What would youth ministry look like with a robust spiritual theology shaping our teaching, programming and soul care? I have been exploring this question over the past few weeks in a series of posts. I am simply offering my humble observations and thoughts from several years in youth ministry on how to intentionally infuse key concepts and values of spiritual formation into ministry with students. In this post I want to explore yet another key area, prayer.
Two things have struck me since I have been in youth ministry in regards to prayer. (1) Students don’t know how to pray. (2) We haven’t taught students how to pray.
Students don’t know how to pray: By the time our evangelical kids get into youth ministry they simply don’t know how to pray. Prayer is rote, dry and detached. They pray from a deistic position, more often than not asking what seems to be a distant God to fix things. Of course, this lifeless form of prayer soon loses its luster, especially for teens who are experiencing their existential loneliness for the first time. The life of prayer has been all but vanquished by the time they get into high school, and if it is still alive it is shaped by terse prayers for family members, apologetic pleas to God before bed or praying before they eat a burrito at Chipotle. In short, when many of my students pray they fall asleep (figuratively of course) or they revert to a younger age (figuratively of course). Obviously, there is some hyperbole here, but it is to make a point, which is simply that our kids do not know how to pray truly and pray deeply. This should not be all that surprising considering how void the current evangelical culture is on deep exploration of the life of prayer. We like to focus on the more concrete and the more cognitive. We have taught implicitly and explicitly that spiritual growth equals increased knowledge of God (head knowledge, not relational) resulting from hard work and diligence. In such a schema evangelical parents have learned themselves that prayer is a time to learn, work hard and apologize.
We haven’t taught students how to pray: We haven’t done much better for our kids once they get into youth ministry. Unfortunately, because we are so program and content driven we have avoided training students to pray. Prayer is not systematically programmed or simply collapsed into a four part series that ensures students "get it." We have too often seen students as problems to fix. We see them as spiritual flight risks and so we focus on apologetic issues, biblical competency, service, etc. These things are of course good, but my concern is that in the midst of getting kids to be more "dedicated" and "serious" about their faith we are not connecting them deeply to God. I have noticed a trend in my student leaders that as they get older in the faith they begin to realize they have simply moved into leadership within the church because of their personality, their pathology or their desire to earn the approval of the youth pastor, and they don’t really feel a deep connection with God. They love the youth ministry culture, not God. They feel deeply connected to the scene, the people and the "vision" of the youth ministry, but not to God. We need to not simply teach on prayer, we need to model prayer and create space for prayer. We need to show kids how to pray by praying ourselves with them regularly. We need to teach on prayer not simply through a sermon, but by praying during youth group in ways that help kids to stretch their spiritual muscles and move them into self reflection, honesty and creativity in prayer. We need to frame their experience of prayer and serve as guides walking them a step deeper into their hearts with God. We need to provide space for students to move the content of the lesson into prayer. We need to allow actual space for them just to listen to God. We need to put words to how they feel (bored, confused, scared, etc.) when they are in prayer and validate that it is normal. We have unfortunately absorbed the habit of our evangelical church at large which sees prayer as a transitional element in the worship service. It is a shame not to use the graced space we have with these students to open them deeply to the gracious One. Of course, if we are honest this is hard for us because by using our precious programming and teaching time to help train kids how to pray we are relinquishing our control over their growth and trusting God to transform and move.