A couple weeks back my daughter gave me one of those moments that will entertain me long after senility sets in. During bedtime prayers my 4 yr old prayed, “Jesus, I pray for all our priests, for all the people who smoke…and for all the people hating chili.”
Her intention was to intercede “for all the people in Haiti and Chile.”
She prayed it with passion. She prayed it with reverence. Her purity was evident and her heart was focused on others. Rather than correct her, I kissed her, blessed her and exited the room with a smile on my face and a fire in my heart that lit up the room. My wife and I collapsed on the sofa in our prayer room in a joyful celebration of parenthood. It was a great moment for me as a father and, in the weeks since, I’ve reflected on the moment often. It was an important reminder, too, not only as a youth minister but as a son of God.
In our personal prayer we’d be wise to remember that God doesn’t grade us on diction. Words matter little if our intention is pure. Likewise, when leading prayer with our teens or Core it’s vital to remember that less is often more. Simplicity is a direct route to sanctity.
Remember that scene in Meet the Parents when DeNiro puts Stiller on the spot to lead grace at the family dinner table? Ben Stiller begins a flowery verbal mess that begins with invoking imagery of “fountains” and ends by quoting the previously heard muzak version of “Day by Day” (from Godspell).
Real-life versions of that scene often play out in youth rooms and parish halls around the world. I’ve seen them. No, the scene might not end up as insane and far-fetched as the movie, but I’ve watched Youth Ministers and Core Members inadvertently do something very similar when they begin leading prayer with their teens. I’m embarrassed to admit that I even did it when I started in youth ministry. It wasn’t conscious, but it did happen.
It’s as though when the sign of the cross ends, wires get crossed in the leader’s head. Many times the catechist leading the prayer becomes an English orator from the 19th century. Diction becomes elongated, multi-syllable words are slowly and dramatically enunciated and virtually every word within the Queen’s English is employed to ask God for the simplest of things. Leaders are more apt to “beseech the Sovereign God to sanctify us” than to ask the Father to help us become more holy.
If your “prayer tongue” is poetic and, even, flowery, that’s beautiful. Praise God for that gift but praise Him with it at more opportune times. When up front we’re not only leading prayer, we are modeling it. Christ, Himself, could have been far more ethereal, far more verbose, far more theologically “high-minded” when He gave us the Our Father. He was not. He was simple. He was succinct. The depth and breadth of the God’s majesty and mystery were communicated in simple verses of adoration and petition.
The same should be true of our approach. Being a little more intentional about the simplicity with which we pray will not strip group prayer of its Spirit-led glory, it will enhance it. It will empower more Core Members and teens – some of whom might be shy about praying aloud because they feel they lack the vocabulary – to attempt to pray more (and even lead prayer) themselves. The simpler, more practical and more direct you can keep it when leading a prayer aloud, the more powerful the times of silence, praise and worship, intercession and petition will ultimately become.
Teaching our young people to pray is not merely important it must be primary. Prayer is more important than oxygen. Think about it: if you stop breathing, you’ll see Jesus. If you stop praying, who knows who you’ll see?
Don’t allow your youth group settings for prayer to be like the Classifieds, where you are paid per word. Embrace moments of silence. Empower others to pray aloud. Lead your flock by not only teaching them the times to pray but what prayer is not. As my daughter reminded me (on the night she hated chili): it’s not about the words as much as it is about the posture of the heart uttering them. That night in my kids’ room, my heart was left burning (Lk 24:32), but not from the chili. Leave your teens with hearts burning, too…but not with heartburn.