Saturday, April 21, 2018

We've GOT to pray

My last post touched on the change in attitude people undergo when the status of a behavior moves from privilege to responsibility, and in giving relevant examples, I mention the challenge of getting students to pray in school. That specific example calls forth a substantial number of other dimensions of thinking and is a difficult subject because student reluctance stems from much more than the simple nature of obligation.

Students at a young age want to please authority figures. They engage in prayer whether or not they understand because they don't generally question their teachers and parents. Some do recognize that prayer can be boring or tedious so (when they are still young enough) we inject song into the process hoping that they will enjoy the experience more.

But as they age, they get pulled aside by all those other societal influences. At any given moment, young people, especially those brought up to embrace the trappings of the modern, secular world, are enticed by sensory inputs, experiences and interactions that are important in that moment. That fear of missing out is intense and time allocated for prayer becomes an unwelcome interruption. Even those with nothing better to do might be reluctant for a variety of reasons:

1. Faith begins to be reconsidered and uncomfortable questions beg to be asked. Many have no answer and this makes certain aspects of prayer empty.
2. Students start to celebrate their own individuality and rebel against the conformity of any group activity.
3. There is less and less urge to please the adults.
4. A common tendency is to reject anything that is imposed regardless of its nature.
5. Especially in a school setting, prayer times show little in terms of return. Classes lead to grades. Prayer isn't always obviously answered and one cannot be graded on one's performance.
6. Prayer in a foreign language is difficult and even in translation the references and concepts are alien. The topics aren't relevant or current.
7. Institutionalized prayer is repetitive with the same text said every day. This leads to boredom.
8. Prayer requires sustained attention and focus, neither of which is especially valued by teenagers.
9. Teenagers sleep less and less so prayer services which rely on silent reading or individual worship become nap times.

So when we try to solve the issue of prayer we are fighting against a large number of challenges. This is what drives many (myself included) to rely on the "fear of negative consequences" angle I mentioned in the previous post. If this fear is of local response (within the school), in the short term it will have the most direct effect on controlling behavior, but it might also be incredibly corrosive in most cases. A larger fear such as an existential threat outside the school can work but once that threat is resolved, the status quo ante resumes, and one should never hope that there will be some calamitous situation just so that students can see the value of prayer. There are stop gaps, such as making personal connections with students so that they will feel a sense of personal responsibility to an authority figure. This works when the student has the moral core to care about what someone else thinks but sadly this is often not the case. Additionally, it is difficult to carry this technique forward for any larger number of students. In the school setting, the ratio of teacher to student makes this practice hard to work on with any meaningful percentage of a group. Smaller prayer groupings would also help though this is contraindicated if one purpose is to foster a unified community, or if one lacks the man power and/or physical space to make it work. Education regarding the words and ideas is useful but cannot overcome the problems of faith which cannot be taught.

So what's the bottom line? We can acknowledge how difficult it is and help the students by admitting our own struggles. We can banish outside influences (in the community, the school or the prayer room) and hope that with no other pressures, students will allow themselves to engage. We can see ourselves as spiritually warehousing them and hope that through a gap year program, time and maturation, they will start to choose for themselves to become more involved in the process of prayer. We could make prayer optional, or attenuate the content. We could provide appropriate positive reinforcement and consequences to reward engagement. Each of these (or any other) options has serious risk and potential benefit and any combination has to be implemented keeping in mind the possible damage.

I'm open to other ideas and discussion. Thanks for listening to me rant.

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