Soccer practice. Swim meets. Youth group. SAT classes. Algebra tutors. Community service hours. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. Tumblr. AP exams. College essays. Homework. Homework. Homework. Piano lessons. Football games. Friday night. Weekend plans. Lacrosse. Track. Friends. Parents. Siblings.
I am constantly amazed at the sheer energy that students possess and even more impressed by their capacity for engagement and connection. There are so many good and meaningful activities and commitments vying for their time. However, last fall as I interviewed students about their most meaningful experiences of worship, one answer kept resurfacing: I feel most connected to God during the time of silent prayer. Now, let’s be honest, the “time” of silent prayer in my Presbyterian congregation is between 10 and 20 seconds depending on which person is leading that day. It’s not a long time, but they notice it.
These same students who are hyperconnected and super-scheduled crave time to be still in God’s presence. As a young-ish person myself, my smartphone feels more like a necessary appendage than a device, so I get the connectedness and scheduling. I am thankful for technology and all it offers, but I do think our young people — and our young-ish people — need time to rest in the sacred, holy space of God’s embrace.
For me, that time happens through prayer, so when it comes time for our confirmation retreat each year, it is all about prayer — though I think the retreat activities and discussions can work for people of various ages and in different settings.
Let me share: our eighth graders spend the day at a very generous member’s lake house — without cell phones. We talk about prayer: Is there a “right” way to pray? Does God hear all of our prayers? Did Jesus pray? What does Jesus say about prayer? Then we take 15 minutes of quiet where the students each take a small paper bag outside to collect three items that remind them of God. When we gather back together, we each share one item and what it reveals to us about God.
After a lunch break and some exciting rounds of prize bingo, we gather back for the afternoon. We talk about different types of prayer and different ways of connecting with God. The next hour is spent in silence as the students move through various prayer stations that are set up around the house: praying through art, braided prayers, praying the examen, praying with play dough, candle-lighting, journaling, praying with the newspaper, praying through music. Some folks go and sit on the dock. They can spend as much time as they want at each station. After an hour, we gather to reflect together.
What I want most deeply for the young people I shepherd is for them to feel connected to the One who is bigger than their athletics or applications or achievements, to the God who loves them completely. Our young people need the time and the space to nurture that connection, to rest in it, and to be challenged and shaped by it. That is my prayer.
LAUREN WHEELER SCHARSTEIN is the associate pastor for youth and families at The Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair (N.J.). A Columbia Seminary grad, she previously taught in Kenya with the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program.