I remember when I was first getting into ministry a mentor of mine told me that the chief responsibility of any minister was first and foremost to teach people how to pray. At the time I thought that was odd. I had always assumed that ministry was more about preaching sermons, organizing worship, meeting with people in need, and studding the Bible.
However, as time has gone on I have realized more and more that there was a lot of truth in that statement. As people learn to pray they are able to encounter God in profoundly personal ways. One who prays does not only know God through the words of the preacher, or the lessons of the teacher, they know God through their own encounters with Him.
Prayer is a central part of the Christian life and helping people to learn how to pray a ministry that all baptized people are called to participate in. In teaching people how to pray we are joining in the ministry of Christ, who taught his disciples to pray bu giving them the “Our Father.”
But how DOES one teach others to pray?
There is no single method that works. No two people are alike. My two year old prays quite a bit differently then the High School students I used to teach about prayer, and I pray differently then both. People pray differently at different points in their lives and at different stages of development. Not only that but there are hundreds of methods, and none of them work well with everyone. I know in my own life my prayer methods have changed many many times.
How then are we to teach others to pray?
I don’t have the final answer on this one, but I have picked up a few tricks here and there. Here are 10 tips that I have picked up over the years.
One of the most important things to do when teaching others to pray is to pray yourself. If you aren’t doing it, it will be hard to make others believe that they should too. Having a regular prayer life can help keep the conversation honest and open. Prayer also allows you to invite God into the process.
The best lessons I have ever learned in prayer were not learned in classrooms, but in the lived experience of praying regularly with me mentors. If you have a regular prayer time, adoration slot, liturgy of the hours practice, or rosary group (as well as any other prayer group or time you might be a part of) invite people to join you. When you are with the person you are helping teach to pray, pray regularly. Pray, pray and then pray some more. After all 1 Thessalonians 5:17 instructs us to pray constantly.
Pray as you can, not as you can’t
I think about this idea nearly every day. There have been times in my life I have wanted to be a spiritual athlete. I have wanted to pray all the offices in the liturgy of the hours, while attending daily mass, while praying the rosary every day, while reading through the Bible in a year, while trying to practice lectio divina, while developing a centering prayer habit…. it doesn’t work. As a Husband, father, student, teacher, and wage earner I simply am unable to handle keeping “up” with all the forms of prayer I would like to. Encourage students to set realistic goals in their prayer life and help them connect to the forms of prayer that have particular resonance with the student.
Have a big tool box
I love to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, but after teaching it to scores of people, I have found that Many have not found it to be as life giving as I have. It is important not just to be able to introduce people to the the kind of prayer that you personally find effective, but to help them navigate to other forms of prayer that might be meaningful for them in other ways. Many times people ask for help with their prayer when what they know no longer seems to work. Giving people new prayer tools can rejuvenate a prayer life that has stalled out.
- Keep it interestingWhere you are teaching an individual or a group about prayer, try to keep it interesting. Prayer is something that is living and active. Tell stories about prayer and talk about your own personal experiences with it. If there are illustrations or demostrations that might bring home a point use them!
Frame prayer as a blessing, not a duty
For a long time in my life prayer was a duty, not a privilege. I thought God would get mad at me if I didn’t pray and I would beat myself up when I got bored, sleepy, or distracted. If my prayers seemed unanswered I thought that I must have gotten the formula wrong somehow or that I didn’t have enough passion. This changed for me when I was at a conference on centering prayer and one of the speakers told me that each time I got distracted from the prayer to count it as a blessing because it gave me the opportunity to return to God in love, which was a blessed thing.
- Let them know that “Dark Nights” and “Dry Spells” are normal, natural, and healthy Sometimes prayer can be exciting, refreshing, and bring new life. At other times, however, prayer can seem dead and lifeless. This is normal. Many of the great saints throughout history have experienced times of dryness and difficulty in their prayer life. The consensus among the fathers of the church is that this is normal and even healthy.Just because God seems distant does not mean that God is distant. Let students know that these times will come, and that they don’t mean something has gone wrong, but that God is working in them in a new way.
Teach them to make prayer a habit
Prayer is a habit hard to form and easy to lose. I have heard it said that prayer is like a wild bird. Forming a prayer habit is like puting the bird in a cage… it takes a long time to do, and if the door is open even for a moment the bird will fly out again. As difficult as maintaining a prayer habit might be, it really is something that should be encouraged. Prayer’s power often is felt over months and years of regular practice rather then in the individual prayer times themselves. The longer I have prayer the more I have learned this to be true.
- Help them find others to pray withLike anything that requires a lot of discipline, a prayer habit can be more easily formed with others. Having another person or group to pray with is very helpful. Help students find a group that they can pray with, and find a certain degree of responsibility in. It might be with you, or it might be with others, but helping someone feel like they are responsible to others for their prayer life can be a great boon.
- Create a Rule of LifeA rule of life is a contract that a person makes with themselves. In it they lay out a plan for how often they will do the things they hope to do. They may want to pray the rosary every day, attend mass once a week, meet with a spiritual director one a month, and have a retreat once a year. They may want to do lectio divina once a day, attend mass twice a week, and take a pilgrimage once a year. A Rule of Life can be anything. Encourage them to keep it manageable and to stick with it. If they find it to difficult have them go back and change it to something they can do, but encourage them to hold to the standards they set for themselves.
So there you have it… 10 tips. These are certainly not the only tips on teaching people how to pray, but they’re a start. Not every setting will be conducive for all 10 of them. If a few of them don’t work in a particular setting don’t worry to much about it, you can always adapt these to fit your own needs. You may also add or subtract from the list.