A guest post by Jonathan Bratt, a presenter at the New Creation conference
The 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveals a great majority of Americans pray. Among some Christian groups, the percentage is over 90 percent, many self-reporting at least once a day.  Yet, when we peel back the thin veneer of prayer, we discover a more complex reality. There is a great range in how we approach and practice prayer.
The substance of much prayer is an expression of personal desire and willfulness. Many prayers reflect blatant self-interest. Good health, money, and good things commonly dominate our requests. True prayer, however, forms us. Christian prayer purposes not simply to facilitate conversation between God and his people, but to orient us or reorient us toward God’s intention for our lives.
To choose not to pray consigns us to be formed by our own desires and current cultural norms. Both, of course, have been corrupted by the fall (Gen. 3:1-24; 6:5-6 NRSV). Christians praying without direction are no better off. As followers of Jesus, in process, our will and wants are often in conflict with the will of God. We cannot trust our natural inclinations.
Over against these influences, Jesus defines the purposes, attitudes, and content of prayer that orients us toward God’s kingdom and transforms us in thought and action. In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), Jesus guides his followers toward God’s original intention for human life on earth.
In his prayer, Jesus models true prayer for those choosing to live under God’s rule in contrast to those who pray with other motives. In Jesus’ teaching, not all prayer is equal. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites” (Matt. 6:5). “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentile do” (Matt. 6:7). He critiques the prayer of the hypocrites as false because it misses, manipulates, or uses prayer for improper purposes or unrighteous motives; namely, to draw attention to self. Jesus critiques the prayer of the Gentiles as false because it reveals an inadequate view of God and a desire to obtain God’s power to achieve selfish ends. When Jesus says, “Pray then in this way” (Matt. 6:9), he is saying that in contrast to false beliefs, motives and practices of prayer, there is a way that is distinctively Christian. True prayer reflects an accurate belief in God, a right motivation of the heart, and a particular content that orients us to God’s intention for humanity and a hope for the new creation. To pray in Jesus’ way conforms our longings and desires to the will of God for all he has created.
Jonathan Bratt serves as Chaplain at Roberts Wesleyan College and is a D.Min. student at Northeastern Seminary. He presented a scholarly paper on this topic at the New Creation: Scripture, Theology and Praxis Symposium hosted by Northeastern Seminary, October 2013. He blogs at http://jonathanbratt.wordpress.com/.
U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic, (Washington: Pew Research Center, February 2008), 177.
Szegedy-Maszak and Hsu, passim.
A post by guest blogger, Niki Brodeur, M.Div. '11, youth ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Pittsford, N.Y.
When I was younger I remember seeing a commercial for Staples office supplies. You might have seen it too. Chris Marquette dances around the aisles with two moping children while “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” plays overhead. I used to despise that commercial. Not anymore. Back to school time for our ministry equals kids returning from summer camps, family vacations, and cottages. And although the church program year gets crazy-busy pretty quickly for all of us in ministry, there are a few things that I believe we can all keep in mind and be doing before it goes into full-on excitement.
I take a day each week to pray for a particular grade of youth in our church, including their families. On the seventh day, I pray for our adult volunteers. It keeps your ministry in focus on the people God has called you to serve.
2. Use mid-late August to your advantage.
Many families tend to go away in the beginning of August because most camps/mission trips are over by then; which means that by mid-August, you have a bunch of bored teenagers sitting around at home. Plan an event to culminate the end of summer and get kids geared up for the start of the school year! And tell them to invite their friends! Need a few ideas? Trip to an amusement park, scavenger hunt, head to one of the lakes, laser tag, a picnic in the park … you get the idea!
3. Put a lot of effort into September events/Sunday school/youth group.
We should be putting forth our best efforts for ministry all year, but September is pretty important. For all of those kids who are just showing up at youth group for the first time ever, teens transitioning into high school, and new kids on the block, this is where we make our first impressions. If what they get is lackluster, has the appearance of “just thrown together,” or doesn’t ring of honesty, those kids will sniff out the falseness within moments of entering your youth room. And probably won’t return.
4. Clean House.
This goes for everything. Take some of your “down time” to go through old youth group plans, games, Sunday school lessons, and events. What isn’t working? What’s not helping to accomplish the goals of your ministry? Toss it. Go through your Sunday school rooms and youth
rooms. Clean out the old stuff. Put new stuff on the bulletin boards. Add some pizzazz with paint, glittery borders, and pictures of your group being together. Check your roster and update it. Who’s moved? Who’s graduated? Start the year with a clean feeling.
5. Pray some more.
I think as ministers, it can be easy for us to forget the importance of prayer in our daily lives. Prayer is how we stay connected in our relationship to Jesus Christ. If we aren’t connected, then we’re not allowing God to fully use us in ministry to others. So pray. A lot.
Youth ministry leaders, what are some of your back-to-school tips?