Adolescent Spirituality: What Can We Expect?

Les Parrott III

“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?” I asked. “Being a youth pastor,” Ron 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.” “Well, this is going to be a light-hearted lunch,” I quipped. Ron didn’t even crack a smile. He pushed the menu aside and kept right on 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? Ron pondered one question after the next. He barely touched his club sandwich, but when he did I threw in my two cents worth: “What can you expect? They are kids.” “That’s just it,” Ron fired back, “What can you expect? I mean I’m not thinking my kids should be Billy Graham or Mother Teresa, but what kind of spirituality, really, can you expect from teenagers?”

It has been more than six years since Ron and I had that lunch, but his question is one I have been trying to answer ever since. And after reading dozens of books, talking with hundreds of kids, and commiserating with many a youth minister about adolescent spirituality, I have come to a few conclusions.

Blunders in Building Adolescent Faith

In his play, Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot said, “The greatest sin is to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons.” He may be right, but it is just as sinful to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons. A young person’s budding faith can easily be damaged by a minister’s good intentions. Here are some of the most common mistakes made in trying to spur adolescents on to a more mature faith.

Using Guilt Motivation
No other age group carries around more guilt feelings than our 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 does not instill life-long qualities. It does not create a healthy sense of giving, for example. It creates a desire to clear one’s conscience and please those who are watching. But guilt, more than any other emotion, will sabotage a sincere minister’s efforts to build an adolescent’s faith for the long run.

Equating Spirituality with Youth Group Activity
It is easy to get caught in the trap of seeing our most spiritually devout kids as those who come to the most activities. But this is not necessarily the case. There are many activities that pull for a young person’s time and when we begin to equate their spiritual maturity with how dedicated they are to our program we are making a mistake.

Setting Expectations Too High
Another common blunder in building adolescent faith is to raise our expectations of teenage spirituality to unattainable heights. This is easy to do. For often, our high expectations of others emerge from the expectations we place on ourselves. But adolescents, of course, cannot be held to the same level of expectancy as adults. Newborn babies crave milk “to grow up in their salvation” (1 Pet 2:2). Placing unrealistic expectations on adolescents about their spiritual development insures failure and compounds guilt.

Setting Expectations Too Low
“If you expect perfection from people, your whole life is a series of disappointments, grumblings, and complaints,” wrote Bruce Barton. “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.” Perhaps there is some wisdom in Barton’s pessimistic outlook, but be cautious about taking it to heart. When youth workers loosen too many expectations about what a young person is capable of, they are communicating an unhealthy message. Adolescents aspire to lofty goals and by being too lax in our expectations we are bordering on a message that says they are not capable of reaching them. Setting expectations about adolescent spirituality too low can be just as detrimental as setting them too high. The key is balance, not too high and not too low.

What You Can Expect from Kids

If you are setting your expectations too high, for example, be sure to expect:

Spiritual Starts and Stops
Spiritual development does not progress in a steady direction toward a pinnacle of maturity. Feelings of emptiness are a part of human existence even along 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?

Unsettling Adjustments to New Insights
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, the world’s most noted authority on the development of the intellect, theorized that 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 may fit easily, or may require minor adjustment. Accommodation, on the other hand, is necessary when the new experience stretches a person beyond their comfortable limits, when it does not fit within their current beliefs, and goes beyond their structure of thought. A completely new insight regarding God is an example. Radical new ways of thinking about spiritual matters can launch an adolescent into an unsettling spiritual phase.

The Need for Healthy Models
Teenagers need models of vibrant spirituality in whom they respect and trust. They need to see faith lived out in peers as well as adults. Unhealthy models in places of spiritual authority only compound the struggle. If a young person lacks 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 support system, as well as a divine one. It is hard to maintain a belief in a flat earth unless you are surrounded and supported by people who believe in a flat earth.

Idealistic Thinking That Leads to Criticism
Because adolescents are so strongly idealistic, they may easily suffer disillusions and disappointment in the church. No church can adequately fulfill every ideal of every person. Young people are bound to be disappointed and even critical of their religiously committed parents, their youth pastor, and their church. Difficulty in coping with their own temptations further contributes to their disillusionment. They may begin to think the Christian life is “impossible.”

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. An unpleasant feeling at church is more important than the sermon content in determining whether a young person is drawn to a religious context.

If you are setting your expectations too low, you can expect:

A Desire to Know Right from Wrong
A great majority (92%) of youth want to learn more about values. It seems young people intuitively understand that strong-headed problems like violence, sexual promiscuity, drug use, and teen pregnancy can become less intractable if explicit values were taught and believed. According to W. Kilpatrick, author of Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong (Touchtone, 1993), young people seem to understand that if they do not learn self-discipline and respect for others, they will 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 is being echoed in the hearts of many young people today. They 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). When young people do not learn respect and justice from “those who call on the Lord,” problems of adolescent culture continue to soar.

A Commitment to Christian Community
Teenagers have a powerful psychological need to belong. And for adolescents with a developing faith, that longing is channeled into the church. While there are many things that compete for the time of teenagers, they respect a call of commitment to a group. Being held accountable by a group of caring peers, for example, is just what many teens are looking for. A structure that is explicit and even costly (meaning that other activities may be missed) adds to their desire to be a part of something that really matters. L. Richards, in Religious Education Ministry with Youth, reports on a study he conducted by asking teenagers, “How do you define Church?” Almost all gave a definition with strong relational dimension (e.g., “a group of people who care for each other and support each other”). You can expect teens to make a commitment to Christian community.

The Practicing of Spiritual Disciplines
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” So says W. Percy of life in general, but it is also true of life in the Christian faith. The adolescent search for genuine Christian faith is not easy. It is not simply a point of decision to follow Christ at the altar of an emotional youth camp. The quest must be bolstered by deliberate actions that nurture the faith. Adolescents understand the importance of spiritual disciplines in growing their faith and to expect that they are not 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.

An Emerging Other-Centerdness
Many youth workers emphasize a “vertical religion.” They focus on establishing and maintaining a close relationship to God. They emphasize prayer, worship, and other activities that keep one’s focus on God. But adolescents are also capable of a “horizontal religion” that impels them to reach out and care for other people. In fact, a study by P. Benson and his colleagues at the Search Institute revealed that about 30 per cent of young adolescents are vertically oriented, about 15 per cent are horizontally oriented, and about 55 per cent balance the vertical and horizontal dimensions of religion.

A Christ-Centered Lifestyle
Ultimately, we must be clear about one thing. Adolescents can make a genuine and meaningful decision to accept Christ as their Savior. While the ways in which they think and feel about faith may be different from an adult faith, and while they may even 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 remains, though, “What does the adolescent Christ-centered life look like?” Ecclesiastes 1:18 says that with much knowledge comes much grief. This is true. And this is why persons in the midst of a new spiritual quest do not believe anything too much. They are fearful. They are in a moratorium of faith. But exploration is needed, for out of it comes the discovery of a newly found maturing faith. As Daloz states, “Our old life is still there, but its meaning has profoundly changed because we have left home, seen it from afar, and been transformed by that vision.”

Posted Mar 01, 2002