Are we failing the students in our youth ministry by teaching them to be too polite to God?
I recently visited a different mainline church’s youth group program. During the lesson time, the youth pastor asked the opening question, “What are different ways we can pray?” The room contained a wide range of students from goofy 6th grade boys to mature 12th grade girls, so the maturity of answers varied a little, but the gist was: Prayers in church, silent prayer, singing praises, spending time in nature, prayer with movement, liturgical dance, writing down your prayer, reading the Bible, saying grace at dinner…and so on.
While listening, it occurred to me, all of the prayers we tend to teach and model to youth are very polite, reserved even. And maybe even a little fake.
When I’m honest, there are times in life when I don’t feel polite at all. When tragedy strikes and it’s on the news – innocent children murdered while at school, civilian hostages being shot and killed in a Kenyan shopping mall – the emotions I feel are shock, horror, sadness, grief, anger. When I lost my job, I felt wounded, betrayed, stunned, hurt. I’ve silently grieved the loss of unborn children lost through miscarriage. These emotions boiling inside of me are neither polite nor reserved.
Learning to cope with strong, often changing emotions is one of the biggest challenges a teen can face. If I reflect on my adolescent years, emotions I felt then were similar to the ones I feel now, more intense even. I clearly recall specific times of anger, pain, grief, doubt, disbelief, betrayal, abandonment and more ugliness. As a teen, I did not know much beyond my own personal experience and emotions. What is different for me now is I have a faith mature enough to recognize that, no matter the circumstance, God is still good and God is still in control. Teens don’t all know that yet. Is there a way to help them deal with pain and anger and other strong emotions by teaching it is okay to feel these emotions, even to pray toward God with them?
What if we taught that it was okay to be real, to even yell at God?
Here is how I introduced the concept recently: In this clip from the classic movie, The Apostle (1997) you can see an entirely different model of prayer, one I know that my United Methodist senior highers had never seen before. In case you haven’t seen the movie (it’s really good), what you need to know is the main character, Sonny, is a preacher that is a complicated, imperfect character. He just lost the church he started and his marriage is falling apart.
(Follow this link if the above clip doesn’t play for you: http://youtu.be/q5v5DOEF45E)
I showed this movie clip to my senior high Bible study last week, followed by questions on how they have seen people pray. Well, no one had even imagined yelling at God before. In church we tend to focus on the pretty parts of the Bible, but if you take a close look, there is a lot in Scripture about struggle, anger, pain, grief, jealousy and more. We followed the clip with a Bible lesson on the wide range of emotions found in the book of Psalms, having the youth read to themselves. Youth reflected on their week, read Psalms from the list in the lesson that spoke to them, prayed and then wrote their own psalm prayer. (Here is the complete handout I used: How to Use the Bible to Improve Your Prayer Life, adapted from to “Holy Things for Youth Ministry“ by Brian Hardesty-Crouch.)
Maybe United Methodists in general are never going to feel comfortable with actually yelling at God, especially in front of others, but maybe we should. What I learned through this Bible study is that there are deep emotions going on in the youths’ lives, even on an ordinary Wednesday school night. We fail our students if we don’t teach them that it is okay to be honest with God. Sometimes honesty is a painful thing, yes? By giving a method to pray about their emotions, by giving permission to be honest and to deal with hard things head on, healing and growth begin. By teaching how the Bible can give practical help in times of struggle, students learn to turn to God’s Word for guidance. The youth and I also learned that they are creative and can make parts of the Bible their own story. My prayer for you is that you can model honesty with God, even when the truth hurts.
What other creative ways have you or your church taught about prayer? About dealing with emotion?
Is there someone you know whose life would be changed if they knew it was okay to yell at God, to release their anger and hurt?