For Youth Workers Post

What Is Prayer?

Will Penner

“In the Habit” session for devozine meditations for November 18–24, 2013.



“Every evening at suppertime, my family participates in what we like to call a powwow. In the Native American tradition, this term refers to a time when people of various tribes gather together for singing, dancing, socializing, and passing on the tribal traditions, although the word itself actually comes from the Narragansett word powwaw, meaning ‘spiritual leader.’

“For my family, the purpose of the powwow is to provide some structure for looking back over our day’s highs and lows. Most of the time, we can find something in our day that didn’t go quite the way we’d hoped, something we might describe as a ‘pow.’ (In fact, often it might be something quite painful, so the word is quite appropriate.) We can also find at least one thing in our day for which we are incredibly grateful, an unexpected blessing or happy moment: a ‘wow.’” —Will



Will PennerWill Penner has been in ministry with young people for more than two decades in Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, public and private schools, and as a popular speaker at youth retreats, camps, and conferences. He has served as the editor of both leading professional journals of youth ministry and has authored or edited numerous youth ministry curricula and books, the latest of which is It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry. Most important, he is the husband of his amazing wife, Christine, and the father of five children ranging in age from 4 to 22.







Bring the group together. Start with a simple powwow. Explain that the “pow” is something negative from the week and the “wow” is something positive from the week.

People can do this in a number of different ways, but I prefer to begin by having everyone tell the group about a pow. Sometimes venting a little can be healthy and is not as emotionally risky (especially for adolescent boys) as looking at times for which we feel grateful. Beginning with pows also limits the discussion so that it doesn’t degenerate into an unhealthy gripe session. Ask each person to mention only one thing that was a bummer for the week. After everyone has had a turn to speak, then I allow everyone to tell the group about a wow. Allowing only one wow for each person, at least until everyone has had a chance to speak, encourages group members who tend to be overly vocal to focus in on their most significant positive experience for the week and provides structure for others who might not otherwise participate in a group discussion. After everyone has had a turn, I sometimes allow for a more free-form discussion by asking if anyone would like to talk about another wow. For the purpose of this lesson, I would move on.



Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:17

The NRSV translates this passage, “pray without ceasing.” The NIV reads, “pray continually”; the NLT, “Never stop praying”; The God’s Word paraphrase, “Never stop praying”; and The Message, “pray all the time.”

Most of us like the idea of praying all the time; the difficulty occurs in trying to practice it. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits), like many others in the Christian tradition, sought ways to create spiritual practices that help people “pray without ceasing.”

He taught his followers to look back over their day for periods of “desolation,” when they felt blocked from the presence of God, and periods of “consolation,” when they most strongly sensed God’s presence around them.

The saying Hindsight is 20/20 means that looking back at the past, we often see patterns we can’t see in the present. But when we regularly reflect on God’s activity in the past, we build up our ability to sense God’s activity in the present. The prayer of St. Ignatius in which we look for God’s activity in our days is known as the Examen.

When my son Daniel was three, he often said that his pow was having to take a nap and his wow was getting to play with friends. And he got older, we began to reframe the question so that we looked for the times during the day when we felt the absence or presence of God.

Invite the group to another Powwow. Invite them to look at the past week and to consider when God seemed absent (pow) and when God seemed present (wow). Spend remaining time continuing the process, either by generalizing beyond the week (month, semester, year, life) or by being narrowing the time or situation: What are the desolations and consolations (pows and wows) during worship services? in Sunday school? during the last youth group outing? in recent family dynamics? at lunchtime in school?



Pray the following prayer, inviting group members to respond by saying, “Amen.”

God, we know you have been with us even during the pows. No matter how desolate our lives, you are with us; and we are grateful. We also thank you for our wows. We are consoled by the knowledge of your continual presence in our lives, and we ask that you help us become more aware of your presence so that we not only reflect on your presence in the past, but also notice you in the present moment. Amen.



  • The Examen can be replicated practically anywhere at any time. We can search back through our past day, week, month, or lifetime (or Sunday school class, retreat, or journey of faith) to find moments of desolation and consolation. The prayer requires no mediator, teacher, or curriculum. It offers an opportunity to reflect on a piece of our lives. Challenge group members to try this practice at the end of each day, either with others (friends or family members) or by themselves.
  • A terrific book with more on this practice is Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn; Paulist Press, 1995. It would be a great book to give to the youth or youth leaders as a gift.
  • For more information about how the Examen can be used to help shape youth ministry at your church, check out Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus, by Mark Yaconelli; Youth Specialities, 2002.
—from devozine In the Habit (November/December 2013). Copyright © 2013 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.
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