Teaching about Prayer
an article by (Rev.) Neil MacQueen, Sunday Software
“Prayer” is a topic and practice that deserves a church’s full attention at every level of its life and program. This article addresses some key issues and shares MANY techniques particular to prayer in the Sunday School classroom.
Among other things, I hope you enjoy the section on “the most important insight” I’ve had about praying in the classroom, and my story about Irv Tingley who taught me how to never get bored reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Prayer Goals for Sunday School:
We need to teach “about” prayer,
-what it is, why we pray, what to expect (and not expect), and the power of prayer.
We need to demonstrate how to pray,
-the posture, the language, the subject matter.
We need to expand the ways in which we pray with them
beyond just our spoken words.
And we need to teach them not only how to pray with us,
–but on their own.
WHO I AM….and why I wrote this:
I’ve been teaching Sunday School since 1977, seen a lot of curriculum, and worked to rebuild Sunday Schools in several churches as a volunteer and as a pastor. I’ve also been a leader in the Workshop Rotation movement (rotation.org), edited hundreds of other people’s lesson plans at that site, and written a lot of lesson plans through my own work with Sunday Software. What I’ve seen and experienced is that the topic and practice of prayer often gets shorted in class and in lesson plans. And it’s rarely a training topic with our teachers.
Some adults assume that “because we pray with them” –that the kids must know what prayer is. The adults think it is “rubbing off.” But in fact, because of the way most teachers incorporate prayer in their lessons (or don’t), and because many parents don’t pray at all with their children, our students are exposed to a limited understanding and practice. We can see the results within our congregations, = parents and teachers who have grown up feeling uncomfortable praying or leading prayer, and then being asked to teach!
Prayer is often the last thing the class does, and gets led by the teacher. Amen = Time to go.
This article has a bunch of ideas to help.
<>< Neil MacQueen
Some wrong ways to pray and model prayer…
Wrong Way #1:
Always leave it to “the last thing”. It sends the wrong message when we save prayer to the end, and the kids are looking at the clock, mom is at the door, people are getting their coats on, and of the sudden somebody says, “let’s pray!” It teaches that prayer is an interruption, …an after-thought, something to quickly “tack on”. –and that’s wrong.
- Rather, we should pray at the opening, and kids should be involved in that prayer. And prayer can be a lesson activity (writing one, preparing for one, doing an art project that will become part of prayer, etc. More notes below.
Wrong Way #2:
Many teachers use prayer to “summarize the lesson”, or slip in content they forgot to include earlier. Pastors make this same mistake in worship, –repeating their sermon points. Rather than conversation with God, we turn prayer into our “conclusion” or “the teacher’s final comments” …and that’s wrong.
- God doesn’t need to hear our lesson summary. God wants to hear from the students.
Wrong Way #3: Because the teacher is rushed, or because they are trying to summarize, or because the kids don’t feel comfortable joining in, the teacher prays and the kids merely listen, –and that’s wrong too because prayer is something you do, not just listen to.
- Prayer is sharing and listening, but it can also be silent motion. It can be sung, crafted, acted out, written, posed, and held. Any creative interactive method can be used to pray. See my ideas about that below!
Here’s a Starter List of Guidelines for Classroom Prayer…
Prayer in the Sunday School should not be left to the very end of every lesson.
It should be participatory, -without putting students on the spot.
It should feature age-appropriate language and concerns.
Prayer should include time for personal silent reflection. (After all, that’s how most of us pray)
Prayers should be done using a variety of creative approaches and forms of expressions (see my techniques below for ideas about this).
Prayer should be prepared for and discussed. This includes pre-prayer briefing and de-briefing the prayer. (ex. “What should we pray for today?” “How would you say that in a prayer?” and “I noticed in your prayer that you said….”)
One of the MOST IMPORTANT INSIGHTS I’ve learned about leading children in prayer.
Supplement your prayers with other non-verbal forms of expression.
In the Workshop Rotation Model for Sunday School, each week the kids are learning the story through a different teaching medium: computers, art, video, drama, cooking, games, etc.
Whatever workshop we were in, often, we would incorporate that workshop’s medium to do our praying through:
- If we’re in the Art Workshop, the prayer would include some form of artistic expression.
- If we’re in the Video Workshop, we’d use or make visual images to share with God.
- If we’re in the Drama Workshop, we may pose prayer ideas in a tableau, or show God how we feel through a motion or a pose.
- In the computer lab, we often prayed using the computer to express our thanksgiving and needs.
I’m not suggesting we get rid of SPOKEN prayer. The idea is to ADD forms of expression to our prayers…. to add taste, touch, and tactile, and movement, visuals, music, and sounds to our words.
This is multi-intelligience, learning-styles informed teaching and praying. They open up our prayers to express ourselves more deeply, and more memorably, and they connect to our emotions.
Here’s why praying “more than just speaking” works:
1) It makes the kids less self-conscious. Kids are naturally self-conscious about expressing themselves. Allowing the computer to speak for them removes a big obstacle, especially for those with lesser verbal skills.
2) Less pressure. Kids are not natural public speakers. Put on the spot, they often don’t know what to say. At the computer, they can take the time to TYPE their prayer, get help crafting their prayer, and then play it back when prompted.
3) Less threatening. Kids need help expressing themselves. When you create the prayer on the computer, the other students and the teacher can become part of the process. Rather than correcting their speech, you can simply correct their typing, or suggest improvements.
4) More Fun. Kids view the keyboard as a toy, and it’s fun to make the computer speak their words. It’s computer MAGIC really. And they’ll want to do it again!
Ideas for Praying in the Computer Lab
In the Computer Lab, I like to use TEXT-TO-SPEECH software and let the kids create a prayer that the computer will speak aloud.
We have two programs which have “text to speech” modules built-into them… allowing the computer to speak aloud whatever the kids type on the screen. Using the Talk Now module in our Let’s Talk software, students can type a prayer and play it back for the class to hear. The teacher can prompt them to respond to one prayer question or prayer line at a time.
You can do the same with the talking text feature in Kid Pix. The kids can also illustrate their spoken prayer prior to playback. (But take note: they’ll want to focus more on the drawing tools than text tools, which makes Let’s Talk a better overall choice.)
[You'll also notice that I've put some "text to speech" or "rewriting" activities in some of our other software. Fluffy and God's Amazing Christmas Adventure, for example, has a text-to-speech activity I call "Fluffimations." The point being "how to get the kids to express their thoughts/concepts through the computer, which they otherwise wouldn't say in front of the entire class."]
How these ideas work in a software lesson
When it’s time to pray either at the beginning of the lesson, or as a min activity, or toward the end of it, (and not when kids are trying to leave!), the teacher sits students at computer stations where they turn on either Kid Pix or Let’s Talk programs. The teacher explains that they are going to lead the students through a “guided prayer” –one line at a time which the teacher will PROMPT the students to complete. The teacher will speak a line, and the kids will have one minute to complete it by typing their content onto the Let’s Talk software screen.
Then when everyone has finished typing, point to a team to press their ‘play’ button on their Let’s Talk software screen to hear their prayer response to your original prayer prompt. Repeat the prayer prompt prior to each playback. After everyone’s prayer answer has played, provide the next prompt. You can usually do about four or five of these in 10 minutes.
Add your own prayers to theirs. After they have ‘played’ their prayers, invite students to close their eyes and listen as you recap what others have prayed for. In one small class, I even had the kids walk to each screen and lay their hands on it while the prayer was played a second time, and followed it by a moment of silence and then some brief words of prayer.
Prompt 1: O Lord, I thank you for my three favorite things in my life…
Prompt 2: O Lord, in today’s lesson I heard your voice telling me that I need to ….
Prompt 3: O Lord, I’m having this problem in my life and need your help with it….
Prompt 4: O Lord, I will now silently share the name of the person who I am having trouble with…
Of course, you can have the kids type full prayers a have them play them back. Your choice. The “prompting” idea, however, helps guide the kids. See more about “prompting” below….
A Few More Tips & Techniques on Praying with Kids
1. Kids Need Prompts
Sound Familiar #1:
Teacher: “Jenny, would you like to start us off with prayer?”
Look Familiar #2:
Teacher: “Let’s hold hands, I’ll start, and then we’ll go around the room and each of you can add to the prayer.”
Students: (collectively) “Gulp!”
Fear of speaking in public is very common, that’s why traditional group praying often fails with children (and many adults). Rather than stumble over their worst fears, create “prayer prompts” and give kids a moment to prepare what they’re going to say.
A “Prayer Prompt” can as simple as a stack of 3×5 cards you pull out during each lesson on which you’ve fill-in-the-blank statements, such as,
“Today, I’d like to thank God for __________, because, ___________.”
“Dear God, help me to be more like ___________ in today’s lesson. Help me to be more ________.”
Kids like to pull slips out of a jar or hat too. Create a positive air of anticipation, not an expectation of dread.
Some teachers verbally prompt by calling out a child’s name and asking them “what are you thankful for?” Such verbal shout-outs put kids on the spot, and make most uncomfortable.
Prayer Prompts can also include open-ended statements, followed by a moment of silence. (Just don’t rush the silence.)
Teacher Prompt: Lord, in a moment you will hear each of us pray silently for some trouble we have been in this past week. Someone we have hurt with our words, or been mean to. Hear us now as we silently say the name of the person we have hurt or been mean to this past week. (silence) Next time we see them Lord, help us to be kind and forgiving.
(I once had my kids “whisper” the person’s name they were having trouble with. It was a powerful moment, and I believe that hearing each other confess, -even in a whisper, was a great teaching moment.)
From time to time I’ve had kids create their own “silent prayer prompts” to be spoken out loud on the computer. They type in a sentence about something to pray for, and include a stock prompt phrase, for example…”Lord hear us silently say the name of the person who hurt us”. When each computer station is ready, we assume a prayer posture (eyes attentive, but posture relaxed) and I point at a station to have them play their prayer line. Then we pause for a moment of silence for the kids to complete their thought, and I finish with, “Lord hear our prayer” –which signals everyone to look up for the next computer to press their play button.
2. Kids need simple language
Prayer doesn’t have to sound professorial, or theological, or even somber. When you set the standard too high for the average person, you are not giving them a tool, you are giving them a speech impediment!
If you’re going to use theological language, unpack it with the kids before the prayer. Invite them to come up with alternative words.
3. Kids Need Different Ways to Share
Prayer is sometimes too deep for words. A drawing can be a prayer. So can sharing a posture or hand position or facial expression. Prayer is sometimes better without words, or just a few words, rather than too many. (I’ve even had kids go around and just pray “just three words” about how today’s lesson made them feel. After about three kids have done this, they’ll rest will tend to start using the same words, so challenge them to use new words. Sometimes, just by creating a bit of a ‘game’ about the responses helps take the nervousness out of the moment).
Example of a Posture Prayer from one of my classrooms:
Show me with your arms how you feel about God.
Show me with your facial expression how you think God feels about you.
Show me with a sound how you are feeling about your life right now.
Show me with your hands how you feel about how much God cares for you.
Show me with your whole body what kind of life you think God wants you to live for him.
The first time through it took a bit for the kids to get the hang of this, but they catch on.
Praying through the use of typed content is another way to pray. It gives them composition time, removes the pressure of having to come up with something in front of their peers, and when the computer plays the prayer, it allows everyone to hear what people have to pray.
One creative teacher of mine created “Prayer Dice”. She had two large boxes decorated with Prayer Starter Sentences on each face. The kids would role the dice and get to choose which starter sentence they wanted to finish. The teacher would occasionally changed the statements. Starter statement examples: “Thank God for something you are really happy about right now.” “Turn to the person on your right and whisper the name of someone you have been mean to recently and need their forgiveness.”
4. Prompting Children to Pray for Themselves
Prayers should not be generic or merely focused on the day’s lesson. Prayer is primarily personal, and we need to encourage children to pray for themselves and those they are closed to.
Prompted Public Prayer Example:
Teacher: In a moment, I’m going to have you repeat after me. When I get to the part where I say “put in a name” I want you to put in the name of someone you are not getting along with. You can say that person’s name as quietly or as loudly as you want to. I’m also going to list on the board several things God could help us with, and when I get to that place in the prayer where you ask God for help, say out loud the thing on the board which you want to ask God for. (examples of “things to ask God for” on the board could include: listen better, have more patience, work harder, forgive, spend more time with, stay away from, pray for strength).
Prompted Silent Prayer Example:
Teacher: “I want you to think of a problem you’re having right now at home (with a friend, at school). Close your eyes and think of it. Now repeat after me: God, help me to solve my problem. Help me to not worry about it so much. Help me to heal the problem by being more loving and forgiving. And even if the problem doesn’t get better, let me know that you still love me, and will help me get through it.”
Prompted Prayer Slips Example:
The teacher writes down several prayer starters on prayer slips and hand them out randomly prior to the prayer.
Example of Prayer Slip:
The problem in my life that I’m most worried about right now is….
Lord, I ask prayers for ___________ who is having a problem.
The Private Prayer Prompt
Teacher: Today we learned about Jesus healing the lepers. I want you to write down the name of someone you know who needs a friend, whom others shy away from. Write it down, place your hands over it, and during our prayer time I’m going to ask you to silently say that person’s name, then hide it in your pocket as a reminder.
MIX IT UP: At times you can help children verbalize this in front of others, but this can also be something between them and God. You can have them verbalize their concern to a friend in the group. And you can from time to time ask them to share a concern with the whole group. Teaching our children to share their concerns with others is part of prayer instruction, but some will come to it more quickly than others.
5. Prayer That Goes Home
We all need reminders. Most of us respond to visual cues. Thus, in the rest of your teaching about prayer, you’ll want to have students regularly create things that remind them to pray. The younger they are, the easier it is to come up with ideas. The older they are, the “cooler” your ideas need to be. In one church where I served, we had families create colorful plastic prayer jars filled with all sorts of prayers, including prayers from other families in the church. These were very popular at the dinner table. Wall hanging, “Disturb Me…I’m always up! ~God”doorknob hangers were fun for the older kids (we bought the plastic and the kids cut it with scissors). Prayer “Mezuzahs” on doorposts were popular. They had a small slot for special prayers. As privacy was a big issue with older kids, you have to think creatively about that one. Prayer rocks that the kids wrote “hopes” on, then buried at the church in the “prayer rock garden” were really popular (every time they walked by they remembered).
6. Teach How Prayers are Answered
Children do not intuitively understand how we “listen” for God’s “voice” inside us, or through others, or how we hear him amidst the daily events of our lives. They don’t yet understand how we hear God talking to us in a baby’s cry, or in a sunset. They don’t yet comprehend how a feeling of confirmation after prayer and reflection can be interpreted as God’s answer to prayer. They are focused on the “concrete” things …the asking for, -which often reflects the “my will” instead of the “thy will” be done, which Jesus spoke about.
Jesus says, “ask and you will receive.” But he also taught us to ask for what we “truly” need, and not for something ridiculous. God answers us by giving us what we need (bread) rather than stones (things that we really don’t need). Part of prayer instruction is helping kids decipher what it is we really need to ask for, versus what we “think” we need. The teacher can discuss some options of “what to ask for” prior to the group’s prayer.
Jesus also taught us that WE were part of God’s answer to other people’s prayers, –this is why God commissions us to care for others. So during our prayers, I will often ask children to “see themselves” being kind, helping a lonely person, inviting someone to church.
Visualization is a great way for ALL of us to begin seeing ourselves as GOD wants us to be.
Many of us use The Lord’s Prayer as an opportunity to formally teach our kids “about prayer.” And while you certainly don’t want to limit your “about prayer” teaching to just this time and story, it’s a great opportunity, in part, because this prayer is central to Christian worship. Thus, any lessons we can “hang on it” in the learner’s memory, will get recall. (see my personal note about recall below)
The Lord’s Prayer was Jesus’ response to the Disciple’s request that he teach them how to pray. It’s a “template” that teaches us what our priorities in prayer should be, what we should ask for, the kind of language we should use, and the personal nature (“Abba”) of prayer.
We have a fun game called “Galilee Flyer” CD which teaches the Lord’s Prayer, and also “About Prayer”. Not only does the game teach the Lord’s Prayer into memory, but it has many Q & A pop-ups and Comment pop-ups that illuminate the topic of prayer. View the CD’s description and content for more details. www.sundaysoftware.com/flyer.htm
It takes about 35 minutes to play the Lord’s Prayer in Galilee Flyer. Younger children will need navigational help.
Galilee Flyer is good for ages 9 to 17, and it also has three other “Jesus subject” games that cover important Jesus teachings.
A Lord’s Prayer Lesson I’ve Never Forgotten
I don’t remember a lot of what Irv Tingley, my old Sunday School teacher taught us. Irv was so old! –he was probably at least as old as I am now, hahaha.
—But I have never forgotten “the trick” Irv taught me about praying the Lord’s Prayer. We were complaining about how “BORING” it was to say the same thing over and over again. And that’s when he taught us his trick: He emphasized different words each time he said it.
One week he’d emphasize, “Our FATHER who art in heaven”.
and the next he’d emphasize, “OUR Father who art in heaven”.
And then he said the most amazing thing. He said, “Your mind can think amazing thoughts in the blink of an eye, right in the middle of that prayer before you get to the next word. It can think about what your new emphasis might mean. It’s like slowing down time.”
We started practicing it, and Irv Tingley was right! And ever since then, when I pray the Lord’s Prayer and consciously emphasize different words and phrases, I can hear my mind conversing with those different emphases in that moment of frozen time. “OUR” Father …not just my, we are all God’s children. “Hallowed be THY name …and my own not so much!” “THY will be done… not MY will.” To this day, I still say Lord’s Prayer this way.
GIVE us this day ~ Give US this day ~ Give us this DAY
Give us this day OUR daily bread
Give us this day our daily BREAD.
I’ve adapted Irv’s lesson on the computer too. I’ve had my kids type lines of the Lord’s Prayer emphasizing different words, and include their thoughts on what the new meaning of their emphasis might be. We then hear each computer speak it out loud, then discuss it.
I have taught Irv’s technique to a dozen Confirmation classes, as well. Here’s how we’d do it: I’d speak a line of the Lord’s Prayer in a flat monotone, then point to someone who would repeat it with one word emphasized. then I’d point to another student who would have to emphasize it differently. Then another. Then another. Then we’d backtrack and I’d ask the kids to chime in with what they thought the new spoken emphasis brought to the Prayer. It was powerful stuff.
I still use Irv’s technique when saying the Lord’s Prayer with adults in worship. I change the emphasis, and sometimes, I try to say it exactly like everyone else (which then to me becomes an expression of one-ness.) Try it, you’ll be surprised how much you look forward to the Lord’s Prayer.
We also have a very cute Preschooler software program about prayer. It’s called “Say Your Prayers with Lil Angelina“. It features 21 familiar traditional children’s prayer in a fun interactive environment.