The following is an adjusted excerpt from Beloved Dust (Thomas Nelson 2014).
I faced a circle of blank stares. It was a standoff, and I was willing to wait. As a youth pastor, I had grown accustomed to this response from my students. I had asked a simple question: “Would anyone be willing to pray?” But as any youth pastor can tell you, it is not that simple. You would think I had asked the group of teenage boys if they had viewed pornography recently. Eventually, the same student that always broke the awkward silence prayed, if for no other reason than to alleviate the anxiety of his peers.
As a youth pastor, I encountered many difficult and disheartening moments, such as finding out a student lived a completely different lifestyle than I had known. However, as my tenure in youth ministry grew, those moments of cold sweat from my students became the saddest. The sadness only increased when I discovered that prayer was missing from their lives completely. My students simply had no idea what prayer was. For them, prayer was a duty and a ritual. It was not an invitation, but a requirement. It was not a time to be real, but a time to be presentable. Prayer had become a static, lifeless, and boring act. It had been sterilized. It had nothing to do with real life. It certainly wasn’t personal or relational. Beyond the obligatory prayer before meals and possibly at bedtime, most of my students had never been taught or modeled a life of prayer. Sure, it occurred at church, but that was a religious setting. The professional Christian (the pastor) prayed, but that was his thing. Prayer was lofty and “spiritual”; it was something you were supposed to do, but my students didn’t really know why.
Several years later, I find myself ministering in a completely different context, leading people on spiritual retreat. What I have discovered is that the static, depersonalized version of prayer that my youth group students had embraced is not isolated to them. For many Christians prayer is simply another item on a long list of good Christian behavior. Prayer is not a means of being with God at all times and all places.
As pastors we are called to offer a deep, personal and practical vision of prayer. Unfortunately, I fear that we rarely address the topic of prayer with our people. Our vision casting is focused on other areas: going on mission, serving, and evangelism. These things aren’t bad. However, I believe, the most important vision we can offer our congregation is a vision of life with God in the day to day. People need to know what it means to commune with God in reality – at work, on the freeway and at the dinner table. They need a richer and more dynamic vision of prayer that invites them to practice the presence of God wherever they find themselves.
So, where might we begin?
We must begin with our own prayer life. If we have not embraced a vision of prayer that pushes beyond the formulaic and routine into the everyday and personal, we will be unable to offer such a vision to our people. We cannot invite them into something we do not know ourselves. With that said, it is imperative that we are honest about our struggles in prayer. This honesty plays out in two ways. First, we must be honest with God about our confusion, boredom and loneliness in prayer. Second, we must be honest with our parishioners about our struggles in prayer. The only way we can help people through their struggles in prayer is to walk through them ourselves and be honest about the journey.