Teenage Spirituality: Does It Matter?

What do today’s teenagers think about the big questions of life?

In a consumer society like ours, is there a danger teens consider life to be about the acquisition of stuff?  Are they too busy rushing from one experience to the next chasing achievement or thrills?  Or are they seeking some meaning beyond the material world?

I am sure the answers to those questions vary depending on which teenager you are thinking of, just as it does when you consider how individual adults would answer.

Recent research by the Barna group in California found that teens are less inclined toward spirituality than they were a decade ago.

Is Facebook Replacing God?

Surveying over 600 randomly selected 13-17 year-olds throughout the United States, the researchers found many religious activities are at their lowest levels of since recording such measures began.

While about half of 13-17 year-olds in the US attend church, and 1 in 4 teens still participate in organised religious activity, i.e. church youth group, other spiritual activities such as praying and evangelism are declining.

Researcher David Kinnaman suggests the changes in personal spirituality could be due to the new relational dynamics created by web 2.0. technology and “Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook.”

In countries like Australia these participation rates of teens in organised religious activities are far less than those in the US, and have been for some time. Therefore it is not Facebook or any other technology that is responsible for teens not engaging in faith based behaviours. Rather it is a culture passed down from previous generations of adults who are more  often pre-occupied with finding meaning and satisfaction in the physical realm, while relegating matters of faith to the outer edges of life.

The question is, does it matter?  Your answer to that will be partly determined by your own religious convictions of course.  However there is also objective evidence that spirituality makes a difference to how teens navigate the challenges of adolescence.

Spirituality Protects Teenagers

It is widely acknowledged that teenagers who have a clear belief system and participate in organised or personal spiritual activities are much less likely to go off the rails during adolescence.

Most churches and religious organizations have clear beliefs and values that are shared by a majority of members.  Teens who belong to faith communities are more likely to have peers and adults in their lives who encourage and model behaviours that are consistent with their stated religious beliefs.

The American National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health (1997) demonstrated that religion and prayer were protective factors against drug and alcohol abuse and against early sexual involvement.

An American study of over 3,000 teenage girls found there was a clear link between personal spiritual devotion and lower rates of sexual activity outside committed relationships.

In an Australian survey involving 9000 year 9 students it was found that belief in moral values, religion and spirituality were factors that helped to prevent self-destructive and antisocial behaviour amongst young people.

Another Australian study of 954 young people of 15–19 years old, found young people whose religious beliefs were supported by belonging to a church, school or community group which shared common values, significantly less likely to engage in risk taking behaviour. (Abbott-Chapman & Denholm, 2001)

Other studies demonstrate strong links between spiritual activities and higher levels of personal resilience, improved academic outcomes, and more active involvement in charitable and community work.

Encouraging Teens to Seek More

Just because spirituality is shown to be beneficial for young people, doesn’t mean we can just go out a make young people be spiritual. Spiritual belief is a very personal thing.  Adults can’t make a young person have faith in God or pursue genuine spiritual discipline, even though some try.

Adults can however have a significant influence on how willing a teenager is to pursue and explore the bigger questions of life.

Parents who openly express and practice some form of spiritual commitment expose and model to their children a lifestyle that has a focus beyond the material. This does not mean that children automatically adopt their parent’s faith, but it does provide a context for them to engage with the issues.

Teenagers are heavily influenced by parental approval.  Parents who ridicule or talk down their child’s religious commitment or quest to find answers to the big questions are a significant discouragement to young people.

The opposite also applies however.  When parents affirm and accept their teens desire to find a bigger meaning in life, they provide a much more secure environment for the adolescent to explore and discover their spiritual identity. This knowledge of approval and sense of safety reduces teenage risk taking behaviour and encourages a more positive and genuine approach to identity formation.

The difficulty comes for parents when their children become teenagers and start to express an opinion or desire about spirituality that differs from their own.  It can be challenging to know how to re-negotiate the expectations that parents have on children and allow them to take responsibility for themselves as young adults.

Each situation is unique with varying factors to consider, so there is no one size fits all solution. What we do know is that forcing a young person to participate in spiritual practices against their will over an extended period will always be counter productive. Honest communication that allows for genuine expression of views in these instances is important. Negotiation that seeks to keep doors open and find mutually agreeable compromises are much better than threats and demands.

References Cited

Resnick et al., (1997) Protecting adolescents from harm, Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(10), 823–831.
Miller L, Gur M (2002). Religiousness and Sexual Responsibility in Adolescent Girls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31, 401-406.
Human Services Victoria (1999) Survey of risk and protective factors (Melbourne, Victorian State Publishing Service).
Abbott-Chapman, J. & Denholm, C. (2001) Adolescents’ risk activities, risk hierarchies and the influence of religiosity, Journal of Youth Studies, 4(3), 280–297.

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  • lulu

    Hi. My son is 9 and he doesn’t like going to church on Sundays. We are catholics. I just read its counterproductive to make a young person participate of religious activity over long period of time. In this case, like with other situations at home I am not sure he could or should decide what he wants to do…..?

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