Passing On Family Recipes: Teaching Prayer to Students

April 21st, 2017

I remember maybe 3 weeks into my current job, my boss asked me if I had any experience writing curriculum.

“Sure.” I led plenty of small groups and given plenty of talks. Formal curriculum sets were a little outside my previous experience, but I felt comfortable enough.

“Can you start working on a lesson on the Ignatian Examen? For high school Sunday school?”

Cut to me spending an hour and a half googling what the Ignatian Examen even was. Once I had that roughly down, I started looking for how to teach it to youth – that’s when I realized why we were writing the curriculum ourselves – no one was teaching it.*

Teaching Prayer & Spiritual Disciplines

That was seven months ago, and in these months since that first very confusing day, writing curriculum for our elective, high school-only class on prayer and spiritual disciplines, called Soul Care, has become one of the most fascinating, life-giving, and fruitful parts of my job.

We’ve gotten the opportunity as a ministry team to research and write on lectio divina, the Jesus prayer, labyrinths, the daily office, the stations of the cross, and of course, the Ignatian Examen. The class took a large part of its inspiration and structure from Tony Jones’s SoulShaper, and more than a few other sources. My relative newness to so much of the content caused me to approach it with a relentless curiosity and wonder, and that wonder leaked into the way I wrote about it.

The wonder only grew once we started teaching it. The class is small, we limit it to under 10 students per 6-week term, but it packs a disproportionate spiritual and cultural punch in our ministry. Students, and even adult volunteers, have told me stories about counting their fingers as prayer beads to recite the Jesus prayer in times of stress or coming back to grab extra copies of the Lectio Divina prompt.

Unexpected Results

Perhaps most powerfully of all though, was a report from one of my volunteers that they didn’t get all the way through the Stations of the Cross because they got too caught up in life updates (highs and lows) at the beginning of the class, “it really is more like group therapy than Sunday school in there sometimes.” The room that we teach Soul Care in, a set-aside space called the prayer room, has become a “thin place” for our youth, where they go to pray, have those deep conversations and cry on a shoulder. Could it be that this is no accident?

I wonder if when we created a space for the Holy Spirit to move in our youth individually, we unintentionally created space for the Holy Spirit to move in our community.The room isn’t by itself holy, but what we do there has made it so.

My Challenge to You

So here’s my pitch, from my own limited experience: teach about prayer and spiritual disciplines. But do it with reverence, with the gentleness of someone passing down a beloved family recipe or a wonderful secret. Don’t try to make it important, or #relevant, trust that it is already. Don’t “instill” or “encourage” ancient spiritual disciplines, reveal them.

Teenagers, especially cosmopolitan, mature, worldly ones like those I work with, are thirstier for the sacred than we give them credit for, and crave the sense of fidelity and identity found in these old practices. Research has connected long-term faith development to teenager’s sense of ownership and rootedness in their own traditions and handing them the treasure map to how thousands of years of monks and saints have connected with God may be one of the greatest tools we have in that effort.**

So teach prayer and spiritual disciplines, but not because you should, but because you get to, and maybe, like me, you’ll learn something yourself along the way.

Feel free to connect with me by email to talk about what your experience in your context has been with teaching these topics and to talk more specifically about curriculum!

* No one was teaching it to youth, at least, I give huge credit to the children’s book Sleeping with Bread by Dennis Linn, Shiela Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn for giving me a launching point.

** National Study of Youth and Religion

Kat Bair is the Associate Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. She is pursuing her Masters of Arts in Youth Ministries at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary as a Graduate Resident in the Center for Youth Ministry Training. You can follow her blog or on Instagram at @kat_bair


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.