If you want to turn your small group into a functioning New Testament church, Luke summarized the four components of an early Christian meeting, one of which is praying together:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
I assume your small group already prays, but if you’re anything like me, your prayer life can get stale and repetitive, with plenty of room to grow. How can you pray better as a community? How did the early Christians do it?
For them, prayer was a corporate (group) activity as much as an individual one. Think of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught us to pray to “our” Father to give “us” our daily bread. It’s corporate. It’s a prayer from family, for family, to the head of the family.
Early Christian prayers were likely a mix of written and spontaneous petitions. As Keener says, “When meeting in homes, individual Christians probably offered both fixed prayers learned from the synagogue and personal (perhaps usually spontaneous) prayers, practiced by other Jews but especially important in the charismatic worship of the early Christians (1 Cor 14:14-16, 26)” (Keener, Acts, p. 173). What does that mean?
Remember that the believers met to eat the Lord’s Supper and that it grew out of the Passover Meal. It was not a casual dinner. We would call it a “religious” meal instead of a “secular” one, but ancient people wouldn’t have recognized that modern distinction. For them, there was no difference between sacred and secular. Everything was religious. “Every social meal was a religious meal; even a dinner party was sacramental in character” (Barclay, The Lord’s Supper, p. 110).
When you see the role that prayer played in a Passover meal, it can help you imagine the role it must have also played in the first celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.
I’ll summarize it for you.
The Passover meal began with the first cup of wine, accompanied by prayer, thanking God for choosing Israel. So, they opened with prayers of thanksgiving.
Then they washed their hands, ate green and bitter herbs, and broke unleavened bread into little pieces to remind them that a slave in Egypt never had a whole loaf. The host would say, “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whosoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whosoever is in need, let him come and eat the Passover with us.” And the people eating would respond, “This year we eat it here, next year in Jerusalem” (Barclay, The Lord’s Supper, pp. 18-19). In other words, this was a litany—a prayer of call and response.
Then the host explained what the Passover meant (Haggadah), and the people would sing the little Hallel (i.e., Psalms 113 and 114). In other words, they used fixed prayers that were sung (or we might say chanted).
Then they would drink the second cup, cleanse their hands, distribute small pieces of unleavened bread, say grace, and eat the meal together. In other words, they thanked God for their food.
After the meal, they rewashed their hands, brought out the rest of the Passover bread, thanked God for the meal again, and petitioned for the coming of Elijah to make way for the Messiah. In other words, they had eschatological prayers.
Then they took the third cup (the cup of blessing) and said more prayers. Filled it for the fourth and last time and prayed the second part of the Hallel (i.e., Psalms 115-118) as well as Psalm 136.
Finally, they said two more prayers, and Passover would end with a shout and praise to God.
That’s a lot of prayers!
If the early Jewish believers similarly celebrated the Lord’s Supper, you can imagine how prayer was woven throughout the celebration.
If you need inspiration on incorporating prayers in your small group, here are some suggestions based on the Passover and other verses in Scripture.
First, don’t be afraid to use the Bible’s prayer book, i.e., the Psalms. Be encouraged to use it! Here is one help for Psalm singing, and here’s another. Singing the Psalms is a great way to memorize Scripture and learn how rich prayers can be.
Second, include prayers thanking God for things He did in Biblical history, especially all He has done in Christ. Your prayers can be stories about God’s mighty deeds.
Third, consider using litanies. A litany is when there is a recitation and response. Psalm 136 is an example of a litany prayer. I have found that children especially feel included in that kind of prayer.
Fourth, pray for the sick (Jas 5:14-15).
Fifth, feel free to pray for whatever comes to mind, such as the expressed needs of other people. We should pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17) and about everything (Phil 4:6). Ironically, spontaneity is expected.
Sixth, pray for the Lord’s soon return. Just as Passover celebrants prayed for Elijah to come, the Lord’s Supper anticipates the Lord’s return. One of the last prayers in the Bible is also one of the shortest: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.