When my wife and I were dating, we reached the crucial moment when I shared about my love for her and my intentions for our relationship. Perhaps taken aback by my directness, my wife simply replied at first: “I agree.” We laugh at this now and, thankfully, she had more to say after that! But, I wonder if many of us feel like this when we attempt to pray. We hear God’s voice in creation and through Scripture, but we struggle to articulate a response.
I’ve already described how God has started a conversation with us by revealing himself, speaking through his creation and his Word, the Bible. As we help our students grow in the faith, we are learning ourselves what it is to listen to God’s voice and to respond. A chief way that we respond is prayer. And yet, our students often express confusion about what prayer is and the awkwardness they experience when they pray.
The Awkwardness of Prayer
While we know that prayer is more than simply some abstract thing Christians do, I think we can all confess that prayer is a bit weird! We’re talking to Someone who is transcendent, eternal, and unseen. And yet, as Reformer John Calvin reminds us, prayer is “the chief exercise of faith.” Prayer is the primary way that true faith expresses itself, our response to God as He reveals himself. This means that “prayerlessness is practical atheism, demonstrating a lack of belief in God.” Therefore, teaching students to pray is a fundamental part of our calling as youth workers.
The Importance of Prayer
Of course, we recognize the human instinct to communicate with the Divine, or “the universe” as moderns often say, especially in times of crisis (i.e. after 9/11 or during the pandemic). But this is not Christian prayer; it lacks real power since it is too general and unfocused to be real conversation.
Tim Keller defines prayer as “a personal communicative response to the knowledge of God,” not just a human instinct, but a spiritual gift. This gift of God depends on the accuracy of our knowledge of him. Think about the richness of conversation you can have with an old friend. We share a bounty of knowledge of one other through shared experiences. In a similar way, our conversation with God is richer for knowing him as he reveals himself.
Keller goes on to expand his definition of prayer as “continuing a conversation that God has started with His Word and His grace which eventually becomes a full encounter with Him.” Through prayer we enjoy life with God by continuing the conversation he has started. As we persist in prayer, in the name of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit, we enjoy a full encounter with him and his gracious love. This is why Jesus can characterize prayer as responsive, expected, relational, intimate, personal, expectant, emotionally honest, and continual in his teaching on prayer (Matt. 6:5-8).
Prayer is important because it is a means of grace by which we tell all our heart to God and are transformed into the image of Christ. Meanwhile, we are assured of His goodness and love for us, comforted by our fellowship with Christ and all His people. Through prayer, we actively participate in the advance of God’s kingdom by the power of the Spirit.
The Paradox of Prayer
While prayer is vital, it is also paradoxical because God doesn’t need our prayers! God does all his holy will and has ordained whatsoever comes to pass. Through our prayers, we don’t change God’s mind. And yet, God calls us to pray in response to his self-revelation. He hears our prayers and works through them.
We don’t have to get God to like us or love us through our prayers. That mindset is anti-gospel! Instead, the gospel reveals to us that God, who is our Father, is already favorably disposed toward us because of Jesus and our faith in him. For those who have trusted in Christ, God responds to our prayers like this: “Before they call I will answer, while they are still speaking I will hear” (Is. 65:24). Our Father is eager to hear us speak to him and to answer our requests as we pray in accordance with his will, in the name of Jesus, and in the power of the Spirit.
The Posture of Prayer
In his book on The Lord’s Prayer, Wesley Hill gives a beautiful description of what our posture in prayer ought to be like when he writes, “Go find a quiet place where you can relax, Jesus seems to say. Unclench your fists. Breathe deeply. Let your heart rate decrease. Know that you’re already bathed in the Father’s love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you’re speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction. That’s what prayer should be.”
In Christ, our loving Heavenly Father stoops, leans in, and cups His ears expectantly to hear our lisping, stammering, and feeble prayers. There is sunshine in our Father’s face as we pray as He delights to hear from His beloved children. In Christ, we have such a wonderful status and access to Him. We need to impress this reality upon our students that they might, with joy, endeavor into a life of prayer, where God will indeed change them from one degree of glory to the next.
Lord, Teach Us to Pray
Finally, the time-tested resource we have in teaching students to pray is The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he offer a kind of template or a “try it this way” sort of prayer.Like a visual diagramming tool, each petition of the prayer is meant to branch out into all sorts of particular prayers in specific instances. There are endless ways for each individual believer to pray the prayer in line with the truth of Scripture as well as his or her own experiences. When we pray along the arc of The Lord’s Prayer with our students, we model Christian hope, where we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
By reframing our perspective and approach to prayer, we can help usher students into a more vibrant relationship with their Heavenly Father. We invite them to continue the conversation God has already begun with them in creation and his Word. When it comes down to it, life with God is a relationship—He speaks and we speak back. We repeat and keep walking until we make it to that Day when, as hymn writer Henry Lyte has eloquently written, we will go from “faith to sight, and prayer to praise.”
 Reeves, Michael. Enjoy Your Prayer Life (Leyland, England: 10Publishing, 2014), 12.
 Keller, Timothy. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. (New York, NY: Dutton, 2014), 45.
 Ibid, 48.
 See The Westminster Confession of Faith 4.1-2
 Hill, Wesley. The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 3.
 Ibid, 3.
 Lyte, Henry. “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken”