Welcome to session #6 of the Children’s Ministry Think Tank. This time I’ve asked our contributors to share their experience of teaching kids to pray. If you would like to participate, just read over the responses and leave your thoughts in the comment section. Here is the question:
How Should We Teach Kids To Pray?
How do you teach children to pray? How do you approach this differently with children you know to be unconverted? How do you encourage kids to develop self initiative in their own prayer lives?
Response From Glen Woods
I have learned one thing of singular importance about teaching for behavioral change, including instructing children to pray: my behavior must model the behavior I wish to see in others. Am I a person of prayer? Is it sincere, humble, and life-changing? Do I have an ongoing conversation with God throughout my daily routines? Does my prayer life reflect that modeled and taught by Jesus who, when asked by the disciples how to pray, reminded them of the Aramaic prayer they had grown up with in the Synagogue, the Qaddish (taken from a root word meaning holy), or as most of our readers would recognize it, the Lord’s Prayer?
There is a temptation to respond to a question like this with a formulaic answer, prescriptive of desired behavior. Indeed, we typically look at the Lord’s Prayer this way. We see it as his prescription for a well-rounded prayer life. But is that what he intended? Given that they grew up with the Qaddish as a regular and integral prayer synagogue worship, it is more likely he was calling them back to the rhythms of their spiritual heritage, a call to prayer multiple times throughout the day in community and privately.
Jesus, himself, had a consistent attitude in and about prayer, but he was unpredictable in terms of the content of his recorded prayers. Why is this? I think it is because, although some of his prayers (the Lord’s Prayer is one example) were formulaic, he typically did not reduce prayer to ritualistic forms. He prayed relationally to his Father (see the Gospel of John, passim). So too, do we have an opportunity to show children how to relate to their heavenly Father. And, if they do not yet know God personally, then this kind of conversational, comfortable but reverent, prayer life will pique their curiosity to ask of the hope that is within you. Remember, if we seek God we will find him; children are the ultimate seekers, given their typical curiosity. And in terms of teaching children self-initiative to pray, have self-initiative in your prayer life. Set the example. Self-initiative in prayer begins with a desire to seek God and is sustained by a growing relationship with God. Teach parents in your church to do the same. Their children are watching and learning to follow their example.
Glen Woods is a Children’s Pastor and warehouseman in Portland, Oregon. He writes at Children’s Ministry Conversation.
Response From Nicole VanderMeulen
When I was a child, I knew and used three prayers. I learned the Lord’s Prayer with memorization work at Sunday School and Confirmation Class. I recited the familiar bedtime prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep…” before falling to sleep each night, and my family said a rendition of “Come Lord Jesus” before eating dinner. Although my parents are both Christians and our family had near perfect attendance at our little Lutheran church, these three memorized sayings were all I knew of prayer. I had no clue it had the possibility to be both powerful and sincere. When my husband first began sharing meals with me at my parents home, I had to remind them to say our mealtime prayer SLOWLY, opposite our usual warp speed setting, just so that he could keep up! In fact, I remember occasions during my childhood when I would pick up my fork and then someone at the table would ask, “Did we pray?” Wow! It’s hard to claim prayer as meaningful time with God when you can’t even remember if you did it or not! I’m not proposing that there is no place for memorized prayer, but I am introducing a better way for kids…the repeat after me prayer!
Virtually all you need to know is in the name, but just to clarify, an adult or the leader says a prayer, pausing between every two or three words, allowing the children and other participants to repeat or echo the words that have been prayed. That’s all there is to the repeat after me prayer. I use this prayer technique at the end of children’s sermons during worship, and all the kids AND the adults join in on “repeating after me”. Not only does this really give prayer a community and family feel, but it really prepares children to pray from their heart independently in the future, by giving them lots and lots of examples of how you pray and what you say. You can take the repeat after me prayer one step further, by asking the children for prayer requests or ideas before you pray and then including them in your petitions. It is my hope (and prayer!) that this repeat after me method will eventually lead children to pray confidently and compassionately all on their own.
I would not pray ANY differently with a child who is “converted” verses “unconverted” and I am not really sure there is such a thing. Prayer is about love, confession, forgiveness, adoration, supplication, and thanks, and I truly believe all of those things are for all people. Lutheran theology is grounded in Ephesians 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast. It is our belief that while it is important to have faith in God, that he already chose you, whether you choose him or not. Nothing you do or do not do will change God’s love for you. We believe faith is a journey, and that it doesn’t necessarily begin in one moment, prayer, or act.
Nicole VanderMeulen serves as the Children’s Ministry Coordinator at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton, Washington.
Response From Brenna Phillips
One of the easiest ways to teach children to pray is by modeling prayer times with them. Pray with children. Show them that simple conversations with God are the best. Help children to understand that they do not have to use big, fancy words and long prayers for God to understand their hearts. God is their Heavenly daddy and wants to talk with them and hear from their hearts. The best way for children to hear how to pray is for them to hear their leaders and other adults praying in simple conversations to God.
Unconverted children will learn how to pray from these same simple techniques and it may even lead them to ask further questions about salvation.
Encourage children to develop self-initiative in their own prayer lives by encouraging them to simply talk to God. He’s listening. He loves and cares and wants to hear from them. Children do not have to hide in a closet or be all alone to pray “high and mighty” prayers. Simple God conversations will do fine.
Brenna Phillips is Children’s-Family Minister at Mission Fellowship Church, in Middletown, Delaware, and teaches early childhood students at an early learning center. www.brennaphillips.com
Response From Wayne Stocks
Prayer is fundamental to the Christian life. God does not have us pray because he needs to hear what we are thinking – he already knows! God has us pray to build our relationship with him. Consequently, it is essential that kids be taught how to pray. Even amongst Christians, it is common for children to be taught what to pray. They are given rote prayers to repeat at meal time (e.g., “God is great, God is good”) or before they go to bed (e.g., “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”). In doing this, we do kids a disservice. A child may be well fed so long as she lives at Mom’s house, but if she is never taught HOW to cook, she is destined to a life of fast food and take out. In the same way, if a child is never taught how to pray, they are destined to a life of spiritual malnutrition!
How Do You Teach Children to Pray?
Four truths of prayer come to mind about how we teach kids to pray:
- Children must be taught why we pray. They must be taught that God commands us to pray and that the reason for praying is for our benefit not for God’s.
- Children must be taught when to pray. Prayer is not just for night time or meal time. The Bible says “pray without ceasing.” We must explain to kids that prayer is about acknowledging God and his presence at all times in our lives.
- Children must be taught the types of prayer. Praying to God can take many forms: Talking out loud, In our heads, Writing them out, Singing, Drawing pictures, Dancing, Meditating on his Word, Short prayers, Long prayers.
- Children must be taught the elements of prayer. There are four basic elements of prayer that should be taught to kids. The Lord’s Prayer is a great tool for accomplishing this. The elements of prayer can be remember by the acronym ACTS:
- Adoration: Praising God for who is and what he has done!
- Confession: Telling God about the wrong things we have done and asking for his forgiveness.
- Thanksgiving: Thanking God for all he has done for us.
- Supplication: Asking for things for ourselves and others.
So, those are four truths about prayer, but what is the best way to convey those to kids? They must be taught by example. The following are some practical tips:
- Model prayer for them. Show them how you pray.
- Pray with them frequently.
- Make prayer part of your lesson.
- Let kids see you praying.
- Pray as a Ministry Team
- Talk about prayers God has answered or you
- Encourage them to write their prayers down and keep track of those God has answered.
Finally, look for opportunities and fun ways to teach kids how to pray and then use them to pray with them. Here are some ideas:
- Make a list of ten things they are thankful for.
- Have them draw a picture of their family and write one thing they could pray about for each person.
- Talk to them about things they are afraid of and God’s ability to protect them from those things.
- Act out the days of creation with them and talk about the awesomeness of God.
- Have them do some research on starving kids around the world.
- Talk about our government and the people who rule over us. Explain that God tells us to pray for those people.
- Talk about the people they know at church like the Pastor, Elders and Children’s Pastor. Explain that those people need our prayers.
Kids will learn so much more by doing than they ever will by just by hearing.
How Do You Help Kids To Develop Their Own Initiative?
Patterns and routines are helpful for kids in prayer. Encourage them to pray throughout the day, but always at certain times (such as when they get up, meal time, or bedtime). Encourage them to think about their prayers. If your kids are just saying the same thing day after day after day, they are not really learning how to pray. If you encourage them to put their own fears and wishes and desires and gratitude in their prayers, it makes the prayer their own and encourages them tap into the power of prayer.
In my own family, one thing I do when the kids get into a rut and pray the same things over and over is mix it up for them a little bit for them. For example, one time when the prayers were a little too much “Please help me to” and “Please help me to get” I gave them the following criteria – “Tonight I want us to pray without asking for anything.” When my oldest objected that he was told that there was no wrong way to pray, it gave me a chance to explain that God loves to hear our prayers, but that he also taught us how to pray!
As a Children’s Ministry worker, it is important to remember that no matter what you do, a child’s prayer habits will most likely be picked up from Mom and Dad. If you can encourage parents to pray with their kids, or get kids to ask their parents to pray with them, that is the most effective way to help kids develop their own prayer initiative.
Prayer and Unconverted Kids
I had never really thought about this question before, but it seems like the most appropriate thing to encourage unconverted kids to do in prayer is to ask God questions and to express thanks to God for the things that he has done in their lives. Teach them the good news of Jesus Christ and encourage them to ask God in prayer to show them the truth of the Gospel. Even if a child is not converted, the fundamental truths of prayer discussed above will provide a foundation for that child if, God willing, he makes a decision to follow Christ at some future date!
Read more from Wayne Stocks on his blog “Dad in the Middle“