Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
Say the word “prayer” to a youth worker, and I’m sure a slide show of images and emotions flood your mind. The spectrum probably runs from unspeakably sublime to the utterly mundane. I am reminded of praying under a full moon on a granite peak in British Columbia with a dozen juniors and seniors on a backpacking trip; the moonlight radiated off the bare rock in such a way that we were all bathed in a silvery glow. Our prayer time was so profound I can still remember its intensity over 20 years later. Yet prayer with youth also conjures up memories (nightmares?) of being a camp speaker for 300 junior highers, and telling them about Christ’s passion on the cross. With deep emotion and a grave demeanor, I called them to pray and consider the sacrifices of our Lord. In silence so wide we could hear a pin drop…a boy let out a massive fart, and let’s just say, the moment was lost!
Because of youth ministry, I have been laid out on my face before the Lord in desperation and fear. I have stomped through the snow in fury, shaking my fist at His silence. I have wept at His beauty and grandeur in hearing my students worship. I have shown up to a prayer meeting and fallen asleep because I have pushed myself too hard for too long. In any and all situations, prayer is an integral part of youth ministry. Whether we feel like it or not.
This is the fourth in a series of twelve articles on spiritual disciplines for youth workers. The twelve disciplines were chosen according to those examined in Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth. While each discipline contains particular challenges in being lived out, I would venture to say that I have found none of them more demanding than that of prayer. As Oswald Chambers, a speaker, teacher and missionary of unique insight once said, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” If you really want to learn to be a good youth worker, spend less time trying to keep up with pop culture and more time with Jesus. Then, and only then, will you have what it takes to go long-term.
Countless volumes on prayer have been written, and one need only turn to the Book of Psalms to get started on the spiritual discipline of prayer for intimate communion with Christ. What could I possibly add to that? I will only share a few of my own lessons learned from prayer specifically as a youth worker, and hope that you will be encouraged.
I find that my own prayer needs as a youth worker have tended to fall, by and large, into three categories:
- Prayers for my students and their families.
- Prayers for more: more leaders, more money, more time, more energy, more kids to sign up for camp…more more more!
- Prayers for wisdom beyond my years.
Prayers for my students and their families.
Early in my career, all the needs of all my kids seemed like an almost insuperable burden. So many needs expressed by kids combined with so many glaring problems evident to me added up to a huge pile of worry. Sadly, I tried to carry those worries on my back. I misunderstood the implications of the famous words by Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Rather than think it is your job to carry the burdens of those many kids around you, entrust them to the broad shoulders of our Lord. I learned how to surrender it all, every day, at God’s feet. In fact, in the past few years, my prayers have become simpler: God knows what each person needs, far better than I ever will. So rather than recount all the ways a young person (or parent, or leader, or teacher, or whoever!) needs the Lord’s help, I simply say their name and commit them to Christ’s care. In the last year or so, I’ve picked up this practice described in the devotional Common Prayer:
Consider creating a space where you can get on your knees in the “secret chamber” and be with God. A friend from Brazil started a tradition of tacking prayers on her wall, so she could pray simply by looking at the walls and remembering the needs of her neighborhood and all the prayers God has answered.
I’ve listed particular students’ names on my “wall” both from long ago and right now whom God has put on my heart to pray for.
Prayers for more.
This is not just the dilemma of youth workers, but of just about every godly servant. But I have especially found youth ministry to be chronically under-funded and under-supported. As I raised money for Young Life, recruited (begged?) youth leaders for the fall, or tracked down gang members for camp, I often felt squeezed for (and tapped out of) resources. But whenever I felt at a loss, I call upon these words from Psalm 50:10-12:
For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it.
I firmly believe that God just shakes his head at us as we stumble around, trying to do everything on our own, waiting to pray and ask Him for help as our last resort. Learn to pray first, and always. As I pray, my eyes are opened wider to his imagination and provision. God is always speaking to us, and we only miss hearing Him when we do not listen. The truth of this simple line has astounded me as I have taken it seriously:
Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desires. (Psalm 37:4)
In plenty and in want, pray first and foremost for MORE of Christ and he will happily answer that prayer!I have grown most in this practice by praying the Psalms. My favorite resources for growing in my understanding and enjoyment of the Psalms have come through reading How to Read the Psalms by Tremper Longman and God’s Prayer Book by Ben Patterson.
Prayer for wisdom beyond my years.
Though I am now at the age where I envisioned as a young youth worker that I would finally be “wise,” I know better than I ever have that I am utterly dependent on the wisdom of God for every decision and every responsibility placed before me. Fortunately, there is not enough room here to recount all of my foolish decisions, both great and small, that could have been avoided had I spent more time praying and less time panicking.
But one example stands out. I spent my first two years on Young Life staff (1984-1985) helping to get three junior high “Wyld Life” clubs started in town. It was a time of surprising, Spirit-filled success, and unfortunately, I took myself far too seriously. In approaching the fourth school, I threw up a quick prayer beforehand, gave my “spiel” to the principal, shared about our success at three other schools and our current work in the local high schools, then smiled and waited for the same results we had seen elsewhere.
The principal thanked me for the clear and enthusiastic presentation and told me she would contact us within the week. I did not know that as she closed the door she picked up the phone and called every other secondary-school principal in the district—eight in all—and scolded each one for allowing campus access to Young Life in violation of district policy.
While her interpretation of campus access policy was debatable, all the principals retreated immediately, deciding that our presence on campus was not worth arguing about. In one hour, I single-handedly lost our campus access for three new junior-high clubs and our five longstanding high-school Young Life clubs! My arrogance and lack of humble prayer before God still shames me. Fortunately, this event literally drove me to my face before God, seeking after His wisdom and insight. I am grateful for a hard lesson back in those early years of ministry.
As youth workers we will be thrown into many incredible and difficult situations. Just admit it NOW that you have no idea what to do! Instead, constantly consult with our Lord.
Don’t forget what I mentioned at the beginning as our highest priority, especially when it comes to prayer: intimate communion with God. As Richard Foster says, “All who have walked with God have viewed prayer as the main business of their lives.” May you discover this as well!
Use the links below to read all of the articles in the series, or visit Kelly’s CYMT contributor page:
Kelly Soifer is currently the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, providing strategic planning, pastoral recruiting and training for over 40 Free Methodist churches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. She is greatly energized by the Free Methodist Church’s deep commitment to “walking their talk,” where they serve in multiple ways throughout their communities, reaching diverse populations.
Kelly was a youth pastor for 15 years, and before that served as a Regional Director with Young Life. She has also taught both at a local Christian high school (teaching Bible and doctrine) and at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships.
In keeping with other crazy Californians, Kelly is a devoted bicycle commuter, delighted owner of an Italian scooter, and enthusiastic fan of organic produce and cooking. She has also become quite the blogger, Facebooker, Google Plusser and Twitterer! However, she cannot surf.