Rewind a few years back. It was my very first youth event at a brand-new church, and I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing.

It was a stormy night, we were under a tornado watch, and I was meeting in an unfinished metal building with twenty kids inspecting their new youth leader with a critical eye. I had labored all week, writing the perfect Bible study and coming up with ice breakers just right for this group–but more importantly, a first aid kit and a flashlight were arm’s length away from me at all times.

The first middle school event ever in this church’s history was officially starting, and I could only think of one thing:

I desperately needed to start in prayer.

As I introduced myself to the students and welcomed them to this new program, I asked them to help me start right and waited for a student to volunteer to open us in prayer. When no one got my hints, I expressed how powerful it would be to have a student open us up at our very first middle school youth event with a prayer.

No one said a word.

Still buoyant about what I simply perceived to be their shyness, I praised the courage that it took to stand in front of the group and pray–but how remarkable it would be that a student, not the youth leader, would do this on this extra-special night. Of course, I didn’t have a single kid volunteer.

To make a long story short, no matter how hard I alternately wheedled and threatened these kids, I couldn’t get a single one to pray. Confused, I instead opened us and closed us in prayer that night.

I went home that night and pondered the situation for a long time. Here I had spent the last four years learning educational theory and endless church history, and had more doctrine books than I wanted cluttering my shelves in order to prepare myself for my youth ministry job. Yet, this basic spiritual discipline of prayer was seemingly absent from these kids.

After some subsequent observation and some questioning of the group, I realized that the entire group was pretty uncomfortable with prayer–especially praying in front of each other. Despite my personal feeling that they should have no trouble praying out loud in front of each other as twelve and thirteen year olds, it dawned on me that I was going to have to start from scratch in teaching these kids all about prayer.

As prayer is incredibly important for every Christian, regardless of age, I felt it crucial that these kids became comfortable with it by the time they moved into high school. I feared that if they didn’t learn how to feel at ease with praying during these few formative years, it would become a life-long challenge and pattern of avoidance that followed them into adulthood.

For our group, I ended up breaking prayer down into a few simple steps that I emphasize at nearly every youth event, because we have so many new kids coming in each week. I keep it short and repetitive, so they can remember it easily.

First, I start by defining what prayer is. The most basic and easily understood explanation I could come up with was, “Prayer is talking to God.” Thus, at every youth event we have, I ask the kids, “Tell me about this prayer thing. What is prayer, anyway?” Once they respond, I ask them if they can talk to their friends. They always answer with a resounding “yes”, and it leads us into a conversation about how, just like you can easily talk to your friends, you can even more easily talk to God. Often, we’ll talk about what exactly you can share with God–your hurts, your frustrations, your confusion, your joys, and your thanks.

Once we’ve established the fact that anyone can talk to God at any time, I’ll ask for a student to open us in prayer. I’ll explain that it’s important for them to feel comfortable with prayer, because it’s something they’ll be doing their whole lives. I’m always very encouraging, telling the kids that just like there’s no “wrong way” to chat with your friends, there’s no “wrong way” to chat with God.

Once I get a volunteer, I’ll bring the student up to pray and settle the crowd down by saying, “Alright, let’s bow our heads and fold our handsgentlemen, take your hats off if you’re wearing them.” The guys wearing hats will always quickly whip them off, and this is an easy opening to a quick conversation about why we take our hats off in prayer–it’s all about respect.

After the student prays, I always thank them publicly and praise their prayer as being a good one, regardless of whether they faltered or giggled or stalled out during the prayer. It’s the small encouraging comments like that stick in these middle schooler’s minds, I’ve found.

By making student prayer the foundational priority for my youth events, I’ve seen a dramatic difference in our group. Now, instead of hearing crickets when I ask for volunteers to pray, I see hands flying up in the air. I’ve seen these students go from being completely mute in front of their peers to being able to confidently pray out loud in front of entire assemblies. When I ask for volunteers to open us in prayer at student-parent meetings, the kids always step up and volunteer to pray–even when their parents are too bashful to do it. In fact, I’ve had many parents come up to me to tell me how their teen’s prayer life has challenged their own into action.

One of the most treasured moments in my entire ministry came this fall, as I crept into the back of a classroom to observe two of my former students leading a grade school Sunday school class. As they opened their lesson and greeted the kids, my two students asked their class a question I had heard before: “Tell me about this prayer thing. What is prayer, anyway?”

With excitement, I watched these two teens pass on their knowledge of prayer to an even younger generation. As I sat there, breathing a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to do this sort of work with such remarkable students, I realized that I was watching history unfolding–my students were teaching younger students, who would someday teach their own kids how to pray. United, we were living out 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

We’ve come quite a long way since that stormy night a few years ago, but I still feel the same way: I desperately need to start in prayer every time.

Correction–we desperately need to start in prayer.

And, we do now. Together.