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Teaching children to pray


By Carrie Madren

The Rev. Brian Rossbert leads prayer during children's time at New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn.
The Rev. Brian Rossbert leads prayer during children's time at New Bethel United Methodist Church in Pegram, Tenn.

It is never too early to teach children to pray.

"Bible stories and prayer are the two greatest gifts we can give to children," said the Rev. Leanne Hadley, minister to children and their families at First United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Prayer is that anchor that is going to hold them when life's storms hit."

Even the youngest "children have very real experiences with God in very simple ways," she continued. "We help children knock on the door and God opens it."

Hadley and her team often lead contemplative prayer with the children they serve. One adult dims the overhead lights and lights a candle. "We just sit in the light of the candle and ask God to be present with us," Hadley said. She often ends the prayer time by asking if anyone felt God's presence.

"Prayer tools," such as prayer beads, can calm children and help them pray.

Hadley has children pull beads as they repeat a phrase, such as "Jesus, bring peace to my life," 10 times. Then the group enters a time of silence to soak in the peacefulness. "Their lives are so busy—they really are fascinated with stillness," she said.

More than words

Prayers can be in pictures, songs, art, movement and dance, said the Rev. Melanie Gordon, director of children's ministries for the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn. "We have to make sure that we honor that there are other ways (than words) to show God how thankful we are."

Children's pure intensity and earnestness in prayer often inspire her.

No child is too young to experience prayer, Gordon said. Parents can say prayers or recite Scripture in rhythm as they walk an infant. "I encourage nursery workers, when they are cradling or soothing children, to say prayers with them and to let them know that they are a blessing," Gordon said.

Modeling prayer tells children that prayer is essential. She encourages adults to be willing to pray aloud—and not always ask the pastor to pray for the group. The relationship with God is important, she said, not the form of the prayer.

The Rev. Jeffry Bross believes, "It's really important to have kids in worship." Children learn corporate prayer as they see their parents and other adults praying together during church services.

The associate pastor at Batavia (Ill.) United Methodist Church recalled one 9-year-old who was spooked by a tornado warning while attending a church event. The boy asked an adult to pray with him because he was learning that prayer can be calming.

Watching, learning

"He learned that by watching his parents and experiencing it in worship," Bross said.

Young children should also learn familiar prayers, such as the doxology, the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23, Gordon said. Their understanding of the prayers will change as they grow—what the Lord's Prayer means to a 3-year-old is different from what it means to a 7-year-old

However, she explained, "As children grow, these are the prayers that they can go back to.

"We've equipped them with a prayer that they can take with them" throughout life.

Adults can also help children learn to pray throughout the day—not just at bedtime or before meals. Hearing an ambulance siren, for instance, can prompt prayers for the people who need help.

Children also teach the adults who care for them.

"I'm always amazed when [children] say the most profound and holy things," Hadley said. "They remind me that prayer isn't so much the words that we say or the complexity of how we enter into prayer; it's mostly about that stillness and just being with God."

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Great Falls, Va.