Thursday, December 22, 2011
Taking it up a gear: children and prayer
Taking it up a gear....children and prayer
This is one of my passions. And it's not hard at all to see this change for the better. Read on....
Sadly, I’ve watched adults have extremely low expectations of children in this area. I know God is gracious to us and often moves situations and circumstances despite us but I feel compelled to encourage the youngest ones under my care to think big and talk to God about anything or anyone, anytime and anywhere. He’s the one who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine (Eph 3:20), so I read from these verses that we can come to God expectantly as he is longing to hear our requests. I recently asked several church leaders how children knew that God answered prayer. “Because he does”, they replied. I asked them how children would know that he does, as I wanted to drive the point home that unless children are hearing the stories of answered prayer, then they are perhaps justified by thinking of Christianity as dull and irrelevant to their fast-moving, social-media dominated world. Children need to see concrete answers to their questions. “Just because he does” holds no power for them. “Prove to me that he does” would be their response.
The research for the “You Lost Me” project provides the evidence: one fifth (20%) of the young adults who attended church as a teenager said: “God seems missing from my experience of church” . Oh dear Lord, how have we come so far from what you intended the community of faith to be?
This is where parents can exercise tremendous influence. I've written before about one of the significant findings from Barna's 2002 research. Less than one in ten US Christian families prayed or read the Bible together in a typical week.
When I first read these statistics (in 2007) my response was to find out if it was representative of the children and families I worked with and for. So I began to ask. I’d say that for around two hundred children aged between 5 and 11, in the two large churches I have worked in, I witnessed a similar trend. Grace might be said at meals, Bible stories were occasionally or regularly read, but talking of the things God had done in individual lives, praying together and giving thanks for answered prayer was definitely not the norm. I began to think: “why is this?”
Because of the busy-ness of daily lives, including children’s extra-curricular activities, whole families sitting down to a meal together is less common, although it is still highly valued in the families I worked with. This is the time where my own family do a lot of our talking together, about God and the things he has been doing in our lives and the answers to prayer that we have seen. When are the times that this can happen otherwise? Bedtime is another good time for this. But I’ve observed that children are going to bed much later than even twelve years ago when my daughter was a baby. Some children get themselves off to bed with no adult intervention and some go with a harassed parent who doesn’t have time for extended Bible or prayer time. The ever-present gadgets and visual stimuli in our homes are undoubtedly stealing away time from families to talk and pray together. Long working hours for one or other parent and the pressure to maintain an active, balanced life means less time is given over to simply “being” as a family, at home together. Over-busy parents tend to box their time into neat segments, which can remove spontaneous opportunities for worshipful chat (as we call it!)
This picture of increasingly separate, partitioned off blocks of time is alien to families in many cultures who live, work and play together in challenging circumstances in less developed parts of our world. We need to be intentional about carving out precious family time if we are to ground our children in whole-life discipleship that helps us to identify and pray for the ones God is leading us to; the persons of peace introduced at the start of this chapter. I am convinced the pressures and busy-ness of life is one of the enemy’s chief strategies to prevent a movement again towards household re-orientation in significant numbers. I’ve witnessed children (not teenagers!) with five or six extra-curricular commitments after school and on weekends and working parents and lots of homework. Ring-fencing time for family prayer and individual devotions is not impossible, but is certainly under pressure.
Many parents have confessed to me that they struggle with praying with their children. They have got stuck in a pattern, which quite frankly is boring them (and their child?) Their child doesn’t seem to want to pray with them and both parties just want to get it over with as quickly as possible.
I've briefly outlined some ways to re-awaken your church’s/family’s or children’s prayer life. I hope you can see too that what I write below is for the whole family who may come brand new to the Christian faith. This is not all about children……..many adults get stuck in their own prayer life. This is a brief excerpt from the book I am writing.
Reawakening and Refreshing Prayer in Children and Families
(a) Moving children on in prayer. Steps 1 to 5 are suggestions by John and Chris Leach . Step 6 is my own suggestion.
Step 1 – leader/parent does everything – chooses a prayer subject, prays about it and says “amen” at the end. Subjects need to be simple and relevant, linked to the every day life or the Bible story you may have just read. The leader/parent models short jargon-free prayers. Eventually the children join in with “amen”.
Step 2 – the children repeat prayers phrase by phrase with their leader/parent.
Step 3 – the children are asked to suggest items for prayer, then back to step 2.
Step 4 – children suggest items for prayer and the leader/parent suggests how they might pray. This could be a set formula like “dear Lord, please look after ________ this week. Amen.”
Step 5 – Children think of an issue and pray out loud.
Step 6 – (my suggestion/practice) – children lay hands on one another and pray simple prayers for you or one another, are able to deliver words and pictures, and ask God to intervene in situations. Their boldness grows the more they practise this. This step requires you to have taught your children how to tune in to listen to God.
Step 6 is ideally practised in a variety of settings such as in Sunday gatherings, in midweek intergenerational house groups, in Missional Communities or in public place on outreach.
Use descriptive praise towards the children to mark the movement from one stage to another. Consider using a prayer journal to record answers to prayer. Faith is built when we see the answers come and we celebrate each little success, which builds more faith and higher levels of expectation and so on it goes.
(b) 24/7 Prayer Rooms
When my (former) church entered wholeheartedly into regular 24-hour seasons of prayer, seven days a week, (in a specially set apart room in the church building), I wanted to encourage whole families to come and visit it. I wrote to parents before the prayer room week began, enclosing an information leaflet on ways to engage children in the 24/7 prayer room.
The prayer room had a chalkboard wall where people could leave verses and drawings, and pegs and hanging space, post-it notes, paper and pens. It was warmly furnished with cushions and chairs, rugs and blankets. I left a specially marked “children’s resource box” with sponges, paints, rollers, sugar paper and crayons as well as a selection of age-appropriate Bibles. This was a great success and used by many families who might not have gone all together to pray. Children, some very young, listened to God, prayed for the church and the nation and received prophetic words and pictures which were displayed on the “community wall”. Immediately they felt part and played an enormous part in the church’s prayer life. I fed back these examples (taking digital photographs, for example) in whole church services and some of the children themselves shared their own story of how they found the prayer room to be a place where they met with God.
I have to say that the family stories have been one of the things that has touched me the most and that I have been genuinely privileged to watch unfold. And this is not a difficult one, for readers to imagine happening in your place! Inspiring stories and lots of help on how to start a prayer room is available online (link at the end of this post).
This played a part, I believe, in catapulting our church children forward in their expectation of and journey with prayer.
(c) Church prayer meetings
It was a short step for me to arrange for some time in our regular church prayer meetings to be given over to all ages coming together to worship and pray, to tune in to God and to pray for the church, the city and the nation. We also enjoyed gentle but powerful times of children praying for – really ministering the power of the Holy Spirit – to adults and adults praying for children. On one occasion I had put together a “tabernacling space” and a young boy who very rarely came to church was lying down in God’s presence. Watching my senior pastor gently pray for him, and minister something from God himself to this young boy’s hurting spirit was like watching a little bit of heaven unfold before me. I’ll never forget what I aw happening in the spirit. Imagine making time for such encounters in God’s presence between adults and children in your faith community.
Why not make your church prayer meetings accessible to all ages for the first hour? Make sure it’s not dry and boring. Try to use a gifted worship leader/prayer leader who can engage all ages together. It’s not an easy thing to do, and we have to start our prayer meetings earlier and be there longer ourselves after the children and families have gone home, but it is a cost I gladly pay. Imagine the new families who are to come into the kingdom joining in with these kinds of activities! They will grow in faith and in experiences. Don’t worry if you are not sure how the event will turn out. The one thing I have learned most over the years through making mistakes is that God honours the heart behind what we do and it feels to me as if he is particularly inclined towards our attempts to see children grow in experience of him and in prayer.
(d) Children praying for others
I want to stress that the journey I have outlined above from traditional Sunday school -> 24/7 prayer room -> church prayer meetings -> ministering to one another and praying for schools and families, for the sick and the hurting, happened very quickly (in 12 to 18 months) and therefore I believe is eminently possible for any church that takes seriously the call to nurture and disciple the young to take great strides forward. I simply facilitated and then stepped back.
I began to see a change by disseminating everything I knew and practiced about children’s innate spirituality to parents and the wider church by any means possible (annual Vision days, one to one meetings, all age services, “family slots”, emails, pastoral home visits, written reports). I wanted to raise the expectation levels by explaining and demonstrating that children connect with God easily and believe for big things. I then planned to take children on from wherever they were in prayer using the 6 steps. All along, I encouraged children to believe God for big things but to listen carefully as to how they should pray because we have an ALMIGHTY powerful God who is longing to move in response to our prayers. Therefore in the first year I spent quite a lot of time teaching my volunteer team and the children themselves to listen out for God and not to plough in praying their best intentions.
I also took a group of children who were hungry, very hungry to know God more and worked through the Power of the Praying Kid book. This was no ordinary discipleship group, in that every third week we met and in-between times I wrote a parent history-maker sheet summarizing what we had done and setting some homework (!) for the parent and child to do together, for example: “tell your child about a time you had to forgive someone. Was this easy or hard? What happened once you had done that? What did it feel like?”
So children practiced the laying on of hands, waiting on God to listen first for Bible verses or pictures before praying for adults who were ill or facing difficulties (visas, accommodation, final exams). This was a weekly occurrence. I didn’t lead this from the front, I introduced the activity and let the children gather round individuals and pray. Sometimes my team and I wanted to finish off the praying time (!) so we could move on to other programmed activity but there would be very few children sitting on the floor waiting, they had all crowded round the person or persons being prayed for, to lay hands on and to watch, listen and join in. I learned to just go with this. There is a rising hunger amongst children in the UK to pray.
I would reiterate that it’s very important to share the answers to prayer so that children match up the beginning with the end and know that God always answers prayer. This also allows them to see that sometimes the answer is “no” or “wait”. It also allows them to grow in bold faith. One week a nurse who was signed off work with a slipped disc came in to the children’s venue to seek prayer specifically because she had heard that the children offered to pray for people. A big crowd of about thirty children dutifully laid hands on her and prayed with faith for her back – very simply, but boldly. She had an appointment that week with the occupational health specialist who had signed her off work. She was healed of all pain and he substantiated that the disc was back in place and that she could return to work. I asked her to come back to tell the children exactly what had happened in the previous seven days. Naturally their faith was strengthened and they had experienced God’s power working through them, which I reckon they will never forget.
The journey from a traditional classroom based Sunday School to what I have described above (in two years) continues as children have now prayed in school for their friends to be healed of headaches and stomach upsets. Friends, this journey is not an impossibly hard one. God is committed to this where you feel weak because (I am convinced) he loves to hear children praying.
The journey in and with prayer for children is an essential one, I believe, for us to be ready for what is to come. People who come new to the Christian faith, with no relatives who have gone before them to help show them the way, will need to be in direct and continual dialogue with their Father in heaven. They’ll need – and I believe will receive - bold and radical answers to prayer that will see a reorientation throughout their extended family towards God and lifelong commitments to the Christian faith. Let’s do all we can to prepare ourselves for a move of prayer that renews and refreshes the whole church that no one age or stage of life is isolated from.
You Lost Me - by David Kinnaman: a must-read
And For Your Children - by John and Chris Leach
The Power of the Praying Kid - by Stormie Omartian
24/7 prayer rooms - see http://uk.24-7prayer.com/prayer-rooms/
You will be inspired and moved – read about all ages taking part in! Prayer rooms are held in schools, churches, homes, community centres - you can set up a prayer room anywhere.