Adolescent Spirituality, What Can We Expect?

By Les Parrott III Posted on October 03 2009


How much commitment are teenagers capable of, anyway? Do we subtly—even unconsciously—exact a degree of devotion that is way above or below the ability of most teenagers to crank up?

"I don't know if all this makes any difference." The sentence fell out of Ron's mouth as he slid into the restaurant booth to join me for lunch.

"What are you talking about?"

"Being a youth pastor," he muttered. "Does it really make a difference? I mean, I put on all these activities, I have creative Bible studies—but I don't think my kids get it."

This will be a light-hearted lunch, I thought.

Ron pushed the menu aside and kept talking about the puzzle of adolescent spirituality. Is church just another social event for them? Do they understand the transforming grace of God? Can they practice any spiritual discipline? He pondered one question after another. When he finally stopped long enough to take a bite of his club sandwich, I threw in my two cents' worth.

"What can you expect? They're kids."

"Exactly," Ron fired back. "What can you expect? I mean, I'm not thinking they should be Billy Graham or Mother Teresa—but really, what kind of spirituality can you expect from teenagers?"

That lunch was six years ago, but I've been trying to answer Ron's question ever since. After reading dozens of books, talking with hundreds of kids, and commiserating with many a youth minister about adolescent spirituality, I've come to a few conclusions.

It's no secret that religious beliefs change as children enter and pass through adolescence. Teens, for example, are less likely than children to believe in literal translations of the Bible. Children report they believe in God because their parents told them God exists. On the other hand, adolescents rely more on rational thinking in their faith than on parental precepts. They believe in God because, for example, the universe is orderly.

The work of James Fowler, of course, ranks among the more extensive studies on how faith changes as people age. After interviewing people of all ages from a variety of backgrounds, Fowler delineated six stages of faith development of adolescent spirituality (they come in three pairs), and they're worth remembering.

The first stage is what Fowler calls mythical-literal faith, the level at which most adolescents begin their spiritual journey. Operating at a preteen and concrete level, adolescents respond to religion according to their cognitive capacity. Persons at this stage view religious stories and music in literal, concrete ways. They perceive God in human form somewhere in the sky. They accept their religious heritage, no questions asked.

Next is synthetic-conventional faith. In early adolescence, with their increased capacity to think abstractly ("formal operations"), the young person's principal task is to relate his or her own religious views with the incompatible views of others. They may conceive of God as a personal adviser and guide, but in a less personalized fashion than previously.

The final stage in Fowler's model of adolescent spiritual development isindividual-reflective faith, though not all adolescents reach this stage in their faith development. Those who do, however, engage in critical self-reflection and examination of their beliefs and values. Such questioning leads to individual and personal religious beliefs. These adolescents view God in more abstract ways—not as a personal advisor, but as a spirit embodying moral truths and personal presence.

The upshot of Fowler's overview is simply that adolescent spirituality is different—different from a child's spirituality, different from an adult's spirituality. Which means, first and foremost, that we must put ourselves in teenagers' shoes.

THINK SMALL, reads a sign on the classroom desk of a kindergarten teacher I know. Sure, we all know that adolescent faith development is different. Yet we must continually "think teen" and understand that every adolescent is in a singular phase of faith development.

Such empathy will keep you from common mistakes about cultivating spiritual formation. "The greatest sin is to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons," wrote T. S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral. It's just as sinful, I think, to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons. A young person's budding faith can be easily damaged by a minister's good intentions. Here are four common errors I've seen adults commit as they try to spur adolescents on to a more mature faith.

  • Motivating by guilt. No other age group carries around more feelings of guilt than teenagers. They are plagued with unrealistic self-expectations and a relentless conscience. So why do we use guilt to motivate the already self-punishing? Because it works. Guilt gets results—but only for the short run. Guilt fails to instill life-long qualities—a healthy sense of giving, for example. It instead creates a desire to clear one's conscience and please those who are watching. And more than any other emotion, guilt sabotages a sincere minister's efforts to build an adolescent's faith for the long run.
     
  • Equating spirituality with youth group activity. It's an easy trap to get caught in. There are simply too many activities these days that demand a young person's time. It's simply inaccurate to gauge kids' spiritual maturity by how dedicated they are to our programming.
     
  • Setting our expectations for teenagers too high. A common reason people expect much of a person emerges from their own high self-expectations. Obviously, adolescents cannot be held to the same level of expectancy as adults. Newborn babies crave milk "to grow up in their salvation," writes the apostle (1 Pet. 2:2). Placing unrealistic expectations on adolescents about their spiritual development ensures failure and compounds guilt. 

    "If you expect perfection from people, your whole life is a series of disappointments, grumblings, and complaints," wrote Bruce Barton, a businessman, politician, and author early in this century. "If, on the contrary, you pitch your expectations low, taking folks as the inefficient creatures which they are, you are frequently surprised by having them perform better than you had hoped." 
     
  • Setting too-low expectations for teenagers. There is certainly wisdom in Barton's realism—but don't follow it exclusively. Setting expectations of adolescent spirituality too low can be as detrimental as setting them too high. When youth workers loosen too many expectations about what a young person is capable of, they communicate an unhealthy message. Adolescents aspire to lofty goals; and by holding lackluster expectations of them, we imply that they aren't capable of reaching higher ones.

So you successfully sidestep these errors in motivating kids to deeper faith. Yet the question remains: what can you realistically expect spiritually from your youth group?

Popular opinion holds that teenagers have scant interest in religion. Adults from Socrates to William Bennett have fretted and fussed over the spiritual state of the younger generation.

Yet it's simply not true that young people have lost their sense of heritage and religious values. A recent Gallup Youth Survey reports that a majority of American young people continue to consider religion important in their lives. About seven teenagers in 10 say they agree with the statement that they are religious persons, including 19 percent who agree very strongly. Among the remaining three in 10 who disagree, only five percent strongly assert they are not religious.

If you tend to expect a lot from your teenagers, lower your sights a bit to these realistic expectations:

Expect spiritual starts and stops.

Spiritual development does not progress at a steady direction toward a pinnacle of maturity. Feelings of emptiness are a part of human existence, even on the spiritual journey. A young person may experience an emotional rush during the days, weeks, or even months following a new spiritual commitment, but eventually this energy dissipates and questions arise that may cause doubt. This process is natural. It is endemic to spiritual growth. Some theologians see doubting as a dynamic ancillary to belief and not necessarily in opposition to it. A strong faith is not the result of avoiding questions, but of working with doubt. If there are no mountains without valleys, can there be faith without doubt or answers without questions?

Expect unsettling adjustments to new insights.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, the world's most noted authority on the development of the intellect, theorized there are two different ways people come to understand new information—assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process by which a person makes an effort to take new information and join it to their existing thinking. The new experience either may fit easily or require minor adjustment.

Accommodation, on the other hand, is necessary when the new experience stretches a person beyond his or her comfortable limits—when it does not fit within their current beliefs, and goes beyond their structure of thought. Case in point: an adolescent's completely new insight about God. Radical new ways of thinking about spiritual matters can launch an adolescent into an unsettling spiritual phase.

Expect the need for healthy models.

Teenagers need models of vibrant spirituality whom they respect and in whom they have confidence. They need to see faith lived out in peers as well as in adults. Unhealthy models as spiritual authorities only compound the struggle. If young people lack a formative community of friends who share a common faith, they may have a difficult time developing a religious commitment. Most sociologists believe faith is kept alive by a human as well as a divine support system. It's hard to maintain your belief in a round earth when you're surrounded by people who fear falling off its edge.

Expect idealistic thinking that leads to criticism.

Because adolescents are so strongly idealistic, they easily suffer disillusion with and disappointment in the church. Yet no church can adequately fulfill every ideal of every person. Disappointed young people are bound to be critical of their religiously committed parents, their youth pastor, and their church. Their own difficulty in coping with temptations further contributes to their disillusionment. They may begin to think that the Christian life is impossible.

Expect a faith built mostly on emotions.

Adolescents are more emotional than cognitive. They remember feelings more readily than facts. Concerning their church, they know exactly how they feel about last Sunday's service even when they cannot remember what was said or taught. A young person's unpleasant feeling at church is more influential than sermon content when it comes to whether he or she is drawn to a religious context.

If you tend to not expect much from your kids spiritually, recognize that they are capable of much more than you think:

Expect a desire to know right from wrong.

The large majority (92 percent) of youths want to learn more about values. Young people intuitively understand that strong-headed problems like violence, sexual promiscuity, drug use, and teen pregnancy can become less formidable if explicit values are taught and believed. According to William Kilpatrick, author of Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, young people seem to understand that if they do not learn self-discipline and respect for others, they'll continue to exploit each other sexually, no matter how many health clinics and condom-distribution plans are created. The timeless message of Paul and Timothy echoes in the hearts of many young people today, young people who want to "flee evil" and "pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace." They are looking for courageous models "who call on the Lord out of a pure heart" (2 Tim. 2:22). If young people don't learn respect and justice from "those who call on the Lord," problems of adolescent culture will continue to soar.

Expect a commitment to Christian community.

Teenagers have a powerful psychological need to belong—a longing that, for adolescents with a developing faith, can be channeled into the church. While all sorts of demands compete for teenagers' time, they respect a call of commitment to a group. Being held accountable by a group of caring peers, in fact, is exactly what many teens are looking for. A structure that is explicit and even costly (meaning that other activities may be missed) only adds to their desire to be part of something that really matters.

In Religious Education Ministry with Youth, Lawrence Richards reports that when he asked teenagers "How do you define church?" nearly all defined the word with a strong relational dimension—for example, "a group of people who care for each other and support each other." You can expect teens to commit to Christian community.

Expect the practicing of spiritual disciplines.

Novelist Walker Percy writes of a search that "anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life." Just so, the adolescent's laborious search for genuine Christian faith is not a single, emotional, fireside decision at summer camp. A teenager's quest for faith must be bolstered by deliberate actions that nurture faith. Adolescents understand the importance of spiritual disciplines; to doubt they are ready for disciplined Bible study, genuine prayer, compassionate service, and weekly worship is a mistake. Teenagers need to be challenged to hike the mountain called maturity.

Expect an emerging other-centeredness.

Many youth workers emphasize what could be called a vertical Christianity—that is, establishing and maintaining a close relationship to God, with corresponding emphases on prayer, worship, and other activities that keep one's focus on God. Adolescents, however, are highly capable of a horizontal dimension to their Christianity that impels them to reach out and care for other people.

A Search Institute study by Peter Benson and colleagues revealed that about 30 percent of young adolescents are vertically oriented, about 15 percent are horizontally oriented—and 55 percent balance the vertical and horizontal dimensions of religion.

Expect a Christ-centered lifestyle.

We must be clear about one thing: adolescents can make a genuine and meaningful decision to accept Christ. While the ways in which they think and feel about their faith may be different than in an adult faith—and while they are inclined to live out the principles of faith differently—there is no need to doubt that adolescents can make a decision to live a Christ-centered life.

The question, though, remains: What does the Christ-centered life look like in an adolescent?

The Preacher writes truly that much knowledge brings much grief (Eccl. 1:18). Which is why persons in the middle of a new spiritual quest do not believe anything too much. They're fearful. They're in a moratorium of faith. But exploration is still necessary, for out of it comes the discovery of a newfound, maturing faith. "Our old life is still there," writes educator and author Laurent Daloz, "but its meaning has profoundly changed because we have left home, seen it from afar, and been transformed by that vision."

When it comes to cultivating adolescent spirituality, let's not miss the silver lining because we're expecting gold.




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