What are “prayer circles”? I have heard of entire congregations getting handed a book on it. It seems to be growing in groups that I thought were otherwise basically conservative. I heard it was even used and promoted at a True Woman Conference about a year ago. What is its appeal? Should Reformed Christians be concerned about this idea and why?
The idea of Prayer Circles was popularized by a recent book called The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson of National Community Church, Washington, D.C. Do not be fooled into thinking that The Circle Maker, with the prayer circles spawned by it, is a new technique from the Bible on how to pray more effectively. The first red flag this book presents to the discerning reader is the identity of the Circle Maker. He is not an Old Testament or New Testament saint, but a legendary Jewish character from the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of rabbinical writings collected between AD 200-500, consisting of two main parts, the Mishna and Gemara. They are the unbelieving Jewish oral traditions and rabbinical interpretations of the Old Testament.
Wikipedia describes the Circle Maker, a man called Honi from the Mishna:
On one occasion when God did not send rain well into the winter (in the geographic regions of Israel, it rains mainly in the winter), he drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.
He was almost put into cherem (excommunication) for the above incident in which he showed “dishonor” to God. However, Shimon ben Shetach, the brother of Queen Shlomtzion, excused him, saying that he was Honi and had a special relationship with God.
That really should be all the discerning Christian needs to know about the book and the prayer circle phenomenon in order to reject it. Do we need to learn new prayer techniques from unbelieving, possibly legendary, Jewish figures, when we have the completed scriptures? When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, he did not direct them to draw circles or pray like Honi the Circle Maker.
The technique espoused by Mark Batterson is quite simple, and wicked. He advises people to draw a circle, either by marking a circle with chalk or by visualizing it. Standing in the circle, one should make prayers. Batterson suggests big, bold, audacious prayers, like the prayers of Honi, who would not take no for an answer. Another possibility is to walk around something that one wants to have, or that one wants to protect, or that one wants to devote to God. That is another way to “make a circle.” Batterson makes circles around his wife, his children, and his church. He advises his readers to draw prayer circles around their family, job, problems, and goals.
Batterson begins outside the Bible with Honi. That is his first mistake. Then he compounds his error by applying the Honi principle to actual biblical events. It will come as no surprise that Batterson appeals to Joshua 6, according to which the Israelites marched around Jericho seven times before it fell. Identify your Jericho, that obstacle in your life. March around it while you pray. This is a shameful misuse of scripture.
Batterson tries to distance himself from the Prosperity Gospel preachers, but he sounds like them. “I have no idea what your financial situation is, but I do know this. If you give beyond your ability, God will bless you beyond your ability. God wants to bless you thirty, sixty, hundredfold.” He even encourages us to visualize what we desire before we pray for it, which sounds very much like “Name-It-And-Claim-It” theology.
The appeal of this book is quite simple. Prayer is hard; any book that offers a quick way to “prayer success” is appealing to our flesh. But prayer circling is simply a wicked attempt to manipulate God. We are his children; he knows what we need, and he has promised to provide it. Let us be content to learn from the Bible alone how we must pray. In addition, we have excellent instruction to pray in our circles: we have the Heidelberg Catechism, especially Lord’s Days 45–52; and if you would like a good, Reformed book on prayer, I recommend When You Pray, by Herman Hanko or In The Sanctuary, by Herman Hoeksema.
Schuyler would like more of your questions. Please submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Mark Batterson, The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).