Watching a young child is so fascinating. Do they come into the world with a clean blank slate or already intelligent and already hardwired on some basic levels waiting for their body to catch up? One of the few questions that I recollect from Developmental Psychology 4 years ago, a class that proved almost too much for me. I can't say which is true, but this I know, a small child learns by mimicking others.
Talking, walking, eating, opening a door, all actions that are seen verbally or heard and imitated over time. Learning by doing.
How do you teach someone to pray who has never really prayed before? I would say the same way you teach a child how to talk or walk. You spend lots of time around them in the act of walking and talking or praying.
We have scripture yes, Matthew 6 tells us prayer should be personal, not at all flashy or religious. Luke 11 shows us that the disciples did not understand prayer, they needed to be taught. We learn there too that prayer should not be wordy, drawn out, but sincere, honest, and expressionate. And we see in John that our prayer should be a conversation, sharing our heart and hearing God's heart in reply. Prayer should be listening.
But even still all these teachings can fail to make a connection when the receiver has never grown up around the terminology or seen prayer as habitual.
I find then that prayer must be taught by example. This spring I've been drawn together with a student here at UNC-W who not very long ago encountered God and decided to pledge his life. As I'm guiding him through scripture and showing him the way, I've also been modeling prayer.
I started by praying with him as often as possible, allowing him to hear my prayers, to see prayer as a habit for me. Then I slowly began to ask him to pray. First as we were alone, then later in public before our meal. I've asked him to pray in group settings, all this of which he first approached nervously and with a "not sure what I'm doing but ok I'll give it a try" mindset.
He's made progress. He's growing more comfortable with praying in public and is beginning to volunteer to pray for others. We're still just beginning with everything it means to follow Christ, but one thing is clear to me which I have learned in this. The Way can only be taught so much, but really, it must be shown through our actions and how we live our lives.