by Lilly Lewin
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, in a youth room in Nashville, Tenn., I was the resident “prayer hog.” I was the one at the end of youth group who, when my youth leader would ask who’d like to close us in prayer, would enthusiastically raise my hand to volunteer. Oh oh pick me pick me! Every time!
Let me tell you a little about why prayer hogs need to take a break. When we open up for closing prayers, or prayer in general, it’s almost always the prayer hogs who jump in and pray. We prayer hogs aren’t afraid to pray out loud; we like it. We are quick to think on our feet, we connect well verbally, and usually we have an active relationship with God, so praying out loud is our time to shine. While most youth pastors love us, we aren’t very beneficial to everyone else in the group. Our enthusiasm and often long-windedness says to the shy person, you’ll never be able to pray like that. It says to the ADHD person, who is thinking about leftover pizza, the girl across the room, or the score in Sunday night football game, anything but praying, that he doesn’t ever have to pray. And it says to the newbie, who hasn’t even discovered Jesus yet, that prayer is just for the professional pray-er, and she disconnects a bit further from what God is doing.
So what is a youth leader to do? How can we engage everyone from the new student to the ADHD students, to even the prayer hogs in the crowd? How can we help the prayer hogs relax and give everyone in the group a chance to engage God and participate in having a conversation with him? How can we help everyone in our groups pray and really connect with Jesus?
The answer is through experiential prayer practices. An experiential prayer practice uses a touchable, tangible multi-sensory activity to engage God. Everything from eating a sour Skittle as we ask God to help us see Him in the midst of the sour things in our lives, to passing around bowl of sand and washing our hands in it as an act of repentance and then washing our hands again and tasting honey to remind us of the sweetness of God’s forgiveness (i.e. John the Baptist). In experiential prayer everyone is praying, not just those who are good at praying out loud. And since most people are not auditory learners (only 20% of us learn though our ears), we need to begin praying beyond words, or at least beyond the individual prayers so everyone gets a chance to pray and participate. When we invite people (regardless of their age) to pray out loud or listen to people praying out loud, more than 75% of us disengage. Those of us who learn and remember in a different way need to engage God in different ways, too. We can help our students and our selves learn to pray beyond closing our eyes and listening to someone pray out loud and beyond the opening and closing prayer circle. By creating the space and opportunity for experiential prayer practices, we are allowing everyone to pray and participate, not just the prayer hogs of the group. So the prayer hog can engage God and give everyone else an opportunity to do the same.
Ordinary Items Become Prayer Tools
First, we need to think a bit differently about prayer. Praying is talking to, listening to, and interacting with God. Jesus used everyday things along the way as he taught his disciples, and we can use everyday things, too, to help our students connect with Him.
Like Post-It Notes.
In our youth group, our very first experiential prayer response was using Post-It Notes to create stained glass windows. We had two windows in the prayer room. One became the thank you window and one was the window for our friends and family who needed prayer.
How to implement: Instead of the usual closing prayer circle, pass out sharpies and neon colored post it notes. Invite your students to write their prayers and then post them on the window to create a stained glass effect. You can create other windows beyond the thank you and friends and family, like prayers for their schools, prayers for people who need healing, etc., and they can keep adding to the windows in the weeks ahead.
Another great closing prayer experience is the wailing wall. Create a wailing wall by covering a wall with butcher paper. Have sets of washable markers available and invite everyone to write down their prayers for the next week before they go. Play instrumental background music and have everyone begin the prayer time seated. Have them consider the week that is ahead, the activities, the relationships, the tests/papers, etc. Ask them, “What do you need help with this week? How do you need need to see God this week? Who in your life needs God’s love or healing? Anything you need to ask forgiveness for? Talk to God about these things.” Then give them time to go up to the wall and write their prayers. If you have a larger group you might pass out index cards and have them write their prayers on the cards first and then ask them to tape these to the paper as they leave. You can tell them that youth group is over when the song ends, but in my experience, they often stay longer writing their prayers to God on the wall.
Keep the prayer going by using “take aways,” things that they can take away with them to remind them to continue to pray during the week.
One example is Band-Aids. Have students hold a Band-Aid and pray for the areas in their lives that need healing. Then have them come up to the front and put their Band-Aid on a cross and give those needs to God. Then they put on another Band-Aid to remind them that Jesus is healing them. You can also have them use the Band-Aid as a reminder to pray for their friends who need the healing touch of Jesus. Writing the names of their friends or family who need healing on a Band-Aid and putting them on a cross is a powerful visual reminder of what they are asking God to do. Wearing a Band-Aid reminds them to pray and when they see a Band-Aid it brings back the whole experience.
In experiential prayer the key is inviting everyone to participate and giving everyone permission and the opportunity to pray. Begin to think of items that you might use as prayer tools to connect prayer to your talk/message because we all remember much more of what we do than what we hear.
Even the prayer hogs.
Lilly Lewin is the curator of Thinplace: a creative resource for folks who want to move their worship beyond preaching and singing and encounter God in fresh ways. She loves bringing liturgy new life, creating worship experiences, and pushing the envelope of youth ministry. She is the co-author of Sacred Space: A Hands-On Guide to Creating Multisensory Worship Experiences for Youth Ministry.