I will turn 60 this year, and I can STILL remember verbatim certain lines from the prayers my mother and grandparents used to pray. They each had special phrases that they would repeat in their prayers at mealtimes and before bed. Some of those phrases still give me comfort.
As I have grown in my own prayer life, I have realized that these faithful pray-ers never quite felt like they had permission to deviate from “the script.” They modeled a devoted prayer life, but in many ways also projected a rather narrow approach to how one ought to pray. I think that they found my generation’s more free-flowing conversational approach to prayer encouraging, even if they did not always feel permission to try it themselves.
We can all get stuck in a rut, either in our prayer practices or in how we think prayer ought to sound or feel. When I was very young I was asked to teach someone who was exploring Christianity how to pray. I immediately responded with “Fold your hands and close your eyes.” Even as those words left my mouth, I knew that I was missing the boat in inviting my friend into deeper conversation with a God who loved her. The memory embarrasses me to this day. But, to be fair, that was how I was taught to pray.
I don’t recall being given many opportunities to explore and wonder about prayer when I was a child. I know that it was expected that I would pray, and I was given some “how to” instructions, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I felt free to explore different prayer postures, pray with my eyes open, go on a prayer walk, or experience a concert of prayer.
As a pastor I have often been flummoxed by how many ministry leaders, elders, and deacons will not pray in public. I wonder if they too received the message that there was a “correct” way to pray. Maybe the potential for making a mistake in public prayer was just much too vulnerable for them. I wonder if, like me, they wish that as a child they had been invited into exploring different ways of listening to and conversing with God that would have impacted both their public and private prayer lives?
So how might we begin earlier to encourage our children to experience the richness of communing with God? Here are four resources that can help parents, caregivers, and leaders of children and youth encourage young people to explore prayer.
5 Ways to Pray with Kids, a one-page free download in the Dwell at Home series of resources for families, is a great place to start. Hand it out to parents and ministry volunteers, slip it into church bulletins, or send a link.
Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation by Jared Patrick Boyd combines prayers, activities, reflection pieces, and support for parents, caregivers or mentors as they pray and ponder themes like God’s love for us and our love for others, forgiveness received and given, Jesus the King, and the Good News of God. It’s designed for children ages 8-12 (though it could be adapted on either end of the age range). There are at least 32 weeks of exploration that will bless both children and adults.
The Prayer Experiment Notebook by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes and Mina Munns says it is geared towards children 8-12, but I would say it might better fit the 7- to 10-year-old group. It includes 20 prayer experiments and space for those using the prayer idea to reflect on what happened, how they felt during the prayer exploration, and what they might change if they did it again. This could be a great exploration at home or on a prayer weekend retreat with families exploring these ideas together.
The Teenage Prayer Experiment Notebook which was the first book by Threlfall-Holmes and written with her teenage son, Noah, has a similar format but includes more teaching on prayer and introduces young teens (and possibly tweens) to more of the ancient traditions of prayer like walking a labyrinth or the daily examen. Both books experiment with building Minecraft churches, which might be a place to start with the gaming crowd. One good way to introduce this book and invite students into communities of practice might be to use one or two of the experiments in this book at a retreat and send students home with the book for further exploration.
Milestone 1 of the CRCNA’s Our Journey 2025 is “cultivate practices of prayer and spiritual discipline, transforming our lives and communities by the power of the Holy Spirit.” As we imagine how we will live into this milestone, let’s remember that we can do so intergenerationally and that these faith practices are accessible to community members of all ages.
For more resources on prayer and other spiritual disciplines, check out The Faith Practices Project curated by Faith Formation Ministries. For more information on workshops that support this milestone and faith formation in the home, contact Lesli van Milligen [email protected].