Prayer and Adolescence: Can Formal Instruction Make a Difference?

Mar. 24, 2016

Source: Religious Education, 111:2, 200-221


This design experiment in prayer education for Jewish students was motivated by a current educational concern: educating for spirituality and religious practice. Educators are tasked with formally nurturing spirituality (Wright 2001). It is known that attitude to religious observance may change during adolescence (Hyde 1963), thus attitude to prayer needs attention. The effects/consequences of prayer understanding reach beyond religious practice itself, to encompass issues of faith, identity, spiritual development and well-being (Sigel 2009). Here quantitative and qualitative analysis is used to measure the effects of a tefillah (prayer and its understanding) course on student attitudes to prayer.

There was a marked improvement in students’ appreciation of the conceptual and spiritual underpinnings of prayer, including minyan. The notion of connectedness to God continued to be a focus in thinking about prayer. New thinking emerged from students’ self reflection on personal worthiness as it applies to prayer. They began to contemplate question such as: What might be the reason for my prayer remaining un-answered? What kind of a person am I? These musings point to a burgeoning sense of spiritual development. They also demonstrate how understandings of prayer may provide an opportunity for personal growth, and for helping to develop religious identity. Indeed Fowler (1981) suggests that personal faith is more than identity. It is a way of being, the foundation of a meaningful life.

An improvement was seen in students’ approach to prayer and its meaningfulness. This ties in to research on personal prayer and perceived meaning in life (ap Sion and Francis 2009). My study looked for measurable changes in personal commitment to prayer, according to the theory of Georg Kerschensteiner (in Arend 2001) that education should leave lasting changes in students’ knowledge and personal character. Student feedback highlighted the discussions on minyan as having affected their attitude to prayer. It has been argued that spiritual experience is strongly linked to the emotional aspect of personality (Hyde 2004). The deeper thinking about feelings during prayer here can be viewed as a foundation for a deeper commitment to prayer. Prayerful feelings bode well for well-being. Research has shown that religious experiences during adolescence promote long-term physical well being and higher self-esteem.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the nurturing of the emotional foundation for prayer and faith in a student (Lichtenstein 2008), can lead to a greater personal commitment to prayer. This, forming a part of a prayerful, moral way of being. Moreover, prayer-in-practice includes the notion of communal prayer and religious service attendance. The latter has been shown to be a context for values reinforcement (Regnerus and Elder in Regnerus, Smith, and Fritsch 2003), creating a “moral community” (Bearman and Bruckner in Regnerus, Smith, and Fritsch 2003), which is of critical importance in adolescence.

Some of the research areas saw weak response. These included notions of religious identity and belonging to a faith community. Regarding identity students were asking, What kind of moral and religious person am I? But absent was sustained thought on the ways that identity is shaped when one’s daily life includes prayer. It did not seem that students’ personal narratives, or constructions of self (Mayer 2000), were broadened to include the spiritual dimension of their lives. Similarly, while there was a religious-conceptual growth in understanding of the meaning of communal prayer, this was not strongly linked to notions of identity and community. Watson (2009) has used Bakhtin’s notions of meaning-making as emanating from dialogue and inter-personal relationships to describe how community undergirds themeaningful development of identity. Accordingly communal prayer and classroom explorations of the meanings of prayer, in a faith community, should be useful tools in promoting the identity development of students.

Updated: Apr. 20, 2016