How to change a flat tire. How to turn off the water to an overflowing toilet.
How to manage money, create a budget, and balance a checkbook.
How to perform the Heimlich maneuver or CPR in an emergency.
These are all invaluable life skills that every parent ought to add to their list of “important lessons to impart upon our children.” Sadly, however, if one were to poll most Catholic parents, “how to pray” would likely not even crack their top ten list.
Why is that, exactly?
Perhaps prayer is seen as a “given,” something more “caught than taught.” Possibly some parents never learned how to pray themselves and feel ill-equipped to hand on practical insight into such a personal venture. Maybe some parents feel this lesson is better left to the “professionals” like the pastor, religious sister, parochial theology teacher, or parish youth minister. Or maybe—just maybe—it’s because prayer is an ever-elusive act that most agree is important but few feel worthy or capable of properly teaching the next generation.
Now, enter the modern teenager. They are screen savvy, tech obsessed, and in constant need of stimulation. Generation Z (or iGen) identifies and processes information at a rapid rate but ironically has a more difficult time focusing for long periods of time. As attention spans decrease and the desire for optical and mental stimulation heightens, is it any wonder why something as timeless and serene as prayer is not typically held in high regard with the modern adolescent?
If parents and catechists don’t make teaching and modeling prayer a priority, the risks and dangers for the next generation will be catastrophic. If primary (and secondary) catechists don’t hand on this essential facet of the faith, who will do so? The increasing rate of atheism, agnosticism, and disaffiliation with organized religion (all of which we are currently witnessing in Gen Z) is only going to widen if we who are charged with leading them into a personal relationship with Christ and his Church are not strategic, intentional, and timely about how and what we share.
So what is the million-dollar answer? What is the “quick fix” when it comes to teaching the modern teen to pray? The bad news is that there is no quick fix. There is no “7 Minute Abs” solution when leading young souls into a deeper relationship with the Lord. However, the good news is that there is an answer to this question. It just takes time and a multifaceted approach.
After spending the past twenty-five plus years toiling in the vineyard of youth ministry, I’ve had to adjust and pivot countless times as I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. So, I offer the following suggestions as time-tested and effective.
It’s a Both/And
Is prayer “caught” or taught? The answer is yes; prayer is both caught and taught. It’s a both/and not an either/or supposition. Pope St. John Paul II once remarked on how he learned to pray, offering this reflection: “After [my mother’s] death and, later, the death of my older brother, I was left alone with my father, a deeply religious man. Day after day I was able to observe the austere way in which he lived . . . his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.”
The great saint and former pontiff went on to recall watching his father kneel beside the bed, daily, and offer prayers to God. For St. John Paul II, a rhythm of prayer was modeled for him, not merely taught to him. We youth ministers can tell our teens about the importance of prayer but if we really want them to develop a prayer life, they must see us praying frequently—beyond the Mass. They ought to see our reverence in our communion bow and genuflection, sure, but it should be evident before and after youth group in spontaneous and meaningful moments.
Less Is More
For people not accustomed to working out, a new gym membership can mean a great deal of soreness and might even become demotivating over time. If muscles are not warmed up and the stamina isn’t built gradually over time, the pain and frustration may lead them away from the gym and the healthier lifestyle they crave. The same can be true of prayer. For teens who are not accustomed to praying or who don’t currently count prayer as part of their everyday “language,” long prayer services and practices, whether on retreat or at a youth group night, can be overwhelming and demotivating. In this way, less really is more. Great depth can be achieved through five minutes of prayer or ten minutes of worship as a group. Prayer does not—out of the gate—have to look like an hour of adoration or ninety minutes of prayer and worship. As leaders, you can build up to that, but help your young people cut their teeth in shorter bursts of prayer first and get their “prayer legs” underneath them over time.
The “less is more” concept is also true of utilizing Sacred Scripture. Yes, it’s the inspired Word of God and, yes, it is always beneficial to expose people to holy writ but if you are teaching the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance, don’t feel the need to read the story in its entirety. Perhaps focus in on just the younger brother and the father and leave the older brother for another day. Another way to work on this concept of “less is more” is to paraphrase and summarize the beginning of the story in your own words and pick up the story being told with the climactic or most notable moment. You may not be sharing as many verses or words, but the ones you do share will assuredly carry a stronger and longer impact in the hearts and minds of those listening.
Till That Soil
Speaking of adoration: if you desire reverence, you must ensure relevance (the same can be said of Mass, frankly). Many times as catechists we look at the liturgy and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as no-brainer “home runs.” “Just get them to the Eucharist,” I’ve heard many times, and this statement is true to a certain extent. While Jesus has great power to work miracles, without the proper catechesis teens will continue to lack reverence at Mass and zone out during longer periods of adoration. The more we can teach about the moments and movements of the Great Sacrament, the more engaged the teens will become within it. By extension, the more we can prepare the modern teen’s heart for an encounter with Jesus, the more meaningful those moments of eucharistic intimacy truly become.
Avoid the temptation to light the candles and process out with the monstrance thinking that all the teens (new and non-Catholic teens, especially) will just be overwhelmed by God’s grace. Grace builds on grace, yes, but how many teens even understand what grace is? The more time we can take to explain Christ’s true presence and why the objects and prayers of our sacraments are significant, the better chance our teens have of discovering the sacred and entering into the mystery. Don’t just cast the seed; take time to till the soil of their hearts and minds.
Return to the Classics
We are so blessed as Catholics to have such a rich history of prayer, and we must take advantage of all of the prayers of our Church. That being said, before you hand teens that rosary and pamphlet outlining the order and mysteries, they need to be introduced to the great and rich context that surrounds this profound prayer. Teach them about the Blessed Virgin Mary, explain to them the significance of intercessory prayer, offer them an explanation of meditation, and present to them the biblical events they are likely not all that familiar with. Utilize visuals when praying a rosary. Go online and find images of the mystery that you can put up on a screen or copy and share as handouts. Gen Z lives within a visual culture and they will enter more deeply into the rosary if they are offered more to work with mentally.
To offer a specific example of a way in which you can provide this context: before I teach teens to pray a rosary, I like to spend at least a couple sessions on the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. I intentionally walk them through each prayer line by line, unpacking both the obvious and subtle meanings and background. Many teens struggle with the Our Father because of their own father wounds, so taking the time to unpack this perfect prayer from the Perfect Pray-er is a gift that will last young Catholics a lifetime. Likewise, a line-by-line tour through St. Luke’s inspired prose will take the Hail Mary from being a nice, formulaic prayer to a deep dive into the Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Heart.
Introduce Them to New “Friends”
Do your teens understand the power at their disposal in the communion of saints? By introducing them to intercessory prayer, you will not only open up a new world to them (ethereally speaking) but you will also teach them two invaluable principles: that of thoughtfulness and a heightened awareness of the Mystical Body of Christ. Many teens don’t pray with the saints because they are not exposed to the lives of the saints outside of picking a saint name during their Confirmation prep. Begin by asking them how you can pray for them on a regular basis, and do not end a one-on-one conversation with a teenager without asking this ever-important question. The more they begin to see your thoughtfulness and care and your belief in the efficacy of intercession, the more open they will become over time to asking the holy ones who have gone before us to pray with them. They will begin to appreciate patronages and pay attention to feast days and, eventually, seek the very sainthood we are attempting to unleash within them. Don’t merely recount miraculous stories and inspiring tales of saintly virtue; make it an interpersonal and consistent part of your relationship with each teen and the Spirit will take it from there.
Empower, Empower, Empower
How many opportunities do you give your teens to lead a prayer? Not necessarily up in front of the group but within small groups? If they’re not comfortable leading a prayer, that’s alright, but how often do you ask each for a petition prior to you leading a prayer? Something as simple as warning them ahead of time that they are each going to offer a prayer request aloud both breaks down the wall of awkwardness or discomfort prevalent in so many teens (middle schoolers especially) but also goes a long way in normalizing this form of “communication.” Don’t forget that for most teens prayer is not a second language . . . it’s more like a fourth or fifth language, especially if they don’t pray at home as a family. Additionally, most teens are really not comfortable in their own skin when on the church campus or in a prayer setting. The more small moments we can empower our teens to speak up and open up in a prayerful setting, the more dividends will be paid over time when you ask them to lead prayer in a small group and, eventually, in the large group.
While none of these practical examples are watershed insights, I would argue they are essential to remember for any parent or catechist. The life skills (like turning off water or knowing how to perform CPR) we model and teach and attempt to unearth in Gen Z will hopefully set them up for life, to be sure, but teaching them to discover their interior life—to make that most important journey from their head to their heart—and to really pray . . . that is a skill that sets them up for eternity.
The disciples bid Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray” (Luke 11:1) . . . and he did. When we teach people to pray, we act as God acts. There is no greater gift you have to give. Because prayer does not “help” our relationship with God; prayer is our relationship.
Mark Hart serves as Chief Information Officer and Executive Vice President for Life Teen International. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a twenty-six-year veteran of youth ministry, Mark is a best-selling author of over twenty books, a daily radio host on SiriusXM, and an award-winning writer and producer. One of the most sought-after speakers serving in the Catholic Church today, Mark’s humor and passion for Scripture are known the world over. His multiple video series—T3, Encounter, Altaration and The 99—have helped millions of Catholics, young and old, begin to read and study the Bible and engage the Catholic faith in exciting and relevant, new ways. A master catechist, Mark also serves as a marketing consultant, book editor, and speaking coach, as well as a Research Fellow for the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Mark and his wife, Melanie, have three daughters (Hope, Trinity, and Faith) and one son, Josiah. They live in Phoenix, Arizona.
Bring a group of teens to hear Mark Hart at Steubenville Atlanta July 8-10 or Steubenville East July 22-24, 2022. See online ad within this issue.
This article originally appeared on pages 40-42 in the print edition.
Art credit: Photo of male teen meditating outside with his Bible by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash.com.