Advent Prayer Stations

An Intergenerational Experience

Prayer stations are a wonderful way to engage all the senses in meditation, reflection, and prayer. And while they are often used as a separate experience for youth groups or special events, I’ve started to wonder about using them in the context of Sunday morning worship.

People of all ages can benefit from using their five senses in worship. While I used to create elaborate prayer station cycles just for youth and children, I found that it really was an intergenerational activity. The adults who assisted frequently asked when it was their turn: just watching over the shoulders of the children or even helping with the setup, they said, was an edifying experience. With so much to commend this practice, I wondered what intergenerational prayer stations might look like during the season of Advent.

The prospect of setting up six to eight prayer stations for a one-time event can be daunting. But using just one station a week in conjunction with worship is a great introduction to this practice for an entire congregation.

This cycle of stations for Advent are designed to be used, one a week, in coordination with the texts from the Year A Revised Common Lectionary cycle. I purposefully designed the stations with fairly general themes so that it would be easy to use them alongside any particular congregation’s plans for celebrating Advent. In fact, the themes are general enough that even a congregation that is not following the RCL can use the stations with little adaptation.

Making space for public individual reflections provides an opportunity to move these stations from individual to communal. Each week, post a question for public comment at the top of a large sheet of posterboard, or perhaps on a whiteboard, and place it near the prayer station but not where people can read it while they are at the station itself. This way they are able to experience the station individually before joining in the communal part of the experience.

While these stations are child-friendly, they engage older teens and adults intellectually. With the help of an adult guiding them through the station, even a very young child will be able to experience God’s goodness through their senses: the smell of a flower, the ticking of a clock, the flicker of a candle, the weight of a rock.

Setup Notes

There are a number of ways to approach the setup and use of these stations. Your choices will depend on the size of your congregation, the traffic patterns in your facility, and your own worship habits and customs. A narthex or entryway might be the easiest choice. But if your narthex is often a busy or bottle-necked space, this might not work. A brave choice might be to set up the station in a corner of the worship space itself. For some congregations, it might work to encourage use of the station before and after worship. For others, it might even be possible to use the station throughout worship, or at designated times.

Whichever options you choose, make sure to find ways to let your congregation know about the opportunity to use the stations.

Keep people of all ages and abilities in mind when considering the setup of these stations. The lower children’s tables often used in Sunday school rooms are a great option for keeping the display at a lower eye level. Some people might welcome a few floor pillows on which to sit and take some extra time. Those with mobility issues may need a chair that’s easy to sit in. Print the meditation guides in a large, clear font so that they are easy to read.

Be thoughtful about how things look, smell, sound, and feel. Keep in mind that the objects that are important to the meditation should be given center stage: anything you add to the table should add to, rather than distract from, the main objects.

Recruiting a small team of people to help with these stations is essential. Ask one person to help assemble the necessary materials. Find a few volunteers who enjoy making things look beautiful. And try to recruit someone to quietly and unobtrusively monitor the station each week. I often ask for a volunteer who will both pray for those who are using the station and keep an eye on things in case the setup needs tweaking or straightening while it is being used.

For each week, there is a materials list, a setup guide, and a meditation. I recommend printing each of these as a separate document. Print the meditation directions and mount them on stiff paper or place them in a table-top frame. If you have different volunteers gathering materials and doing setup, you can hand the appropriate guide to each person.

Advent 1: Waiting for Morning

Materials

  • Table
  • Dark cloth for draping the table
  • Analog clock with a second hand, or digital clock that displays seconds
  • Candle and candleholder
  • Placard with the meditation directions printed on it
  • Posterboard or whiteboard
  • Markers

Setup

Drape the table with the dark cloth. If possible, to simulate darkness, drape the cloth down a wall or some other vertical surface behind the table as well. Set the table with the clock; a single, lit candle (if you are concerned about fire risk, an LED candle will work); and the meditation instruction card.

Hang the posterboard or whiteboard near the table but somewhere that it won’t distract people while they sit or stand in front of the table. At the top, write this question: “What is God asking you to watch for?” Leave a basket of markers nearby.

Meditation

“You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him”
(Matt. 25:44, TNIV).

During Advent we remember God’s promise to be with us—wholly and completely. And we wait for that promise to be fulfilled. But we don’t know the exact time: Jesus doesn’t always come according to our schedule.

Keep your eyes on the clock. Watch the seconds go by. Does time move fast or slow? Can you slow yourself down for a whole minute? Two minutes? How does it feel to just wait? Easy? Hard? Relaxing? Frustrating?

What are you waiting for? Are you watching? Are you ready?

Advent 2: Vision of Possibility

Materials

  • Table
  • Dark cloth for draping the table
  • Bare twigs or branch securely set up in a weighted bucket or pot
  • Basket full of small decorations ready to hang on the twigs or branch (paper flowers or leaves, small ornaments, and so on). There should be enough for every person who uses the prayer station to hang one.
  • Placard with the meditation directions printed on it
  • Posterboard or whiteboard
  • Markers

Setup

Place the branch or twigs securely in a weighted bucket or pot. Set out a basket with enough ornaments, flowers, or leaves so that each person who uses the station will have the opportunity to hang one. Set out the printed meditation placard.

Hang the posterboard or whiteboard near the table but somewhere that it won’t distract people while they sit or stand in front of the table. At the top, write this question: “What do you hope for?” Leave a basket of markers nearby.

Meditation

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit . . . the wolf will live with the lamb . . . and a little child will lead them”
(Isa. 11:1, 6; TNIV).

Isaiah promises things that sound impossible: new life from a dead stump; natural enemies living in harmony; and a child in charge of it all.

Looking at the twigs, think of things in your life and in the world around you that appear impossible. What are the things you barely dare to hope for? Where does newness seem impossible? Where does peace seem far away?

Choose one item to decorate the tree, a sign of one thing that you hope for, even if it seems impossible.

Advent 3: Beginnings of a New Thing

Materials

  • Table
  • Lighter cloth for draping the table
  • Seedling or sprout planted in a large pot
  • Fragrant potted plant in full bloom (or bouquet of flowers in a stable container with a wide base)
  • Placard with the meditation directions printed on it
  • Posterboard or whiteboard
  • Markers

Setup

Drape the table with the lighter cloth.

Place the seedling and the plant or bouquet on the table next to each other. Make sure that the plant or bouquet is set up in such a way that it is stable and accessible for people of all ages to smell it. Set out the printed meditation placard.

Hang the posterboard or whiteboard near the table but somewhere that it won’t distract people while they sit or stand in front of the table. At the top, write this question: “Where do you see the beginnings of God’s promises around you?” Leave a basket of markers nearby.

Meditation

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom” (Isa. 35:1-2, TNIV).

The first sign of new life, a tiny green sprout, is cause for celebration in the spring. In and of itself, a sprout might be unimpressive, except that we know it’s a sign of what’s coming. With water and sunshine and time, even the tiniest seed grows. Then we can see and smell and touch everything that sprout was meant to be: the full plant in complete flower.

Waiting can be easier when we know what’s coming and what to expect. But knowing those things can also make waiting harder because we can get impatient. Or we can be caught by surprise: what finally appears is even more amazing that what we thought we knew was coming.

Look at the sprout. Now look at the full plant. Smell the flowers. Could you ever have expected this?

We are waiting for a new thing; from a sprout, the full flower. Maybe it will be even more than we expect.

Advent 4: Ripeness of Time

Materials

  • Table
  • Light cloth for draping the table
  • Framed ultrasound picture
  • Framed, tasteful picture of a pregnant belly
  • Framed picture of a baby
  • Basket holding six stones; each should be small enough to sit comfortably in an open hand, but large enough to feel heavy
  • Placard with the meditation directions printed on it
  • Posterboard or whiteboard
  • Markers

Set-Up

Drape the table with the light cloth. Set out the framed ultrasound, pregnancy, and baby pictures. Place the basket of stones at the front of the table.

Hang the posterboard or whiteboard near the table but somewhere that it won’t distract people while they sit or stand in front of the table. At the top, write this question: “How is your life bearing God’s fruit?” Leave a basket of markers nearby.

Meditation

“An angel of the Lord came to [Joseph] and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’” (Matt. 1:20, TNIV).

Each of our lives began with someone waiting: parents and family, at turns eager, impatient, joyful, frightened. And when the time was ripe, we arrived. This is how God, too, comes into our lives. Jesus, God-with-us, arrives just as we did, sharing in our lives from the very beginning.

Hold one of the stones. Let it warm up and settle into your hand. Feel its weight. Feel its weight both as a burden and as potential. Imagine that God’s presence, like this stone, is settling on you.

We are waiting for God’s arrival in the world and in our lives. And when the time is ripe, God’s work will bear fruit in us.

Erica Schemper is a PC(USA) pastor, mother (current emphasis on the mother part) and displaced Chicagoan living in the San Francisco Bay area. She blogs at Don’t flay the sheep.