For me, the opening ten minutes of a Bible study or prayer group are the worst. Chit-chat is a trigger for minor social anxiety: what can I talk about? Who should I talk to? Where should I stand and does my arm look weird just hanging here like this? What was God thinking when he made arms like this? What was God thinking when he created humans to be in community with each other. Community is awkward.
It’s fair to say that I don’t particularly shine in times of unstructured conversation. But then we get to the meat of what we’re all there for: Bible study or prayer or a discussion over a Christian book or podcast. Everyone loosens up: ideas are shared, opinions traded, personal stories told. We learn from one another and about one another.
And the intimacy deepens.
For many of us these are the golden moments during small group time. They are the still and quiet hours of peace that keep us hungry for more Christ and more community. We need these times of deep connection to keep our hearts alive. We need to know others and be known by them.
And then the clock strikes midnight (or more commonly about 8 or 9 p.m.) and the spell is broken. The feelings of intimacy and acceptance flee when the de facto leader of the group checks his watch. He maybe nods or sits up or takes and lets out a loud breath. And then he speaks the words that are, ironically, the death knell of intimacy:
“Anybody have any prayer requests?”
Crickets and silence. Silence as everyone studiously avoids the questioner’s eyes. Each person begins to gaze into themselves, curating their answers, tailoring their prayers by the standards of those listening.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to recognize that we’re part of the problem. We make the standard by how we respond to that question. Safe answers spring forth after the initial silence:
· I have a test coming up that’s worth most of my grade.
· Prayers for my great-grandma’s knee-replacement surgery.
· A coworker is being difficult. Pray that I can handle the situation well.
These requests are safe because they are simple. A clear problem exists; the need for God, obvious. Sometimes I imagine these requests as mini intimacy-shields: we guard our deep wounds and hungers by offering safe bait. If you offer a request for prayers about a coworker situation, no one will look for the deeper problems like bitterness, rage or malice that are eating you up.
The curvature of small group intimacy: we start with small talk and then go deeper, curving into communion . . . and then curving right out of it by offering requests on topics as intimate as those covered in the first ten, awkward minutes.
We want intimacy, but we don’t want to be “that guy” who burdens others with our problems. We don’t want to “overshare” and make people uncomfortable. And we don’t want to talk about “trivial” things that would take away from the intimacy, either.
What can we do?
Admit it’s an awkward social situation and lean in. Awkwardness does not preclude holiness, but rather is its prelude. Take off your shoes at the burning bush. Even if it’s weird.
Honor the unstated prayer requests. No one should have to stamp their statements as “Official prayer requests” to get them prayed for. If someone mentions during informal chit-chat time that they have a test, pray. And then text them the day of the test to ask how it went.
Confess and praise. By confessing your heart and sharing what joys God has brought you during the week, you can share in intimacy even if you’re not going through a dark time.
Be prepared, be brave and be merciful. Some prayers are hard to put into words. It takes preparation to describe why something that seems trivial is derailing your faith life. It takes bravery to admit you’re struggling with depression, and it takes mercy to live alongside small group members whose depression is ongoing or whose faith life is incomprehensible to you.
Be what you need others to be to you.
Don’t back away.