A couple of years ago I spent a few unexpected weeks in a non-English speaking hospital in Germany after emergency surgery while on holiday. It was a difficult and frightening time. Once I was able to walk, one of the staff showed me the little prayer room near my ward. Every evening, as the hospital quietened down for the night, I would go and sit in there for an hour before turning out my light and going to sleep. It was a quiet, peaceful place. The walls were draped in a light yellow sheer fabric, the seats were comfortable, the lighting was dimmed, there were a couple of peaceful paintings on the wall, a wooden cross, and a Bible. Simple. Peaceful. Restful. Inviting. In the silence of every evening I sat there and talked to God. I was constantly in prayer during those days, but the quiet hour spent in a room set apart especially for such communion was particularly precious. In my mind I still go back into that room. It was a safe place and God met me there. (As an aside, I remember even then, when I really wasn’t very well, thinking about how much better it could have been if there were some interactive things in the room to help people pray.)
Hospitals often have prayer rooms, places where family and friends as well as patients can find some solace and comfort. These spaces are most often interfaith and they get used by both the faithful believer and those who wouldn’t call themselves religious. At times of trial, even those who do not claim to have a faith turn to God or a higher being for help and comfort. It’s less typical to find a similar prayer room in a church building. Churches generally focus on their meeting place as the central space for prayer. The purpose of the meeting space is to encourage meeting with God in a corporate way. Sometimes there’s a back room where the clergy and lay people might meet for a prayer meeting or prayer before a worship service. But a small prayer room isn’t a typical space. I think it’s worth putting some effort into making one, no matter what style of corporate worship you enjoy.
We worked for a few years in a church which had an old chapel styled building with several small side rooms. My role was to work with the community and find ways to connect the community into the church. We had a lot of different groups coming in and out of our buildings and so we turned one of the small rooms into a multi-sensory prayer room. It was really interesting seeing how the room was used. Many of the church going regulars had keys to the church and would come in and use the room during the week. Other church going regulars would use it on a Sunday morning, before or after their worship service. It intrigued me to see the different responses the church going regulars had to the room. For some it was a highlight of their worship experience, and they enjoyed the quiet stillness the space afforded, for others, it was an unneccessary use of the room when there was already a lovely chapel in which to pray. Some enjoyed the hands-on approach and loved to take advantage of the tactile prayers, while others would tidy up what they perceived as mess.
What intrigued me even more was the reaction to the room by different people from the community who were in and out of the building for all kinds of classes and events, both church based and community based. In particular our church run weekly preschool music and movement group had adults and kids regularly using the prayer room. There were queues some mornings as people stopped in for their little weekly communion with God. This was by far more exciting to me than the use of the room by the regular churchgoers. This non-threatening space gave people a chance to interact at their own pace and level. There wasn’t anyone watching them. It was comfortable and safe. They didn’t have to act in a certain way or say a particular set of words. There was no church culture that they had to step into and imitate. It was a comfortable space in which they could be themselves. They could talk to their children about faith and experience something of God together. I’d never really know who was using it from day to day, but every so often someone would stop and chat to me about something they’d experienced as they sat or knelt or stood in the room and prayed. God was at work in their lives.
So here’s some ideas for setting up a prayer room or space within your church building.
- The Room – Do you have a small room in your existing space you could repurpose as a prayer room? If you don’t have a room, you could set up a space using screens to create a defined area.
- Remove the clutter – Take everything out of the space. Churches are often the recipients of unwanted large furniture items and these items usually find their way into small seldom used rooms. Be a little ruthless. Find somewhere else for the excess furniture to sit, or even consider getting rid of it!
- Lighten the walls – White paint! With a bit of elbow grease and some basic white paint, you can brighten up a room quickly and cheaply. Paint the walls, ceilings and doors plain white. It’s light and you can then add in fabric and props as required for your various prayers.
- Seating – You may want to be flexible with your seating in your room and change it according to the types of prayers you have displayed. Different people will respond in different ways to the space. Some will pass through quickly and will only want to stand, while others will want to spend some time in the space so will prefer to sit. Depending on the needs of your potential prayer room users, may determined what kind of seating you supply. Whether floor cushions, bean bags, a rocking chair, an armchair or a wooden stool, the style of your seating and the position of it in the room will set the tone and provide an indication on how you expect people to interact in the space.
- Small tables – Use several smaller tables to arrange your prayers. Think about the height of the prayers and match the furniture to the type of prayer. Do you want participants to stand, kneel, sit? Rather than having fixed furniture, change it around depending on the prayers you’re using.
- Lighting – You may want to change this around depending on your prayers, but try to create soft lighting by using a lamp, fairy lights or battery candles. Make it easy for yourself and for those who will be using the room. Having all the lights plugged into a multi power box means there is only one switch your prayer room visitor may need to turn on when they enter and exit.
- Heating – If the room is likely to be cold, add in a small heater so that your participants can feel warm and cosy when they’re praying. Choose a heater which will have an automatic switch to turn off if left on too long. Alternatively, get the person who unlocks and locks up the building each day to turn the heater on and off.
- Draperies and wall coverings – You may want to use the walls to display visual image or instructions for the prayers. You could also have sheer draped curtains or fabric which could be put up or pulled down depending on the prayers. The softness of the fabric helps soften the room and creates a softer feeling for the participant. Add a couple of cuddly throws or blankets. This gives an added sense of security and warmth to the room.
- Practical instructions – Tactile prayers are messy. Whether you’re picking up stones and putting them in water, cutting up small pieces of paper, peeling mandarins or pressing paper flags into a sand saucer, there is potential for mess. Have a general instruction to leave the room ready for the next person. You may want more specific instructions related to each prayer.
- Think in themes – I like to group three to five prayers together by theme. Generally this is related to seasons, both calendar and church calendar. Prayers on Spring, Autumn, Winter and Spring provide metaphors to build from in spiritual lives. The church calendar seasons of Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Advent all lend themselves to themed stations. Other themes could be topical; Elections, natural disasters, local social issues.
- Think across the senses – Use the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and feel when you plan your prayers. What physical ideas can you incorporate into your prayers? The use of the senses helps ground the prayers, taking the ordinary and connecting it to the sacred.
- Think in faith stages – The room will be used by a variety of different people who will be operating at varying levels of faith and understanding. Provide a range of starting points, so that someone new to the faith or even pre-faith can pray but also that someone who has a long faithful heritage can also pray. I’ve generally found, if you keep it simple, those who want to make their prayer more complex will do so, but if you make your prayer instructions too complicated, it just doesn’t get used.
- Think across developmental ages & stages – What appears interesting to a five year old, may not appeal to a fifty-five year old. Different people have different skills in physical manipulation. Include prayers which are easy to use. Simple prayers like placing a stone in a bowl is accessible to everyone whether old or young.
- Think of different types of prayer – I like to group my prayers by the following types and when I plan my prayer room content I select two or three types of prayer, with one prayer based on each type or on some occasions I’ll make the Prayer Room totally Intercession or Confession prayers.
- Praise and thanksgiving
- Petition and supplication
- Think of equipment – Go through the exercise of praying all of the prayers yourself in the room to make sure your equipment works. Do you need to add extra things such as paper towels or a basin of water, a small brush and shovel to sweep up bits, newspaper on the floor, a rubbish bin? All these practical details make the prayer room able to be used and reused.
- Think of instructions – Keep your instructions to the minimum reading required. Less is more. But usually instructions are required in some form. If you can put some of your instructions in visual form; photos showing the various steps, diagrams or cartoons, speech bubbles with each step.
- Think of the space and the people – Some people will want to stand to pray. They’ll want to have their flight plan in place in case they want to leave the room quickly. Others will feel more comfortable seated and will intend to stay for a while. Getting the space right takes some time. This is about knowing those who will use your prayer room and how they might interact with it. There’s a balance between creating a private space and not a trapped space. Experiment with the space and get feedback from a variety of people. Remember that there’ll be a mixture of reactions and no one perfect way to set up your room.