Multi-Sensory Prayer – Part 2 – Creating a Prayer Room for church and community use

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 Space

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

The Prayers

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
    • Confession
    • Intercession
    • Responsive
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
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Multi-Sensory Prayer – Part 1 – Creating an ambient worship space for personal prayer and reflection

Confession. I pray with my eyes open. If I shut them, my mind dances off into fairyland. And I don’t very often bow my head. Or get on my knees. Praying at night in my bed is a great getting to sleep technique – not a good way to pray. Every time I start a morning routine of praying as the first thing to do before I get into my day  – it lasts three days at the most. I don’t really like praying out loud. Actually, I don’t always like praying with words. Mostly I need to look at something or touch something to stay focussed on praying. Yep, on paper this looks like I’m not going to pass any test on being a praying type!  But I pray. A lot.

I believe in prayer for lots of reasons. Firstly, prayer is my communication with God and God’s communication with me. How can I expect to have any relationship with Jesus if I’m not going to communicate? Secondly, prayer changes things. Prayer changes situations and it changes my approach to situations. Things happen when we pray. God intervenes. Thirdly, prayer gives hope. In the face of difficulties, hope is everything. When it feels like nothing we can do is going to help a situation, then prayer is the something that we can engage with to bring hope.

I will pray anywhere and at anytime. For me I find looking at a tree, the sky, the grass, the sea, a bowl of fruit, a bunch of flowers… these things make it easier for me to start talking to God. Instead of being distracted by what I’m seeing, they soothe my mind and bring me to a state of peaceful flow as I talk and sit with God.  Even better, if I have something to fidget with in my hands I’ll stay even more focussed on my prayer. A fidgety praying type came up with the idea of rosary beads I’m sure!

Increasingly in our world today as we are bombarded with noise and bustle, images and sounds, people are realising the importance of what is trendily called, “mindfulness”. Tools and tips to develop mindfulness are everywhere. Essentially, mindfulness is a state focussing on the present moment and calmly acknowledging and accepting without judgement what is going on in your thoughts, feelings and actions. There is hunger for this mindfulness and people are responding to needing it in their lives. There is also an increased awareness of spirituality in our culture, not neccessarily Christian, but an underlying acceptance of a creator, a powerful life force, something beyond ourselves.

Thanks to the age of technology we are also more visual than we’ve ever been before. Social media, particularly Instagram and Pinterest are full of beautiful images and millions of people all over the world share and participate in the visual experiences of others via these platforms. Souls hungry for being fed with visual image can feast on a daily stream.  There is an increasing openness to a ‘sabbath’ like approach to the week, taking some time out and resting and this is reflected in social media.

We’re also more tactile. We like things that have some hands on action to them. We hunger for experiences. I was interested to read last week that makeup sales in NZ have increased by 16% last year. I’m guessing that this is because people are being photographed more, out experiencing things, and subsequently sharing it on their social media. These experiences going out and about are not just about photo opportunities. Around us, we’re putting more effort into how things look and feel, and not just in relation to personal appearances Take a walk around any city and find the trendy cafe spots. They’re destinations as well as places which serve food. Fairy lights, funky art, rustic mismatched chairs and crockery, dog water bowls, colouring pencils, blankets, lanterns, heaters, ivy covered walls, hanging plants, eclectic ornaments… these are places where people want to hang out. To be. To live. To breathe. To engage. Possessions aren’t so important anymore. People want experiences.

What a great time we live in to experience prayer in new ways. I’m pretty sure I would have survived the prayer trappings of any other period of Christian history and retained my faith, but I sure am glad to be able to live out my faith in today’s world. It’s rich and varied and visual and tactile and responsive.

I’m going to blog about some of my multi-sensory prayer ideas over the next few weeks. But today I thought I’d blog about setting up a personal prayer and reflection space. I probably should start with a disclaimer. A pretty place to pray is not essential to prayer. We worship a God who comes right to where we are and understands us! We don’t need to gussy up ourselves or our surroundings for God to intervene in our lives. Omnipresent and all powerful, full of love and grace and forgiveness and acceptance – we worship a mighty and awesome God who loves and accepts us just the way we are.  So it’s not for God I’m suggesting these ideas – it’s for people like me, easily distracted if I shut my eyes, like to keep my hands busy, get inspired by visual surroundings, multi-tasker, appreciator of creativity and a strong believer in prayer being able to change things.

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So here’s my ideas on creating your own private prayer and reflection space.

  1. Finding the right spot – Where do you feel inspired and settled? Choose somewhere warm and light filled. It might be a chair on a porch or deck or in the garden, or maybe in a bedroom, a study or a lounge. If there’s not enough natural light, think of adding a lamp or a set of fairy lights or a candle.
  2. Set up a comfortable seat – What do you like to sit on? A deckchair, a beanbag, a rocking chair or a comfy armchair? Why not add a cushion? What about a cuddly rug to throw over your knees?
  3. Using your sense of smell – What smells make you feel refreshed and awake? I believe we totally underestimate the power of the sense of smell.  There are lots of ways you can add fragrance to your space such as a bunch of fresh flowers, a scented candle, a scented oil diffuser, a sliced lemon, a potted herb such as mint or a container of freshly ground coffee.
  4. Using your sense of touch – What could you do with your hands to maintain a prayerful state? Maybe you could keep a basket or box with some things to help you in your praying such as play-dough or silly putty, a stress ball, a fidget spinner, a smooth stone or pieces of different textured fabric to stroke.
  5. Using your sense of sight – What will your eyes see when you look around? You want to focus on things that will help you stay focussed on your prayer not distract you. A basket of shells or pieces of driftwood, a pretty plant, a painting or photograph, candles, fairy lights, a simple ornament.
  6. Using your sense of taste – What better way to sit companionably with someone than over a cup of tea or other favourite drink? So why not sit and sip your drink as you pray. Make yourself a jug of fruit infused iced water or a pot of coffee or tea. You might even like to pray with a glass of wine in your hand.
  7. Using your sense of hearing – What will fill your ears as you sit and pray? Maybe you’ve chosen a place where you can hear birds or insects or the sound of children playing or traffic or the sea. The setting might provide enough sound in itself. But if not, why not play tracks of background music or sounds of the sea or birds or water rushing. You can find all kinds of these things free on the internet or on apps for your phone or buy a CD.

So here’s the thing.  These ideas might not resonate with you at all.  And that’s okay. Because everyone is different and I totally respect that most people are not like me! But I know that there are people who are like me and that these ideas might just help, so if they do, and if you’ve never tried to create a prayer space for yourself but you think it might make a difference to your prayer life I’d encourage you to give it a go!  And message me and tell me how it’s working for you! I’d love to hear your stories.

Prayer Stations at Kohekohe Church

Our first Refreshment at the Station book has just been published so I thought it timely to reflect on our recent Church event on Sunday with our Avenues Church.  We just held our annual Avenues Prayer and Pizza event at this beautiful little historic church on Awhitu Peninsula in Auckland.  It’s an idyllic setting and one of a handful of times our Church family meets in a church building during the year. It’s also one of the very few times we have a front for our meeting!  Our prayer event includes some responsive prayers led from the front and then a dozen stations that participants can move around at their leisure, followed with a guitar prayer and some final responsive prayers.

It is fascinating how everyone approaches the stations differently.  We provide plenty of room for people to make their own choices… and if taking part in the stations isn’t someone’s cup of tea there is an alternative reflection provided – with an amazing view to look out upon to aid in the reflection.

There are those that breeze through the stations quickly and others who only manage to fit in a third of the stations in the time provided.  Some of our regulars are very ‘Station Savvy’ and explore in great detail faith questions at each station, while at this event we also had some newcomers who hadn’t experienced Station worship before and enjoyed the different way of coming to worship. As usual there was a mixture of engagement and time spent at different stations.

It’s been ages since Andrew and I have gone around Stations together.  When our kids were little, it was one child each, or if there were visitors we’d usually split to make sure everyone was comfortable.  These days visitors are scooped up by our regulars and so on this Sunday we went around together.   Another thing which always surprises me about stations is my own reaction to them.  By the time I’ve planned the service, written the stations, gathered the bits and pieces… it is delightful to me that i still discover new things when I move around the stations.  Perhaps it’s the opportunity to interact with others, or the time and space to pause and reflect… whatever it is – it’s powerful and moving and very faith refreshing!   The whole idea of refreshment at the station really rang true for me this last Sunday!

Of course the senses were fully engaged at this event!  I’m a bit of a foodie too – and the additional part of the day with pizzas cooked on an outdoor pizza oven further down the peninsula at Graham’s Beach really made it all very special, refreshing, relaxing and invigorating.

There is a book coming of course on Five Senses to Prayer.  It’s been about 10 years in the writing!  I just need to get organised and get into some serious organising of all the material!

The great thing about writing this kind of book as an e-book is that it will be filled with cross referenced hyperlinks – so you can navigate around it to find prayers that suit your worship event.   To be amongst the first to hear about it make sure you join our Kereru Club and/or like us on www.facebook.com/Kereru.Publishing

To see more photos of our Prayer and Pizza event you can find them on the Avenues facebook page www.facebook.com/AvenuesChurch and the Avenues website www.avenues.org.nz has some older photos from previous events too.

In the Beginning

After experimenting with creative and all age worship in a variety of one-off worship events, in 2001 we had the opportunity to create a different style of worship service as a regular event.  One of the startling discoveries we made way back at the beginning of Avenues has stayed with us as we’ve journeyed.  That’s the beauty of experimenting… sometimes you stumble on something that really works and it surprises and delights.

What we found in catering for children and using tactile experiences and open-ended questions, was that as well as catering for children we provided opportunities for adults to grow and develop in their own faith journeys.   The use of Stations was an early introduction in our journey.  We use them in a variety of ways. Stations allow all participants to take part in a non-threatening way and be as little or as much involved as they’d like.  The relaxed environment allows room for exploration and discovery at the pace the participant wants or needs or can cope with.  They arrive at the Station with whatever baggage they’re carrying and hopefully leave refreshed and reinvigorated in their faith journey.

We’re launching our ‘Refreshment at the Station’ series with ‘Stations for Lent and Easter’.   What better season than the highlight of the Christian calendar to choose for our first book in this series.  There are plenty of different ideas in this book to inspire and use in a variety of settings.  We’re really delighted to be able to share these resources with others.