Three Prayer Practices For An Anxious Generation
Anxiety can happen at any time and any place. For Declan, a 17-year-old in my youth group, it occurred on Friday at approximately 9:23pm. He was watching a movie with his school friends when he uncharacteristically got up and left.
He texted our youth group, “Hey everyone, can you be praying for me? A wave of anxiety hit me while my friends and I were at the theater and I’m outside alone getting some air. I’d love God to give me peace right now.”
Within seconds, James texted, “I’m sorry to hear that. You’re not alone. Praying for peace and for God to renew your mind.” Twenty seconds later, Anaya replied, “Lifting you up.” A minute later Jessica added, “I got you.” Miguel shared, “I’m here. Call me if you need more prayers.” Declan knew that when anxiety holds him hostage, prayer is a lifeline, and he’s got friends who will pray with him and for him.
You don’t have to look far to see that teenagers today are hurting. Anxiety and depression are on the rise among teens—it’s not surprising that when Declan reached out, his friends were quick to respond. They all know how it feels. As a youth pastor and member of the team who wrote Faith in an Anxious World, The Fuller Youth Institute’s newest curriculum, it’s important to me that we help students link mental health with conversations on discipleship and faithful living.
Prayer helps us to pause and reflect on the truth that God is indeed good and holds us as we abide in him. Prayer reminds us that we can find security in a God who is for us. Although there are times when we need to encourage students to take further steps and seek the help they need, we can teach our young people that the practice of prayer is a refuge we can find in the midst of our anxieties.
Here are 3 ways you can help students tackle anxiety by teaching them to pause, pray, and reflect.
A Prayer For Wholeness
Every year I lead my youth group to explore different kinds of prayer practices. Last year, we focused on wholeness. Our prayer practice examined the four dimensions of health: physical, social, mental and emotional, and spiritual. It helps my students to understand that all four of these dimensions are interconnected and make up our well-being. When we’re physically exhausted, it’s going to affect how we mentally function, which can lead us to be frustrated. We might end up lashing out at a friend, affecting our social health. Or if we’re depressed, we’re going to experience some physical symptoms—like a lack of appetite.
During prayer, spend a couple of moments in each dimension, prompting your students with questions like:
- Physical Health: What part of your body is currently hurting or in need of healing? How have you taken care of your body this week? What might your body or God be telling you about yourself and what you need?
- Mental and Emotional Health: What moments have left you mentally exhausted? Is there something causing you to be anxious? What emotions—positive and negative—have you felt this week? What might God be telling you from these emotions? What is bringing you joy this week? Is there something you are looking forward to?
- Social Health: How have your relationships been with your parents, siblings, and friends this week? Is there anyone who caused you anger or hurt or pain? Is there anyone you need to forgive? Is there someone you need to ask for forgiveness?
- Spiritual Health: What are some temptations you’re facing? Are you growing more sensitive to God’s presence, or less? Are you more loving, or less?
Close the prayer by relating how God created us in his image, and that we are physical and spiritual beings with mental and emotional capacities who live in community.
A Prayer In Visual Form
Many of my students are visual learners. Even those who aren’t still use visual media. They belong to the generation of Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok—smartphone applications that use photos or videos to communicate. So I’ve introduced them to a kind of prayer that shares roots with the ancient practice of lectio divina.
Visio divina calls for a slowly-paced interaction with Scripture, prayer, and art by inviting a person to encounter God through imagery like a photograph, artwork, or even a dance.
Start off by selecting an image, photograph, painting, or video that has spiritual significance. Display the visual on a screen for the length of the prayer. Tell your students to keep attention on the first thing that catches their eye. Then, invite them to breathe deeply in and out and repeat while they reflect on the image or video. Encourage them to notice the colors, lines, textures, shapes, figures, forms, and movement. After a few moments, ask them to reflect quietly:
- What does the image remind you of? (Perhaps an event or season in life, or maybe a person or a place.)
- What do you find yourself drawn to?
- What emotions does the image or video stir in you?
- What do you like or not like? If you don’t like the image or the emotions it stirs, acknowledge it and ask God why.
- How does the image or video lead you into a posture of prayer? What desires or longings were invoked? What senses of grief and loss came up? How does it connect with Scripture?
Repeat the process with the next image, or end the prayer with Scripture or your own prayer.
A Prayer of Careful Examination
This year, we’re exploring the Prayer of Examen. Originating from Ignatius of Loyola, the prayer encourages people to reflect on their day or week. Students who aren’t sure how or what to pray can grow in their practice by journeying through these steps:
- Thank God for his blessings and reflect on what those blessings are.
- Think about interactions, events, and emotions felt on the day or week.
- Ask God for insights on your responses that were Christlike and responses that fell short.
- Ask God about people you need to forgive, people you need to reconcile with, and release yourself from the mistakes you made.
- Give God your next day and ask God to help you with how you can live fully tomorrow through your thoughts, actions, and interactions with others.
Each time we pray the prayer with my youth group, we spend some time journaling afterwards. Then I ask students to talk to one person about what they wrote—which allows both introverts and extroverts to connect with the experience. My students already feel so much closer to one another. And because they’ve processed their thoughts as they journal, they’re prepared to open up and talk about them.
Conversations about prayer—what to pray, how to pray, why we pray and when to pray—have changed the atmosphere in my church in a very good way. My goal is for all of us to be more self-aware, especially when it comes to our anxieties. In learning to know who we are, we come to realize whose we are.
Practices of prayer remind us just that: God is with us, even in the midst of our anxieties.
New from Kara Powell and The Fuller Youth Institute, this 4-week multimedia curriculum will equip you with the tools you need to guide young people in your care, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living. Together you’ll reflect on New Testament stories, watch Jesus enter into anxious situations with his disciples, and explore life in an anxious but hope-filled world. Order Faith in an Anxious World today.
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.