This is the fourth in a series of articles with suggestions for how to be deliberate about encouraging faith nurture in your congregation’s worship.
Prayer is an essential part of our Christian walk and of our worship. Prayer is how we talk to God and listen to God. Children often learn how to pray by memorizing prayers or by copying the phrases they hear their parents use. Memorized prayers are a great way to help kids develop patterns of prayer and times of prayer at mealtimes or at bedtime. But memorized prayers are not just for children. Memorized prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer are an important part of our prayer life for as long as we live.
In addition to helping children learn prayers by memory, we also want to encourage them to offer prayers of their own design, prayers that speak of what’s going on in their hearts.
Our niece and her husband were teaching their children to be thankful for their food at mealtime prayers. Their daughter Lydia took this task very seriously, pointing to each item on the table and saying “thanks for that and for that.” We knew that she was thinking about what she was praying when she pointed to a food that she really didn’t like and said “but not that.” Through their stifled laughter, her parents knew that she was learning to talk to God about what was really on her heart.
Let’s not minimize the importance of these steps in the development of faith. The faith of children is primarily a reflection of the faith that they see and hear at home, so we should expect imitations of what parents say as children develop their own prayer vocabulary. Both of us had fathers who prayed at the dinner table, and we can both recite phrases that they used in their prayers. Many people have fond memories like these, and some of us have developed our own particular prayer language that our children sometimes imitate. Beyond simple imitation, these phrases helped us to develop a language of faith.
Praying for Illumination in Worship
But even as we make these important first steps in developing our prayer language, we need to recognize that it is sometimes the case that our children’s prayers, and perhaps our own, seldom go beyond thanking and asking—often for the same things. Prayers, particularly prayers in worship, demonstrate that our conversations with God are richer and deeper than just thanksgiving and supplication, although those are certainly important pieces. We can use prayers in worship as a springboard to help our children and ourselves to a fuller prayer life.
One feature of Reformed theology is our understanding that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to help us understand God’s Word when we read the Bible.
This becomes clear in our worship when we ask God to bless the reading of the Word, to assist the pastor as he or she preaches, and to open our ears so that we may hear God clearly before the reading and preaching of Scripture. This is called the prayer for illumination. It’s a short moment in the worship service, and one that could quickly go by without much thought on the part of the congregation. But this prayer is much more than a placeholder. It offers us all an opportunity to understand more about our faith, God’s place in our lives, and why we worship the way we do.
Some churches encourage the congregation to participate by asking a member to offer this prayer just before the reading of the Word. This practice offers us a concrete reminder of the place of the Spirit’s work in our hearing of the Word.
One way to make the specific nature of this prayer open to teens and children is to ask them to participate. In order for this to be effective for the congregation as well as a good experience for the young person, you need to build in support for the person selected to pray. Perhaps someone could work with the young person to craft a short prayer and then come alongside him or her to talk about the specific thing that happens in this prayer.
This person could easily be the parent of the child but certainly doesn’t have to be. While selecting someone in the same family makes it easier to find time to work together, there are good reasons to have adults in your congregation other than parents connecting with kids too. In either case, have the two of them talk briefly about why we have this special prayer, what sort of things we’re praying for, and then let the young person write out their own prayer. Usually only a little editing is needed by the adult: it is important to keep the childlike nature and language of the person praying. Here is a sample prayer: “Lord, we have come to church to hear you. Speak to us now from the Bible and through our pastor. Help us to listen well. Amen.”
Praying for Illumination at Home
Understanding how the prayer for illumination functions in worship can also impact how prayers are offered at home. Some families have a time of devotions, perhaps around the dinner table, that involve Scripture reading and prayer, often in that order. Consider switching the order of these around! Explaining why you are doing so would help everyone focus more clearly on the importance of the Holy Spirit in our understanding of God’s Word at home and also in worship.
Another way of offering a prayer for illumination is to sing it—either at home or at church. Consider singing a simple but beautiful song such as “Open Our Eyes, Lord” (SWM 179) or “Thy Word” (SWM 177) before reading the Word. These songs can easily be sung unaccompanied, and you can use them as a springboard for a home discussion about the difference between the two texts. “Open Our Eyes, Lord” is a prayer for illumination; “Thy Word” is a reminder of the importance of God’s Word in our lives. After singing these songs a few times, families can have a conversation about what the words mean, who they are addressing, and where and when you can sing them most appropriately.
Paying attention to this brief but important part of worship reminds us that our prayers are more than just a litany of what we want or even of what we’re grateful for.
For Your Church Newsletter or Bulletin
A common pattern for devotions at mealtimes is pray, eat, read the Bible, pray. The word “Amen” can become little more than a signal to pick up your plate and clear the table. Consider changing the pattern this way: Pray, eat, pray, and then read the Bible passage. The second prayer is a time to ask the Lord to open our ears and our hearts so that we can hear his Word—just like the prayer for illumination in our worship services. This easy change can enhance your family’s mealtime devotions and help your family better understand corporate worship.