always recorded the results of our prayer experiments), I said to Ruth, “Please be very careful how you answer me because we homed in on you in prayer, and I want a very honest answer. This will be reported to our national conference in June. Will you tell me what happened, if anything did happen, on Friday night when you spoke at our party?
Ruth drew a deep breath and tears came to her eyes. “Eve,” she said, “the last time I was in this church it was to my mother’s funeral. It all came back to me last Friday as I was on my way here. After I got to the church, I couldn’t even bring myself to open the door. I kept thinking of my mother, and then I thought of my former Sunday School teachers who were going to be at the meal.
“You know, I used to be “naughty little Ruthie” to those teachers, and I had a feeling that they were all going to be looking at me and thinking: There’s that “naughty little Ruthie” again. Evelyn, I could not walk through that door. But suddenly, I felt a great sense of strength and freedom. I can’t explain it, but there was complete release and I walked in. It was just fantastic. My voice has gone around the world via radio for thirty years, but never in all those years have I felt such freedom and such power as I experienced when I sang and spoke last Friday night.”
Not long afterwards Ruth’s missionary brother came home from India. He came to me and said, “Evie, what did you do to my sister?”
I replied, “We didn’t do anything to your sister.”
He said, “Oh, yes you did. Since the women prayed, my sister has been a completely different person.”
Now I thought Ruth was a fantastic Christian before that time, but I learned something. it was that we don’t limit our praying to the down-and-out, or to someone we think is dying or experiencing great tragedy. We also need to pray for those who are ministering, who don’t appear to have any needs. What did we do? We only prayed – specifically. And God worked.
5. Silent periods
The next ‘S’ is Silent periods. Silent periods between prayers are a privilege and a blessing. Don’t panic when there’s a lull – just listen! This is an added dimension to our definition of prayer in Chapter 3. Prayer is a two-way conversation with God.
Today, silence is almost a lost art. After a few seconds pass without audible prayer, someone usually feels compelled to clear his throat, shuffle his feet, or nervously finger a song book. Somehow we think we have to talk at God all of the time, but there are marvelous things that God wants to say to us. He has answers to our questions, secrets he wants to share, yet we bombard him with our ‘many words’. We forget that God is on his throne in heaven just waiting to say something great to us, if we would only give him a chance.
How frustrated he must be (if God can become frustrated) when he has something so wonderful to tell you and me, and we aren’t quiet long enough to listen to what he has to say.
One day I asked my son about a girl who lives near us, and he said: “Oh, I guess she’s fine, Mum, if she’d ever keep still so we could find out.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, on the school bus that girl talks every single minute. She might be a real great girl, but she doesn’t shut up long enough for us to find out.”
Has God ever said that about me? Has he ever said it about you? Have we learned to keep still long enough for God to say something to us? It is in the silence that our communication becomes two-way.
The first time I practiced the six ‘S’ method at a conference was 1969. It was evening, and as the women finished praying in their small groups of four, I asked them to go out to a point near the water. “Just one rule,” I said, “please don’t talk while you are walking out to the point.” There had been fervent prayer in their groups, and I wanted them to keep their hearts open to God’s voice.
We had planned that a singing trio would come to the point by boat and, at a given signal, sing to the women on shore. But the signal somehow failed, and they waited and waited, not knowing when to start their song. The leader on shore kept putting more wood on the fire and thinking: “I have to say something.” But each time she thought it, God said: “Keep still, Mary.” In fact, Mary told me later: “You know very well, Evelyn, that God said, “Mary, keep quiet!”
Twenty minutes went by with about 500 women sitting in absolute silence at the water’s edge. Now and then we could hear soft crying. Then from the boat totally obscured by the darkness, came the beautiful strains of “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee”. The common theme that ran through the testimonies that night was: “God spoke to me not so much in the songs or in the message, but in the silence.”
6. Small groups
Small Groups, the sixth ‘S’, are usually best for newcomers, as well as for the shy or untrained. For some, it would take great courage to stand before a group of 100 people, or even 25 people, and raise their voices in prayer for the first time. But in smaller groups they can gain confidence in praying audibly.
In our meetings when there are several 100 participants in one room, we divide into small groups of four or five. This is quickly accomplished by standing and having every other row turn back, each two rows of people facing each other. We then just move apart in groups of four, two from each row. How my heart thrilled at one of our prayer meetings in a large church recently when almost 200 small groups of people in the same room lifted their voices earnestly to God.
Yesterday, when one of my original prayer partners ‘phoned, we chatted about the joy and the privilege of being just two or three in a little group. “Eve,” she recalled, “when we started praying, just the three of us, that was the turning point in my spiritual life.”
Whatever we do, we must never underestimate the value of a small group praying, for Christ promised that where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them. (Matthew 18:20). What an opportunity it provides to practice the presence of Christ!
Do you remember in the account of the stoning of Stephen that he lifted up his eyes and ‘saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God?’ (Acts 7:55) The right hand of God is the place of authority and honor. Christ is still at the right hand of God today, interceding for us, but we also have his promise that he will be with us – where even two or three are gathered together. Now, we want to be very careful that we do not take Christ off his throne, that we do not play games with him in prayer. He is in heaven, but his presence is in the midst of those who gather together in his name.
Christ helped the disciples and those who knew him very intimately here on earth to understand this. Campbell Morgan in his sermon ‘Re-kindled Fire’, emphasizes the importance of our Lord’s vanishing and appearing after his resurrection. He explains that the disciples and his friends were learning the lesson that Christ was with them, even when they did not see him with their physical eyes. These followers of Jesus were practicing his presence even though they could not see him. After he had vanished from their sight for the last time at his ascension, he was in their midst in the upper room, and they knew it.
Evelyn Christenson Ministries
PO Box 120886
St. Paul, MN 55112