“Um, How Do I Pray?”

“Ms. Rachael, may I pray us out?”

I looked at David blankly for a moment, a bit in shock. Never in my year of knowing him had I ever heard him ask to pray. Even more, I’ve never even heard him share any prayer requests. I wasn’t even sure if he believed in God.

Um, How Do I Pray?

I quickly shook off my shock and responded, “Of course! Please, please pray us out. I’ll get us started and you can finish.” So I prayed for some of the prayer requests offered up then handed it over to David.

He paused for a moment, seemingly nervous. He then squeezed my hand, leaned in, and whispered, “Um, how do I pray?”

I looked around the room at the 22 other middle schoolers who, rather than seeming to judge David for his lack of knowledge, seemed to be waiting for the answer. How do we pray?

I work for an Episcopal church, which at its very center is The Book of Common Prayer. It seems as young Episcopalians who have been in church their whole lives, these kids would know without hesitation how to pray. As a person who has been praying for so long, I take for granted my ability to pray. It’s been important for me to remember that I actually had to learn how to do it.

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray. 

I was reminded of the story in Luke of the Lord’s prayer in which Jesus’ disciples – those closest to him – asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.”

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray.

And so we have the Lord’s prayer, which we mumble off in Church on Sunday mornings or at home. We almost take for granted that Jesus taught us this prayer not as something only to be said verbatim, but as a tool for understanding what prayer is and how to do it.

Teaching Youth About Prayer

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer you the ways in which I have been teaching youth about prayer.

1. Visuals

We are blessed enough to have a whole Youth House. An entire house devoted to the youth of our church. It has all the usual markings of a youth space – a ping-pong table and a pool table. It is always stocked with plenty of snacks and soda. Even with all these youthful fixtures, it felt like something was missing. I finally realized, other than a few crosses flung here and there, there was no real visible sign that this was indeed a sacred space, or a place where as a community we pray together.

So I hung up three peg boards in our gathering room. One for hanging prayers, one for hanging words of gratitude, and one for words of encouragement. On the first wall there are tags in a basket that students can take to write prayers and supplications on. They then hang it from the wall and know that I, or another leader, will pray for those requests that week. The tags stay up as a visible reminder that we are a praying community.

On the second wall, there is a similar basket with blank tags on which students can write words of gratitude. What are they thankful to God for that week? They can write it on a tag and hang it on the wall.

On the third wall there are tags with encouraging scripture verses or quotes from theologians hanging from string. If a student feels they need a word of encouragement for the week, or a friend might need one, they can take one of the tags. My hope is that eventually the room feels like it’s full of prayer not just because we pray in it, but because we can see the prayers for ourselves.

2. Listening for God

I think one of the most valuable things we can teach youth is that God is always speaking to them; that there is always a word from God to be heard.

A few weeks ago, I read the story of Jesus’ baptism to my high school group. I had them close their eyes for a moment and told them to imagine that the words of God to Jesus in the baptism story, were God’s words to them. I said aloud “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”

I then passed out envelopes and paper and pens and asked them to spread out throughout the youth house and be quiet for 5-10 minutes as they to wrote a letter to themselves from God. I promised I wouldn’t read them, and had them put the letters in sealed envelopes and to address the envelopes to themselves. I then promised to send the letters out in a few months. I told them I’d love for them to get in the practice of sitting and listening for God speak to them – that this in and of itself is a form of prayer.

3. Praying for each other

What does it mean to be a praying community? It means to be together in prayer. Part of the value of youth group is providing a community of peers for our youth. A true community that shares in one another’s joy and sorrows. We share highs and lows at each youth group – but to be in Christian community means that we’re praying for each other’s lows and praising God for each other’s highs.

I share a story with my youth about a time when I was struggling to pray. I couldn’t quite find the words, and was afraid that my prayers wouldn’t be answered. But I had a wonderful community around me lifting me up in prayer and I depended on them saying the words I didn’t have the courage to say.

I told my students I’d like them to be that for each other. I gave them each two pieces of paper and asked them to think of one person they know who needs some prayer – maybe they’re sick or sad. Maybe they’re lonely or have a hard test coming up. Whatever the prayer was, I asked them to write the name or the initials of the person they wanted to pray for and to hang it up on the prayer wall I mentioned earlier. Similarly, I told them to use the other piece of paper to write the name of a person they’d like to thank God for, or to say a word of thanks for something good that’s happened for someone they know and to hang that on the wall.

4. Praying for yourself

Prayer of ExamenSome people feel just fine listing off a list of petitions for God. Other’s feel to self-focused. We’re taught to be humble and to lack self-interest. But the truth is, God wants us to depend on Him; to rest in God and the truth that God will cover our needs. It can be helpful for youth to sit in quiet and examine where they sense a need.

Give them examples to help start this practice. Oftentimes some of our young people haven’t been taught to understand there are needs that aren’t material. In a wealthy community kids sometimes feel they have everything they need – water, food, shelter – what could they possibly ask for?

With this in mind I introduced my high schoolers to St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen. We lit candles, and I dimmed the lights. I had them take a couple of deep breaths and get comfortable, then I walked them through the Examen (this is a good resource if you are unfamiliar with the Examen). I did an abbreviated version which was about 7 minutes long. Then I passed out an Examen guide so they could practice it on their own if they chose.

Have Faith

Sometimes when we think of asking teenagers to pray, there’s some anxiety. Surely a 14-year-old boy can’t sit still long enough to do an Examen exercise. Well, have some faith in your youth. Prayer lightens our burden and yokes us to Christ. It is an essential part of Christian identity. We see Jesus going off to pray all throughout the Gospels. But prayer can be intimidating, so offering your youth tools and most importantly – encouragement is essential when you are the spiritual leader of youth!

What tools have you used to teach your youth about prayer? I would love to read about them in the comments!

About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.