Spirituality development in youth

This morning, I was a guest in an online course on youth ministry, taught by Megan Dowdell and Betty-Jeane Rueters-Ward, and offered through Starr King School for the Ministry. Megan and Betty-Jeane invited Lane Campbell and me to participate in a conference call, and answer a few questions about spiritual development for teenagers. I took notes on what I said, and below you’ll find my re-creation of my answers to Megan’s questions on spiritual development.

Question 1: How is spiritual development for youth different than for adults or children?

My answer: If we’re going to answer this question within the context of a religious community, I want to begin with theology. We have to go back to theological anthropology, and ask ourselves: What is the nature of human beings?

Within my own religious upbringing — my family has been Unitarian for generations, and we’re now Unitarian Universalists — I always heard a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw a divine spark within every human being, no matter what age. If the nature of human beings is that they have have some divine spark within them, then we are probably going to say that this divine spark doesn’t develop at all. I’d pretty much agree with Emerson on this point, although I’d probably argue with him about the nature of the divine spark. So I’m not convinced there’s much spiritual difference across ages; certainly, from the standpoint of theological anthropology, there’s no real difference between teenagers and adults.

This theological understanding played out in my own religious community. I was invited to become a full member of my church at age 14 — and there are many religious traditions where a religious community welcomes young persons into the adult community at about age 13 or 14 (think of confirmation, or bar and bat mitzvah, etc.). For my religious community, then, I find it to be theologically ridiculous to say youth differ spiritually in any significant way from adults. I’m willing to go further, and even say that children are spiritually the same as all human beings.

But — in reality, the norms of our society have made it so that today teenagers are different from adults. This is a change from a hundred and fifty years ago, when one of my great-great-grandfathers was working as a butcher at age 16, was married at age 17, and had a child at age 18. Today he’d be considered a mere teenagers, but back then he was acting like a responsible adult, with a job and a family. But then in the 20th century, Western society created the state of adolescence, which while it is a social construct is nonetheless real. Given today’s North American culture, many teenagers wind up acting quite differently than adults — they have fewer responsibilities, they are expected to act in certain ways, and so on — and the same is true of their spirituality — less responsibility, they’re supposed to act in certain ways, etc.

(One additional point I did not make in today’s conference call: from the standpoint of cognitive development, developmental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that cognitive development is essentially complete at age 14 or so, with the onset of formal operational thinking. For religious traditions based on reason, like Unitarian Universalism, we could say that a person reaches full spiritual development with the onset of formal operational thinking, because when the individual can reason s/he can participate fully in the religious community. This helps us understand why many Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t allow children to become full members of the congregation until they are at an age where they can reason for themselves, and make an informed, reasonable, rational decision about congregation membership.)

Question 2: What is the role of adults in promoting the spiritual development of youth?

My answer: To state the obvious, different adults will have different roles in promoting the spiritual maturity of young people [note that I prefer to talk about “spiritual maturity” rather than “spiritual development]. Which makes me ask a clarifying question: Which different adults have a role in helping teenagers move towards spiritual maturity?

  • Obviously parents, guardians, and other close adult family members are likely to have the central role in promoting spiritual maturity in teenagers.
  • If the youth belongs to a religious community, then the leaders of that religious community — clergy, youth workers, lay leaders, and so on — are also going to have an important role.
  • Teachers, coaches (never underestimate the influence of coaches in our sports-besotted culture), cultural icons like musicians — all these are going to have a role in promoting, or perhaps blocking, a youth’s spiritual development.

    Once we start realizing that many different adults in society play different roles in moving young people towards spiritual maturity, I can point to a central insight of developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who made it clear that there is a strong communal aspect of human development. I’d also want to point to Maria Harris’s book Fashion Me a People in which she demonstrates how the whole church is the curriculum. As we begin to understand the communal nature of human development and learning, we begin to understand that it is critically important to talk about the role of organized religion and religious communities in moving persons towards spiritual maturity.

    When you start thinking in communal terms, then you are going to pay less attention to the role of individual adults in the lives of individual young persons, and more attention to the whole congregational system and how it impacts teenagers. When I started thinking that way, my effectiveness as a youth minister increased enormously. I learned how to shape the whole congregation so that the congregation can become a place where teenagers are nurtured into spiritual maturity by everyone in that congregation.

    Question three: What are components of meaningful, youth-engaging worship? Please offer up examples of successful/effective spiritual development experiences or unsuccessul examples as well.

    My answer: Let me start with unsuccessful examples. Within Unitarian Universalism, back in the late 1960s youth worship took on all the trappings of second-wave feminism and encounter groups: people sitting in circles, people engaging in deep intimate sharing, people giving lots of hugs and body contact, and so on. Nearly half a century later, we’re still doing the same old stuff, to the point where it has become almost a fetish, an idol. As a leftist, what immediately strikes me is how much this worship format is based in middle- and upper middle class American values. As someone who takes theology seriously, I am also struck by how little theological depth this worship format has (because those who do this worship have ignored the theological reflections of people like Starhawk and Letty Russell, and have ignored the critiques of third-wave and other post-second-wave feminist theologians). And you could make a similar critique of some of the quasi-worshippy antics that occur under the guise of youth ministry in mainline and evangelical Christian churches: fetishized formats with little or no theological depth.

    As a contrast, some of the Buddhist communities I’m aware of here in the Bay area take their young people far more seriously. They begin treating young people as adults, and teens and pre-teens are expected to engage in the serious practices such as meditation, chanting, bowing, etc., in which the adults engage. These communities don’t dumb down religion for teenagers — they “smart up” teenagers and integrate them into the religious community.

    In the Unitarian Universalist church of my youth, we had a youth group for teenagers, but personally I also got welcomed into the adult community. I sometimes went to the Sunday morning service, and didn’t listen to the sermon, but then I went down to coffee hour and several men in the congregation talked to me seriously — this was really important for me. Additionally, my father was an usher, and when I was old enough I’d help him out, and I still vividly remember a couple of conversations I had with a couple of men who were ushers with us. Thus I had time with my peers, which was critically important, but as a teenager I was integrated into the corporate, communal worship life of the congregation.

    To me, the most effective spiritual development possible is inviting teenagers into adult worship. That’s where they are going to find spiritually mature adults to serve as role models. And, to be blunt — when you tell the teenagers to go off and do worship separately from everyone else, when they get to be adults they’re liable to keep on being separate, and never come back. So if you want to get rid of your teenagers, make them do youth worship that is very different than adult worship.

    Question 4: Both of you offered us material on Fowler — how has his work been foundational for you as a religious educator? Is there anything you want to emphasize from the readings.

    My answer: Personally, I think Fowler is full of baloney. His original research methodology is questionable, which makes the conclusions he draws very problematic. His definition of “faith” is vague, and it’s also problematic because he seems to define “faith” primarily in cognitive terms (in which case, why not ignore him and go read Jean Piaget, and read the work that the cognitive scientists are now doing?). Basically, I don’t feel Fowler passes the smell test.

    This is not to say that I don’t rely on developmental psychology. Piaget’s work is absolutely foundational for my praxis as a religious educator. Reading Lev Vygotsky completely changed the way I do religious education. I still find Erik Erikson to be stimulating, and recently I’ve been re-reading him yet again. Robert Kegan’s perspective [in both The Evolving Self and in In Over Our Heads) has been very helpful to me, in part because he approaches human development both as an educator and as a psychotherapist.

    And I still have to deal with Fowler, because he has such wide influence. If you’re going to work in a mainline church (and for this purpose Unitarian Universalism looks just like a mainline church), you have to know about James Fowler. Just as many of 19th century Protestant ministers were supposed to know something about phrenology, today you have to know about Fowler. So you learn about Fowler as a sort of defensive response, and then go out and learn some real developmental psychology. I started with Jean Piaget and his school, and now I’m trying hard to keep up with all that the cognitive science people are finding out.

    But those doing youth ministry also had better work through theology, and have a good grasp on the issues of theological anthropology. (As an aside, I’d just like to say this to those who are in my own tradition of Unitarian Universalism:– We Unitarian Universalist religious educators and youth ministers are notoriously weak on theology. If you can’t take a course with Paul Rasor, you’re best off taking a good rigourous course in systematic theology at a liberal Christian school, then working your way through most of James Luther Adams, Sharon Welch, and William R. Jones. And then go read up on Piaget and cognitive science.)

    Question 5: Is there anything else you would like to share as parting thoughts for our time together?

    My answer: Yes. Here are two things for those doing youth ministry:

    (1) Based on the insights of Erik Erikson and Robert Kegan, I’d say this: If you’re working with teenagers and you haven’t worked through your own adolescent issues — something that is true of most of us — then go out and get yourself a shrink, or a youth ministry mentor who isn’t afraid to kick your butt. Do it now, before your own internal crap screws up some perfectly healthy kids.

    (2) Take theology seriously.

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