During the last 10 years, the World Prayer Centre has reported a significant spike in organic, grass-roots prayer movements. These are springing up here in the UK. Local houses of prayer have popped up in neighbourhoods all over the nation. Targeted initiatives to help people pray have simultaneously been launched at an ever-increasing pace.
We’ve seen prayer movements, year-of-prayer models, prayer buses, internet-based prayer networks and flash mob prayer initiatives. These have been run alongside events, before significant moments like major elections and across inter-denominational lines in cities. 24-7 prayer last year reported the number of young people hosted in a prayer space in UK schools was above 250,000.
We’ve seen large-scale one-off prayer events hosted at places like Wembley stadium and the International Convention Centre. Meanwhile, 32 registered ‘healing on the streets’ prayer teams (and unregistered ones!) have sprung up across the nation. We have just witnessed the largest global prayer movement in human history. ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, was called by our own Archbishop. It saw millions of Christians around the world unite to pray for the Spirit to come and the gospel to go out in power.
It’s still early days but God is calling His people in the UK to pray. For those in youth work, that raises a natural question; how can we help our young people to step up and get involved?
In recent years, I’ve been involved in countless meetings and programmes aimed at encouraging children and young people to pray. We often start with a question along the lines of ‘what is prayer?’ and after a bit of group discussion, we normally land on the same answer; prayer is simply talking to God. Occasionally a young person or a youth worker in the room points out that prayer is also listening to God. So we might land on a definition more along the lines of conversation with God, or dialogue with God.
Then the examples and comparisons begin. We steer away from religious language and encourage young people to think of their normal modes of conversation. We tell them about amazing answers to prayer and emphasise the ordinariness of the people involved. Stories may also be shared of an answer to prayer or an encounter with God from our own story. We play down any sense of our own personal holiness or spiritual gifting in order to help them see that this is for them.
At the end of it all, we’re really telling young people that God wants a simple, straightforward relationship with them. We tell them prayer should be no more than experiencing friendship with Jesus. Just like the other friendships and conversations they know from everyday, real-world experience.
And right there is where we miss the mark. Why? Because we’ve stopped giving them the full picture. We’ve moved away from the bigger story Jesus told in teaching our young people to pray.
If we’re brutally honest and listen carefully, most of our young people still struggle to pray. This is despite how accessible and easy we portray prayer to be. Now, before we start blaming Facebook adverts, there may be an issue of false advertising a little closer to home.
When Jesus addressed crowds of Israelites on prayer, He did some myth-busting, calling them to simplicity and away from empty religiosity (see Matt 6 for example). There is a stark difference, though, between advocating honesty and promising that prayer will be easy.
Pulling no Punches
Jesus paints a very honest picture about prayer in the persistence parables of Luke 11 and 18. He speaks about how difficult a trial prayer can be. Jesus tells His listeners to expect seasons in their prayer lives when God will seem to be an unresponsive friend (Luke 11) and even an unfair authority figure (Luke 18.) He pulls no punches. Jesus refuses to hide from the fact that prayer involves engagement with apparent silence. At times it involves wrestling with unbelief and struggling through a sense of isolation.
In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus acknowledged that the prayer vigil He was asking His disciples to keep took its toll on the flesh. In the sermon on the mount, He tells His followers to ‘pray to your Father, who is unseen, (Matt 6:6). Thus He acknowledges that the experience of God’s Presence in prayer won’t usually be easily tangible to the senses.
Starting a Dialogue
When we ask young people to pray, we call them back to the original problem. The problem that set history as we know it in motion. Young people are called back to the brokenness of Eden, to the relationship that was fractured by original sin.
We ask them to begin a dialogue with a Holy God from Whom this world has become tragically divorced and inherently polluted in every imaginable way. They’re asked to step intentionally back into a relationship that cost Jesus His death on the cross to restore. We can ask them this with confidence that God will not let them down. He will come through for them and reveal Himself wherever there is hunger for His presence.
If they will persist in seeking, keep pressing in through the discouragements of the world and unexpected answers, then we can promise that they will find Him. But if we don’t want to see them check out in the heat of battle we must help our young people be prepared. We need to call our young people to build deep and lasting prayer lives not because it’s easy or fun but because He’s worth it.
Let’s stop sending out the invitation to ‘try prayer’ and instead encourage young people to devote themselves to prayer (Col 4:2). Until we get the message across that communicating directly with God is a lifeline rather than a hobby, a journey into mystery rather than a simple how-to and an epic battleground rather than a holiday resort, let’s keep working on how we teach our young people to pray.
Joel Goodlet is a staff member and prayer coordinator at Urban Devotion Birmingham.