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Children and Prayer

The last hymn has just started. The adults will be coming out soon and they will want the children's place for the teas and coffees. It's time to wrap up the Sunday group. Not that you are necessarily too unhappy about that; it hasn't been an easy session and anyway you've run out of material by now (why has the sermon been so long today?) - so it is a good time to end. 'Right everyone, settle down. We need to say a final prayer before we finish'.

With an effort the restlessness around you subsides enough for a small moment of silence, which you then fill with a prayer from you as the leader on behalf of the children. The sound of a chorused 'amen' becomes the cue for the cups to start rattling as the adults arrive and your signal to start the tidying up!

Do you recognise this? Or have you at some stage in your experience of being a children's leader been close to something like this? I certainly have, and now looking back on it, I am rightly prompted to ask an uncomfortable question. 'Was this really the only experience of prayer that my children were given'? We certainly had lots of activity together - lively music, noisy games, a fun quiz, an interesting Bible study, some creative if messy crafts and an energetic discussion; but what about... prayer itself? Does it always get pushed to the edge like this or, worse, does it usually fall off the edge altogether?

If you have found yourself asking questions like this about your children's work, then be reassured that you are not alone. Nor is this just an issue for children's leaders. Have you noticed how often the prayer time is squeezed down or out in favour of other parts of our Christian fellowship together? 'Book-end prayer' - a petition at the beginning and a blessing at the end - placed around our church activities may establish certain principles about prayer but it hardly helps develop a proper practice of it.

How do people grow into a committed, regular, personal and meaningful prayer life? And more to the point for you and me as children’s leaders, how do children develop the same? Certainly my thirty seconds of prayer time at the end of children's church is unlikely to encourage my children in the habit of real and vital praying.

So how do we go about not simply teaching children about prayer but helping them to become genuine pray-ers? How do we feed what as Christians we believe is our God-given instinct to seek God in prayer and worship? There are plenty of techniques and clever ideas about 'doing prayer' with children but how can we foster an appetite for prayer in them that sets them on the road to regular conversations with God? How do we enable them to draw close to God for themselves - ready both to hear and receive what God might want to say?

As I started to think about these issues, I began wondering what it is that helps me into prayer. Particular worship songs or music? Certain Bible verses or passages? Silence? A beautiful sunset? It is an interesting exercise to ask what moves people to prayer or, put another way, what it is that the Holy Spirit uses to draw us back to the Father.

I suspect that the answers will be as wide ranging as the people we ask, according to tastes and character, though there may be some commonly agreed stimuli. The point is though that what is true for adults is, I believe, also true for children. Some children will be helped by popping balloons that say 'thank-you', 'sorry' and 'please...'; or by the throwing of a dice with suggestions for prayers on each face; but equally many will be helped by silence or something beautiful to look at; quiet music or the light of a candle flame. In other words there is not just one way to help children into prayer - which is often felt must be the most frenetic way. Many ways into prayer that we have too quickly labelled ‘for adults only’ are in fact also helpful and appealing to children. Perhaps even more so, because children's active imaginations can often respond even better to symbols and special atmospheres than adults’, whose minds are often tired or preoccupied.

So where do we start if we wish to introduce children to the habit of real, meaningful prayer? It will certainly need to be planned into our time together with children with as much imagination and energy as any other part of our programme and preferably not left to the end. Three particular guiding principles for this come to mind:

The first and most powerful influence on our children's prayer life will be our own

How we pray and the words we use will be the role model that can either liberate or sadly also inhibit the children whom we are teaching to pray. Praying together should not be an exercise in saying something clever to outdo our neighbour, nor in giving the latest news, nor in continuing the teaching of the lesson but it must be a real response to Father God. This doesn't need heaps of words, as both the writer of Ecclesiastes and our Lord remind us, but instead words from the heart. Children very quickly see through sham and insincerity and will recognise if our prayers are contaminated with the same. So let us model what we long to pass on. The challenge here for us is of course that we will need to re-examine our own prayer life, for unless this is on the right track - the best it can be, without beating ourselves up about it - the children in our care will not take prayer seriously.

The second step I believe is to create an agreed and regular pattern for our praying together

Doing prayers in lots of different creative ways can be fun and has its place in children's work, but when it comes to fostering good habits of prayer for children (and for ourselves for that matter) a regular pattern is vital. We know that children flourish best where there are safe boundaries within which they can relax. A safe place allows them the freedom to experiment and express themselves in prayer however they wish, because there they feel unthreatened and secure.

What does this mean in practice? Perhaps it means sitting in a circle and passing a cross or another special object around which gives permission for each in turn to pray; perhaps it means opening a set of boxes which prompt different types of prayer; perhaps it means writing or drawing prayers on differently coloured post-it leaves, which are then attached to a prayer-tree; perhaps it means repeating a learned set of gestures for thanks and praise and ‘amen’ that act as an acted chorus to any prayers that are said; perhaps it involves using different objects and coloured felts to express various moods of prayer. There are many methods you can adopt but I would suggest that whichever you choose, you should stick with it. In this way the children can learn to trust you, each other, the pattern and most importantly God, with whom they are in this time of prayer. To achieve this we need to make whatever formula we use a regular one.

The third important element in leading children into a habit of prayer is to have a simple focus

This is something that reminds the gathered group that they are very deliberately choosing to come into the presence of God. This may be a lighted candle or a cross; maybe it is a piece of craft that has come out of the day's work; perhaps it is a piece of music or a special picture or a globe that reminds them that they are talking with the creator of heaven and earth. Never underestimate the power of a visual focus for this prayer time - something seen week by week by the children. Choose such a focus carefully and prayerfully for this will often become something that at other times and places will help them into prayer and the presence of God.

Having a focus and a pattern like this is of course establishing a form of ritual for prayer. It amounts to a framework that helps prayer to happen. It signals its importance and it becomes a check against it being marginalized and trivialised. Its aim is to create a good habit that will last. However, rituals of course have inherent dangers. They can become over-elaborate and fussy and an end in themselves. This has always been a danger for the Church. The answer is to keep them simple and accessible. Why not work out with the children themselves what your focus and pattern will be; they will have many good ideas. Once the focus and pattern have become established, stick with them. Keep the focus a regular and central feature of your time of patterned prayer together. I have seen the benefits of this begin to happen with my own children's group each week and increasingly the silences and the words they use in prayer amaze me, reminding me again that it is as much about me leaning about prayer from them as they from me.

Prayer is a very intimate and personal experience. Although we know that we are invited to call the creator of the cosmos ‘daddy ‘, we need to recognise that we must not take this privileged gift lightly. It is therefore not surprising that adults can often find that praying together can be a bit threatening and uncomfortable. However children rarely find the idea of prayer and praying together strange or impossible. Perhaps this is part of their special closeness to the kingdom, of which Jesus talks. When it comes to prayer as a natural response to the presence of God and a instinctual wanting to talk with and listen to him, then children very often lead the way. The good habit of this sort of prayer nurtured and encouraged will help them later on in their adult journey of faith.

There are many ways of praying as we have seen and it is very important that this is affirmed for children. They can speak out loud or whisper the words in their hearts so that only God can hear; they can use prayers learned by heart or words they make up themselves; they can sing prayers or even dance them; they can simply be quiet. It doesn’t matter which way they choose as long as their prayers are as true as they can be. Our longing as leaders is surely that our children find their own voice in prayer. Each of us has our own unique way of coming close to God, which blesses us as well as those who hear us. To enable children to find that voice, we need to create a safe praying place and give our prayer time together value and importance by the way we structure it and give it a focus. All this can only happen though if prayer is central to our own lives. We need to model what we are teaching. But that modelling does not mean we should then dominate or talk too much when it comes to the praying. My advice would be to let the leader’s contributions to your time of prayer be as simple and with as few words as possible. Instead listen carefully to the children's prayers and learn from them! And listen to their silences too because this of course is also prayer.

Prayer is the heartbeat of our relationship with our Lord and needs time and attention to be given to it in our work with children. For my part I have certainly determined that never again, as far as it is down to me, will I let this precious jewel for our spiritual journey become just snatched seconds and a chorused amen before the coffee is served.

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