One of the things our church has done, since the very beginning, is carve out one night a month for corporate prayer and song. We call it our monthly prayer night. It's not original, but we're not trying to be original. Our goal is to come before our Father in heaven, together, to ask Him to do above and beyond all we ask, think or imagine (Eph 3:20). I've received a lot of questions about these nights from other pastors. What do they look like? Who leads? How many people turn out? What happens? Why do you do them? If you have any of these questions this is for you—a step-by-step guide for holding a corporate prayer gathering.. I asked many of the same questions when we were starting out. I was particularly helped by Dave Lomas of Reality | San Francisco. I'm not an expert, but we have learned some things over the last four years that you may find helpful.
Why pray together?
Because God is our Father and we are his adopted children, in Jesus. Because He loves to give us good things. Because He is glorified, and we get the joy, when we ask Him to do what only He can. Because the faith of His people grows as they witness Him move. Because we're dealing with spiritual realities over which we have no control. Because salvation is from God and He still has people in our cities. Because prayer is learned and often difficult to figure out on your own. Because prayer is relational and it is deeply edifying to hear others talking to the same Father. Because it is a tangible expression that our ultimate trust is in God, not in ourselves or any particular individual.
We currently have a monthly prayer night, but its not the only time we pray. We also pray on Sundays, in our communities, discipleship groups and other meetings. We may not always have a monthly prayer night, but corporate prayer will remain a regular part of our life as a church. Our prayer nights currently land on the last Tuesday of each month. Our church is mobile so we gather at a local community center. Doors open at 6:30p and we kick things off at 6:45p. We cancel all of our normal community gatherings on that week so that people do not have to decide between prayer and being with their community. We chose Tuesday because the majority of our communities have their regular weekly touchpoint on Tuesday so it is already built into their schedule. At this point we see around 80 people participate on a monthly basis.
Lead with the gospel
We always begin with a brief word from the Word, in most cases specifically related to the gospel and its implications. Everyone is tired after a full day of work. Few really "feel" like praying. The cares and weight of the day still linger in conversation. Most have not had any time alone all day. Everyone has sinned at some point in the day. Many are wondering if their prayers are even going to be heard. In other words, everyone needs the gospel. Everyone needs to be reminded that we can confidently approach the Father based on the righteousness of Jesus, not our own. Everyone needs to be reminded that, in Christ, we are adopted and no one can remove us from the hand of the Father. Everyone needs to be reminded that if Jesus died for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8) how much more will He now give us all things (Rom 8:32)! Nothing warms the heart to approach God in prayer like the gospel. Lead with the gospel.
Maybe your experience praying in group settings is different, but I have always found group prayer to be painful - lengthy awkward silences, little depth or unity, prayers that are too quiet or too loud, special prayer voices, the occasional "beseech", and the standard prayer warrior who forgets the rest of us are there. What I discovered over time is that for group prayer to work, we need guiding principles. Here are some of the things we walk through every month because (1) there are always new folks and (2) we just forget. What you'll find, over time, is that all corporate prayer within the church (from communities to discipleship groups to impromptu payer) will improve as you train your people to pray well together. Here's what we walk through:
#1 Group prayer is learned
Praying in a group setting requires some learning to get accustomed to the cadence, timing and movement. So, don't sweat the small stuff. Don't worry about your grammar. Don't worry if you lose focus in the middle of your prayer. Don't worry if you start to pray at the same time as someone else. Don't worry if you accidentally say something that is less than orthodox. God can sort through all of that. You'll pick it up.
#2 Keep your prayers simple, short and specific
Long prayers are group prayer killers. We pray together to pray together, not to listen to one or two others pray. So, keep your prayers to 30 seconds or less. Use your normal voice. Focus less on how you're praying and more on who you're praying too. Also, be sure to make your prayers specific so you know when God answers it.
#3 Make the prayers of others your own
Often group prayer can feel like you're standing in line at Costco with your bulk items waiting to check out. You just quietly stand there waiting for your turn as those in front of you try to fit all of their awkward-sized items on the belt. Group prayer isn't a line we stand in as we approach God, but a family conversation before the throne. So, while others pray, listen closely and make their prayers your own. Take their prayers and internally offer them to God.
#4 Repeat prayers in your own words
Jesus tells us to be persistent in our praying. (Lk 18:1-8) If someone prays for a particular topic, pray for it again in your own words. Just because one person prayed for something doesn't mean that topic is completely covered. Think though the different angles of the request or even just repeat it. We live in a culture that values efficiency (which is great) but prayer isn't about efficiency - its about relationship with God. Don't be afraid to repeat or reemphasize the same prayers. In fact, Jesus encourages it.
#5 Make it audible
We pray together to pray together. But, to pray together we have to be able to hear you.
#6 Make it conversational
Think of prayer as a conversation rather than a shopping list. Try not to jump from one item to the next, but go with the flow of the conversation. Did someone just confess sin? Pray for them before changing the topic. Did someone just pray for their unbelieving family? Stay on topic and pray for those in your life that don't yet know Jesus. Maybe you thought you were going to pray about one thing but the tide of concern seems to be leaning a different direction - go with it. Amidst that, don't be afraid to say "Amen" or offer some other acknowledgement to let those praying know that you hear them and agree with them.
After establishing the guidelines we transition into praying. The Puritans had a saying that sometimes you need to pray yourself into prayer, so we take a minute for personal prayer on the front. This gives everyone an opportunity to have a moment of solitude, confess sin and thank God before we move into our night together. We typically have three different movements to the night (roughly 15 minutes each), interspersed with scripture reading and song. Some months we'll pray together the entire night, while other months we'll break into three separate groups over the course of the night (i.e. communities, groups of 3-5 guys/gals, etc). We identify particular prayer topics for each movement in advance. For example:
Scripture (Col 1:15-20) / Song
Pray: Communities (Topic: Summer on mission)
Scripture (Eph 2:4-10) / Song
Pray: Guys/Gals (Topic: Our own humility, hunger and confession)
Scripture (Ps 103:1-13) / Song
Pray: Together (Topic: Church, permanent space, multiplication of communities, conversions)
Scripture (2Cor 4:7-10,16-18) / Song
I've attached a handout from one of our recent prayer nights here.