3 new ways to teach teenagers to pray (+ free download)

Rachel Dodd Image Rachel Dodd | Mar 12, 2024

Whenever I utter the words “let’s pray” to teenagers, I feel an inward tremor of fear—because I’m never quite sure what will happen next. To be painfully honest, I often opt for the easy route and just pray out loud for my group, rather than risk the uncomfortable silence I’ll likely get if I ask a student to pray.

Perhaps you can relate?

This may be a hot take, but when it comes to engaging teenagers in prayer, the story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane with a few disciples in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 has always offered me a lot of comfort as a youth ministry leader.

Jesus has invested three years in these disciples. He’s mentored them, patiently enduring their awkward questions, arguments, and mishaps. He’s provided for them, shown up for their communities and family members, and performed downright miracles right in front of them!

And yet, at what seems like a peak moment in their journey, Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to take on the mantle of prayer so they can face their next big missional moment together…and the disciples fall asleep.

Does this scene stir memories of the youth ministry struggle for you like it does for me?

Teaching prayer can be discouraging sometimes

Inviting those we lead and disciple to go deeper in their faith formation—or even to try new things—is a daunting task. Especially when it feels like the group isn’t following.

As a youth ministry leader, one of the biggest encouragements I take from the scene of Jesus and the three in the Garden of Gethsemane is this: if Jesus was able to predict that a disciple would betray him, he probably knew that Peter, James, and John were going to fall asleep, too.

Yet that didn’t stop Jesus from inviting them to pray.

This story, which pops up every year during Holy Week and Easter, always whispers to me that creating a completely fumble-free environment isn’t the work a leader is called to. Ministry requires us to equip and encourage disciples toward their next shaky steps.

Why is inviting teens to pray so anxiety-inducing?

I’m sure with a little reflection, each one of us could create a list of things we worry about whenever we say “let’s pray” in youth group. (Side quest: maybe try that sometime!)

But as I’ve worked with teams to engage teenagers in prayer over the years, I’ve noticed our hesitations often point to three larger fears:

  1. We fear their boredom. We all know from experience: bored teenagers = giggling, distracted, potentially mischievous teenagers—right?
  2. We fear nothing will happen. We worry that if our teens don’t feel like they’re hearing from God or don’t see direct answers to their prayers, they’ll give up on prayer altogether—or worse, give up on God altogether.
  3. We fear that if they’re bored or nothing happens, it’s a sign we’re failing at ministry. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of confusing young people’s enthusiasm levels with our self-worth as leaders.

Youth leaders, let’s change our perspective on teaching teenagers how to pray

I wonder what might happen if we gave ourselves permission to let go of those worries.

The story of Jesus praying in the garden (not) with his disciples may make us all inwardly cringe, but let’s not forget: When the time came for Peter, James, and John to seek God in prayer without their teacher to lead, they knew what to do.

Those momentarily uncomfortable steps were really important for their longer journey.

In our Faith Beyond Youth Group research at FYI, we’ve come to learn that compassion and prayer go hand in hand. While compassion has often been thought of in terms of action, compassion is also interaction—with God, with those in the world around us.

Prayer is a key step toward a compassion-filled life. Psychologists tell us that compassion begins with knowing ourselves—honestly exploring our doubts, fears, assumptions, and pain so that we can empathize with those experiences in others. And the benefits don’t stop there. Empowering young people to pray also helps them reduce anxiety, improve mental health, and increase self-esteem.

When youth ministry leaders invite teenagers to pray, we’re opening the door for them to nurture a compassionate relationship with God—and respond with care for themselves and others.

Isn’t it worth braving those initial faltering steps to give new disciples some small steps toward a prayer-filled, compassionate life? Maybe Jesus thought so that night in the garden.

3 new ways to teach teenagers to pray

Youth leaders, for the sake of our students and ourselves, let’s change the way we think about teaching teens to pray. Try these approaches when you next lead your youth group in prayer:

  1. Invite your students to take small steps.
    Start with one very specific prayer prompt instead of a long or broad list of requests. Let students form their own words silently or on paper before asking them to pray out loud. Give them just 30 or 60 seconds, and expand that amount of time in future weeks— when they’re ready. Remember, prayer is uncomfortable for everyone at first!
  2. Reframe “stillness” from a behavior expectation to a spiritual invitation.
    Let’s be realistic: we may never have a roomful of teenagers who can sit with their heads bowed and eyes closed. (And when we do, there’s a good chance they may be asleep!) Thankfully, when it comes to spiritual formation, “stillness” isn’t about sitting still—it’s an invitation to tune in to what’s going on in one’s mind and heart, quiet those nagging inner voices for a moment, and prepare the way for God’s voice to break through. If your teens need visual aids, movement, or music in the background to help them do that, plan accordingly!
  3. Remember that no one is a prayer “expert.”
    Relational growth almost always happens by reaching out and seeing where it takes us—and prayer is a tool for relational growth. The point of it is to help your teens nurture an authentic, honest friendship with God. There will always be more small (sometimes awkward) steps they can try.

Whether you’re planning youth group activities for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, or beyond, chances are you’re feeling a nudge to invite your teenagers to pray and reflect in the weeks ahead.

Lean in to the opportunity.

Tweet this: When youth ministry leaders invite teenagers to pray, we’re opening the door for them to nurture a compassionate relationship with God—and respond with care for themselves and others.

Need more insights on leading prayer with teens? 

Download our FREE resource, 8 tips for leading deeper prayer in your youth group.

Read more on prayer ideas for your youth group:

Take a guided prayer walk
Teach your teenagers the daily Examen prayer
Go beyond “popcorn” prayer
Explore 3 emotions that connect young people to Jesus during Holy Week

Transform your youth group into
a compassionate community


Compassion from the Inside Out is a 4-week high school ministry curriculum that invites your students to dig deeper and explore compassionate interaction as you look at how Jesus modeled a life lived with compassion. Together you’ll share your own stories, grow closer as a prayer-filled, caring community, and equip your teens for lifelong compassion with their heads, hearts, hands, and feet.

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Rachel Dodd Image
Rachel Dodd

Rachel Dodd is a spiritual director, writer, and Managing Editor at the Fuller Youth Institute. She has a BA in Church Music and Youth Ministry from Point Loma Nazarene University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently finishing a DMin in Spiritual Formation and Direction. Having served students and families in the UK and US for over 20 years, Rachel loves writing to share stories and equip those following their own calling in ministry. She and her husband, Carl, now live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and have two daughters. Connect with Rachel at racheldoddwriter.com.

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