The Prayer-Action Cycle

George D. McClain

Prayer-Action CycleThose of us committed to the whole gospel need to be intentional about the contextual and justice-related aspects of our decision making.  For this reason I have been particularly excited to discover a detailed form of discernment process which gives this kind of guidance, the Prayer-Action Cycle.

Church groups have found this process quite helpful.  In one case, a concerned pastor in California was frustrated with the continued resistance of her congregation to any kind of mission involvement beyond the walls of the church.  She had decided it was hopeless and had concluded she would ask for a change of assignment.  After she spent a day with the Prayer-Action Cycle, however, God led her to an awareness of some new possibilities and a new sense of hope for that congregation. 

As you can see from the accompanying text of the Prayer-Action Cycle (see handout), there are four basic movements: awareness, social analysis, faith reflection, and action.  There are the steps we generally go through in generating and faith-based action, whether in an instant or over a longer period. Take, for instance, a situation in which you see a child run out in front of an oncoming car.  Here all four aspects are completed almost instantaneously: (1) you become aware of the child going out into the street and are moved by compassion; (2) you instantaneously analyze the situation and conclude the child is in great danger; (3) you are prompted by your faith conviction that the life and well-being of the child is sacred to God; and, (4) you immediately leap into action and dash out into the street to rescue the child.

The Prayer-Action Cycle lifts up for our careful scrutiny each movement of the cycle, to ensure that we bring intentionality and a justice lens to each aspect in light of our faith commitment.  Note that each phase is to be entered into prayerfully, asking God to grant the gift of discernment.  In effect, the entire process is a faith reflection process, although this is more explicit in the third phase.

Four Phases

The Awareness Phase is intended to sharpen our sensitivity to the totality of the situation.  The questions seek to bring to light elements of which we might not be fully aware.  You are encouraged to identify your feelings and name what is at stake for you in the issue at hand, what your personal interests are.  You are also invited to name the poor and oppressed, relative to your issue.    Persons generally find it especially illuminating to reflect on whim they tend to leave out of consideration. 

The Social Analysis Phase very directly probes the historical, social, and power issues at stake.  Persons often find the questions about operative assumptions quite revealing, for this uncovers the unwritten, hidden assumptions which are often the source of obstacles to change.  The question about seeds of new life probes the sources for hope and begins to awaken awareness of God's redemptive activity in the situation.

The Faith Reflection Phase urges you to measure the situation explicitly in relation to your faith commitments.  It begins, like a worship service, with thanksgiving to God.  The questions about what memory is awakened of an event in Christ's life, or of a particular scripture passage, is usually quite fruitful.  People tend to be surprised by what emerged from this phase.

In the concluding Action Phase the openings and turnings to God are further reflected upon and specific action alternatives named.  Discernment is invited and criterion of inner freedom introduced.  You are urged to indicate how the results of a decided-upon action would be evaluated.  Finally, prayer for strength and courage is summoned.

Settings to use this Cycle

The Prayer-Action cycle can be used in a variety of ways.  If there is sufficient time, your group could devote a whole meeting to each movement of the cycle.  Or an overnight retreat  could be scheduled so as to move through the whole cycle in one concentrated experience.  When there is less time, a certain few of the questions could be selected for group members to mediate on between meetings.  Other questions could be used as the basis for devotions at a given meeting.  The cycle offers a potential inexhaustible source for reflection in the Spirit.

Two Tips

I have found that there are two critical conditions that need to be met in order for the Prayer-Action Cycle to be helpful.  Users must be clear on the issue or situation they are discerning.  If there is fuzziness in this respect, then the results are also likely to be fuzzy.    For instance, a person or group may feel troubled about how hard it is for youth to grow up today.  But unless person can identify a particular aspect of the pressures upon youth, the Prayer-Action Cycle is not likely to be of much help.

Further, it is important that the group or individual using the Cycle connect the issue to their own lives.,  However laudable, choosing world hunger as a general focus may not be very fruitful.  Much better is: "How can I help my local church to be involved in alleviating world hunger?" or "How can I improve the effectiveness of the board of the feeding program of which I am a member?"

Adapted by Matt Guynn from George McClain's Claiming All Things for God: Prayer, Discernment, and Ritual for Social Change (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), pp. 81-88.

Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  Reproduction is prohibited without written permission from the publisher.