We sat around the warm fireplace, journals open, pens ready, and eyes eagerly awaiting the wisdom of our women’s ministry director.
A group of small group leaders from our church had gathered for a night of reflection, learning, and sharing. The first semester of small group had flown by, and now was the time to consider how it had gone: Did the women seem to be growing in their faith? Was there an increasing eagerness to read the Word? Were the women committing to the life of the church?
Our director proceeded to touch on the subject of prayer. What was the temperature of prayer in the groups? When we, as leaders, asked for prayer requests, was getting responses from our women like pulling teeth? Or were the women eager to share their hearts with one another?
Aunt Martha Prayers
Many of us agreed that prompting prayer requests was closer to pulling teeth—because “Aunt Martha prayers” were abundant in many of our small groups.
Aunt Martha prayers. You know them. These are the prayer requests that tend to evade any subject of personal privacy, including both struggles and joys, focusing instead on “my sick Aunt Martha. Please pray for her health.”
A brief side-note before I continue: Asking for prayer on behalf of other people is absolutely a wonderful thing. In fact, it often reveals a sympathetic heart who is thinking of other people’s needs before their own. There is great power in praying for the people God has placed in our circles of influence, and we so we should, with great faith that God hears us.
By “Aunt Martha prayers,” however, I am referring to prayer requests that stay the same week after week; that do not focus primarily on the concerns of the heart; and that are not directly related to a person’s unique relationship with Christ.
Can you think of times that “Aunt Martha prayers” have infiltrated your own small group?
What is a small group leader to do?
Three Ways to Encourage Earnest Prayer Requests
From my brief experience in leading a young women’s group, I’ve found three helpful ways to encourage group members to make requests that involve more personal, vulnerable, Word-centered, and sometimes even sensitive subjects:
1. Set the example.
Something amazing happens when a leader speaks in earnest: A level of trust is established that then encourages the listeners to follow suit. The author of Hebrews writes, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). Leaders hold great influence and, when used appropriately, they can leverage this influence to help their people grow in the pursuit of their devotion to Christ.
If we as leaders go before our small group, offering up our needs, struggles, praises, and even our failures, we will be an encouragement for them to do the same.
2. Re-frame the request.
One tactic that has worked well for our small group involves re-framing “Aunt Martha prayers” in an effort to understand the heart behind the request. For example, if a woman requests prayer for “her friend who needs a job,” we might ask, “How can you specifically be a support to your friend this week, and how can we pray for you in that area?”
Again, we never want to communicate that a prayer request is wrong or unimportant; there is certainly a place in our small groups to lift other people to the Lord. But we do want to encourage each person to search his or her heart, and re-framing the original request is one way to accomplish this.
3. Engage with Scripture.
The Word of God is sanctifying truth (John 17:17), so we can trust that praying through Scripture will bear fruit and align us with God’s perfect and pleasing will. Encourage your group members to choose a verse or passage of the Bible that illustrates:
- A way in which they would like to grow in Christ-likeness
- A promise that they need to remember
- An attribute of God’s person that they want to know more deeply
- A precept that they want to apply to an area of struggle, pain, or temptation
You can have them write down the passage and share it with one other person, becoming that person’s prayer partner for the week. Or you can share your requests aloud with the whole group, and spend time praying the selected words of Scripture over each group member.
Trust the Spirit’s Work
Whatever way you choose to encourage your flock into deeper, more earnest sharing in prayer, rest assured that it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who wills and works in every believer (Ephesians 3:14-19). Trust that Christ’s work will be completed in your small group, pray for your group members often and without ceasing, and continue to be an example worth imitating.