When I talk to Bible study leaders, one concern arises time and again: How do we balance in-depth Bible study with prayer time? What are some practical ways we can encourage serious Bible study while simultaneously building community through prayer with each other? Acts 2:42 describes the early church’s commitment to Scripture, prayer, and fellowship. How can our groups model this approach without spending all our time on one or the other?
Over the years I’ve participated in a variety of groups, some small and some large. Obviously, the size of the group affects the leader’s ability to foster intimacy among its members (most of the advice that follows works fairly well for small groups between 5 and 30 members).
Here are three practices I’ve found to be quite helpful.
1. Keep Prayer Lists
One easy way to keep up with each other is to pass around a prayer list at the beginning of each Bible study. Writing out prayer requests affords women the opportunity to share without pressuring them to share. It also limits the length of time spent on prayer requests since people tend to be more concise in writing (e.g., they leave out the story behind the story).
At the end of the lesson, we ask one person to type up the requests and e-mail them to the other group members. We encourage each woman on the list to pray for the woman just before and after her name, taking time to check in mid-week on any specific updates. This simple system cultivates prayerful fellowship and care among all members of the group, not just dependency on one leader to do all the “checking in.” It also focuses the majority of our weekly time together on studying the Scriptures in-depth.
2. Incorporate Prayer Sessions
We also dedicate certain Bible study sessions entirely to prayer. Every five or six weeks, we suspend our normal study and devote the whole time to fellowshiping in prayer. As our group has grown we’ve divided into smaller groups of five or six to enable adequate time for sharing requests and praying together.
And we always open our prayer time with an encouragement to “Three B’s” of sharing: Be brief, be biblical, and be beneficial.
Proverbs 10:19 wisely tells us: “When words are many, sin is not absent.” But sometimes it’s not the just the content of our words, but the time we take to share, that can be a problem. Since we want each woman to have equal opportunity to share, we encourage brevity.
The psalmist prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). We ask the women to share freely but to avoid gossip or negative talk about others. You can share your needs without delving into others’ sins. We also ask the women to consider and to share during our prayer time how our study of Scripture has challenged them in new ways. It is such a joy to lean on the language of the passages we’re studying week after week in order to offer Word-filled prayer. Praying the Scriptures is one way God kneads its beauty and truthfulness into our hearts.
Before each prayer study we ask the women to consider one question: Is what I’m about to share profitable for others to hear? Does it resonate with the truth of Ephesians 4:29?
Our hope in providing the Three B’s isn’t to stifle or micromanage our prayer time but to keep it from becoming a runaway train that could go a thousand different directions. The guidelines enable our time to be a blessing for us all. We enjoy sweet fellowship. We laugh, we cry, and we pray.
3. Deploy Prayer Leaders
When a Bible study grows, it’s difficult for one teacher to attend to the diverse needs of everyone in the group. Each woman in your midst is struggling in various ways. Some are vocal, while others wait to be asked. The responsibility of teaching alongside spiritual care is difficult for most leaders to balance as groups increase in size.
To help shoulder the burden of care, then, we’ve sought spiritually mature women to serve as prayer leaders. We divided the Bible study into groups of five women for each prayer leader. This leader checks in regularly with the women in her smaller group, follows up on prayer requests, and gets in touch with anyone we haven’t seen for a while. On those days every few weeks when we have a prayer meeting instead of a Bible study, we divide into these set groups to foster intimacy in the midst of the larger group.
Modeling Acts 2:42
Using a simple means of gathering requests, incorporating group prayer, and deploying leaders to shepherd women has helped foster Bible studies that integrate prayerful fellowship with substantive teaching of the Word.
By God’s grace, we hope to model the fellowship displayed in Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.