When Jesus spoke, people listened. He didn’t come to put an end to the Old Testament law but instead to “fulfill” it—to bring it to completion and fullness by rooting God’s ways in the hearts of God’s people.
In our community groups, we can encourage one another in a number of spiritual rhythms—Bible study, confession, prayer, and so on. But how might our small groups actually learn together how to meditate on God’s Word?
The Rhythm of Scripture
Our community groups can go beyond increasing knowledge to actually cultivate and practice devotional Scripture reading together. Devotional Scripture reading, or biblical meditation, has often been described as a middle road between reading and prayer: Our minds are engaged in God’s Word, yet our words come directly from our heart and are expressed to our Father in prayer. This is a reading for the purpose of increased fellowship with God together.
Learning to Meditate Together
For centuries biblical meditation has been practiced both individually and communally—and we can restore this practice in our small groups today. The church fathers spoke of “descending with the mind into the heart”—a helpful phrase describing biblical meditation. Meditation engages the mind by focusing it on God’s Word. In the midst of a thousand concerns and thoughts, it directs our minds to stillness on God’s Word in his presence. Like a centripetal force, meditating on Scripture slowly pulls us inward toward the center of communion with God.
The best place to begin Scripture meditation—whether individually or in a group—is with the Book of Psalms. We must remember the Psalms were written for congregational use; they were penned to be read aloud, sung aloud, and prayed aloud with others. As Eugene Peterson once noted, just as a farmer uses tools to cultivate the ground and produce crops, so we can use our prayers to stir up our hearts and become more like Christ. In other words, if our prayers are tools, the Psalms are our toolbox.1 God has given us 150 rich, impassioned songs and prayers for our devotional life. Unlike any other genre of the Scriptures, the psalms enable us to express ourselves, understand our own hearts, find perspective for our circumstances, give language to our emotions, and pray God’s Word back to him.
In our group prayer, we can pray the psalms to our Father in a powerful way—together, we can descend with our minds into our hearts.
Here are three recommendations for making the most of these prayers.
First Reading: Content and Meaning
Gather your group and introduce the topic of biblical meditation. Before beginning your reading and prayer time, ask the Lord to bless your time of reflection together.
In this first reading, read the psalm aloud. Since it was written to be read (or sung) aloud, there’s likely a natural rhythm and flow to it. The first time through, get a feel for the psalm’s content, and pause for a moment whenever you see the word Selah. After the first reading, take about five minutes to ask basic questions about the psalm’s content and meaning. What was the psalm’s original context? Was the psalmist primarily writing a private prayer or a congregational song? How would you put the message of the psalm into your own words?
Second Reading: Application and Meditation
Remind one another that the goal of devotional reading is increased fellowship with God, not merely understanding the psalm. With a basic understanding of the psalm’s content and meaning, now read the psalm aloud again, this time more slowly and with longer pauses. As one person reads the psalm, the rest of the group can follow along in their Bibles or simply close their eyes and listen. The goal is to personally absorb the psalmist’s prayer as much as possible. When you reach a Selah, pause for a few moments and reflect silently on the previous stanza.
After this second reading, take 20 to 30 minutes to discuss the psalm’s movements in a more personal way. How do you resonate with the psalmist’s cries for help? Where do you see yourself similarly in need of God? What aspects of your life are driving you to seek refuge in the Father?
The Rhythm of Prayer
Descending Into the Heart
After your discussion time, close with prayer together. A great exercise for our prayer lives is to learn to reword and then pray the psalm aloud. Take turns doing this, putting the most significant or applicable part of the psalm into your own words and praying it to our Father. Use the language of the psalm and add your own requests, praise, and prayer for others. (This exercise will be awkward the first time or two, but don’t get discouraged.)
In our groups, we have found new life in this historic pattern. Slow, meditative reading of Scripture, heart-level discussion and application, and deep personal prayer has drawn us closer to God and to one another. Groups can practice this kind of Bible-based prayer with visitors and non-Christians present, so long as it’s explained well. We’ve found that outsiders expect us to be doing spiritual things, and are refreshed by a group of people who long to be more deeply connected to God’s presence.2
Of course, prayer in community group doesn’t always feel this majestic. In most community groups I’ve been a part of or led, prayer has become just a way of listing others’ needs out loud to God. We try hard to summarize Frank’s work situation, try not to be condescending as we pray for Jim and Amy’s struggling marriage, and make sure we “lift up” Sue’s second cousin’s knee soreness. My goodness, this doesn’t feel significant at all.
So, why is praying together important as a community group?
Think back to Jesus’s life and ministry again. In his famous teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15, it’s important to note that the Lord’s Prayer seems to be instructing us in a prayer that we could offer together: “Our Father… Give us… Forgive us.. Lead us…” Prayer certainly can and should be practiced in private, but it’s instructive that the pattern our Lord gives us in his most famous prayer is a shared prayer.
In the same way, our heavenly Father wants us to come to him together with our needs and problems. Following the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, we have the opportunity to pray for each other’s needs and so intercede on their behalf. As we pray for others in their presence, they feel God’s love and presence. Similarly, we can pray boldly together for God to advance his kingdom and then live that prayer by faith together.
Think about it: Where did you learn how to pray? Probably from watching another person praying for you or around you. I learned prayer from my father around the dinner table, from my earliest community group leader when we blessed dinner, from my wife when our sons have been sick, from my pastors when we have gathered to plead with God for renewal in our midst.
Praying together is an essential aspect of community life and, along with the other rhythms and practices, it enables a life of growth in Christ.
In the next article, we’ll look at the rhythms of fellowship (connecting with one another) and hospitality (connecting with outsiders).
1. See Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.
2. This section originally appeared as “Three Steps for Meditating on Scripture in Small Groups” at The Gospel Coalition. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-steps-for-meditating-on-scripture-in-small-groups
*This article is Part 3 of an eight-part series on community groups and their importance that will run this summer. Read the full series here.