Speaking to our heavenly Father should be the most natural thing for a child of God. However, our own sinfulness often gets in the way of trusting God and speaking readily to him. It is a quaint idea to imagine children will naturally develop a vibrant prayer life, but the reality is that they struggle just like adults. Therefore, a vital aspect of growing children as disciples of Christ is helping them to grow as praying disciples of Christ.
Over the next three articles, we’ll apply the same model for helping children develop an element the faith. It’s a basic model, but it is immensely practical. Essentially, it seeks to combine modelling, training and teaching in age-appropriate ways.
Children first learn to pray from older Christians. Anytime we pray in church, at dinner or before bed the children present are watching, listening and learning. This could be a scary thought! But realising this means we can take steps to model prayer both the content of prayers, and our very attitude to prayer itself.
- Create opportunities for children to see the priority of prayer in your own life and in the lives of others, e.g. model praying for the things in your own life and look for opportunities for kids to see other adults do the same.
- Create opportunities for children to learn what to pray from the model of adults and older Christians (including older siblings). Ask yourself, ‘what times can our family pray together?’
- Ensure that adults or leaders join in group prayer times in children’s ministry.
Training builds on modelling by giving children the tools to begin prayer in simple ways. All skills, (like riding a bike) are learnt by doing. But some skills are difficult to master straightaway. Training tools, like balance bikes or training wheels, help the learner begin in an easy way and then strengthen the skill by the doing of it. Perhaps this is one reason why, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he gave them a model prayer that they were could use straight away (Matt 6:9-13). A quick online search will reap loads of tools to train children of different ages to pray. Here are a few I’ve used.
- Write prayers for children to pray.
- Use a system that teaches children appropriate topics to pray, e.g.:
- TSP (thank you, sorry, please)
- ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication
- Create a bookmark for the child’s Bible with cues or questions to help them pray in response to God’s word.
- A favourite at our church is writing topics for prayer on paddle pop sticks and keeping these in a cup near the dinner table. During a prayer time, each member of the family draws out a paddle pop stick and prays for that topic.
- Don’t forget to chat to your children’s ministry leaders about ideas they use at church.
Teaching builds on modelling and training and now adds specific instruction on prayer. This is where we teach children what to pray, what not to pray, how to pray and right attitudes towards prayer. We might read Bible passages on prayer or look at examples of characters praying in the Bible. In so doing, we’re trying to break down and teach the key elements of prayer ensuring that we remain faithful to sound doctrine and teach in developmentally appropriate ways. Here is my attempt to ‘layer’ teaching on prayer in ways that growing children can understand. The idea is to start with (1) and build on it as they grow.
- Christian prayer is responding to God
God acted first by creating the world and humans. God spoke first to us in the Gospel (Ephesians 2:1-5), which means that Christian prayer is responding back to God by talking to him. It is not a cry out into the darkness. It is continuing a conversation he started. We can teach children to pray knowing that God has already demonstrated his love for us in Christ.
- Christian prayer is responding to God as our Father
As children grow in their understanding of the God this will deepen the way they relate to him. God grants the Spirit to those who trust in his Son. The Spirit enables believers to call on God as Father (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6). The emphasis here is to understand prayer in the context of a personal relationship with God. A relationship that is affected by sin and the offer of forgiveness, a relationship that remains a constant throughout the week and isn’t just there at formal times of prayer.
- Christian prayer is responding to God as our Father through Jesus Christ
As children grow in their understanding of the Gospel, they will see that they can only pray because Christ’s death has opened up our access to God. We now have a bold, unfettered and intimate access to our holy God (Hebrews 9:19-21). This means our right to pray to God is not based on our own merits, but on the finished work of Christ. Like adults, children will easily tend to think God only hears their prayers when they are pleasing him. Teaching them we are justified by faith in Christ encourages the humility to pray in good times and the confidence to pray in the bad.
- Christian prayer is responding to God as our Father through Jesus Christ as Jesus taught
Since it is Jesus who grants us access to God, it makes sense we should listen to his instructions on how and what to pray, and what priority different concerns should take. We can also learn from Jesus’ example, for example, about the need for prayer amongst the busyness of life (Mark 1) and praying for God’s will rather than our own desires (Luke 22).
This is certainly not a comprehensive guide to teaching children to pray, but hopefully it is a useful start. If children grow in their knowledge of God but don’t also grow in their prayer life, their relationship with him will become remote. Let’s help our children talk to their heavenly Father, confident that he hears them, loves them and knows what’s best for them.