Spirituality Can Offer Youth More: Belonging—the Social Dimension

Susan Wood Identity, Spirituality and Religion 2 Comments

– Part 2 of a 3-part series –

The first installment of this three-part series, “Spirituality Can Offer Youth More Than Education or Recreation Can Offer,”   began explaining why Thrive Center researchers and others make this claim:

Spirituality and religion have the potential for a broader and deeper impact on young people than other activities and communities.

Although many communities and programs contribute to positive youth development, spiritual and religious communities, unlike other contexts, operate in three dimensions: ideological, social, and transcendent:

  • Beliefs: A coherent ideology offers a framework for the young person to make sense of life.
  • Belonging: The social dimension provides a supportive community where children and youth interact with others who model the tradition’s ideology.
  • Bigger than me: Transcendence connects one with the divine, creation, other people—something greater than oneself—and thus motivates purpose and contribution to others.

This combination makes spiritual contexts especially powerful—for good or for bad. The previous blog, “Spirituality Can Offer Youth More Than Education or Recreation Can Offer,” discussed the ideological dimension. Here we take up the social dimension.

SOCIAL-800x300Belonging: The Social Dimension

While a young person must draw upon some kind of ideology to make sense of the world and of one’s own life, a set of beliefs and values will ring true when it is seen in practice. Beliefs and values are generally abstract and make much more sense when they are lived out. A worldview, ideology, or grand story shapes a person not simply because he or she knows the story, rationally understands the beliefs, or affirms sacred creeds or traditions. Rather, youth “get” the meaning and significance of beliefs when they are lived out in the lives of people that they care for, respect, and trust. In a sense kids locate themselves and their place in the world as they experience a tradition faithfully practiced among a body of believers.

Fuller-Theological-Seminary-2015-Christmas-Tree-Lighting-people-sittingPamela King has noted that people—especially in the broader academy—often ask her, “why religion? Why is religion so helpful for kids to thrive?” She answers, in part, “religion not only offers an encounter with the divine but also provides an embodied belief system, a real community of people offering a defined set of ideals, values, and beliefs—and actual examples of how to live them out” (King, 2016).

Elsewhere she has written, “religious tradition also exemplifies these principles and behavioral norms in actual historical events and in the lives of fellow believers” (King, 2008, p. 58; referencing Erikson, 1968). Adolescents can internalize and integrate an abstract ideology into their own self-understanding when they see that ideology lived out in the flesh.

In addition, youth can make sense of and better internalize a tradition’s values and beliefs when they practice their developing spirituality within a community. They learn by doing. And that doing, that practice, happens not in isolation but as part of a group. The context of the social group reinforces not only the behaviors and spiritual practices, but also the motivations and goals of the behaviors.

This group also provides models for children, teens, and young adults (and for all participants). They can see the character and actions of women and men who come from various walks of life but share the tradition’s beliefs and values. The social dimension of spiritual and religious contexts offers spiritual modeling: one can observe and emulate spiritual exemplars.

Taking-hand-by-Rémi-Walle-1000x650Even better, when a young person hears honest, real-life stories from community members, and those members listen to the youth’s stories and struggles and give support and help, they build trusting relationships. This trust allows the young person to reflect on the meaning and ramifications of the tradition’s beliefs and practices. In the context of trusting relationships one can try out the group’s values. Through reflection and practice within a community youth don’t just learn about a spiritual tradition but internalize its beliefs and commitments.

For most kids, their social groups consist of peers. For example, interactions within a classroom, extra-curricular activity, club, or sport occur among youth in the same age bracket or who share a common interest. In contrast, interaction within a spiritual or religious community occurs not only with friends of the same age but also with people from various generations. When people across the lifespan hold to and put into practice the tradition’s ideology, youth see that those beliefs and values can guide them throughout their own lifespan. Prayers or meditation, ritual observances or worship, service to others within or outside the community can be intergenerational.

girl&man-blding-chair-900x600Finally, it is in the social dimension that kids can gain life-transforming experience. For example, many congregations offer service opportunities. In fact, research shows that religious volunteer service is especially beneficial and transformational for young people. Religious communities often give young people opportunities to contribute to the community, to work for good in society, and to meet needs worldwide. The religious body can expose youth to needs outside of their own private world. It can teach skills and affirm young people’s gifts, and religions offers a narrative or context to provide meaning for engaging in service. Such service in community then strengthens the youth’s commitment and motivates ongoing service to others (Youniss & Yakes, 1999).

To summarize, along with the beliefs (ideological dimension) and being a part of something bigger than me (transcendent dimension), belonging or the social dimension of a spirituality or religion at its best has a much broader and deeper potential than that of a sport or club or an educational or recreational program:

  • A spiritual or religious community embodies or lives out beliefs, values, and morals—providing real-life examples of how to live out faith and what it means.
  • People in the community share stories of their journeys, difficulties, joys, questions, and their spiritual tradition’s resources for navigating those journeys.
  • Young people see the lifestyle and character of spiritual exemplars.
  • Members carry out the religious or spiritual practices together as well as individually.
  • A healthy community provides genuine social support: caring friendships; emotional safety from belittling, manipulation, or suppression of individuality; tangible help to meet real-life needs; fun gatherings and activities.
  • Mosques, temples, churches, or synagogues offer rare opportunities to engage with different generations. These multigenerational bodies give evidence of the tradition’s relevance across time and life situations.
  • Congregations provide opportunities for young people to serve.
  • And the spiritual or religious community serves others and contributes to society because of its spiritual or religious values.

These components of a healthy spiritual or religious community are crucial for a young person to establish his or her identity in a way that sustains engagement with others, fidelity to one’s beliefs and commitments, contribution back to society, and caring and moral behavior.


Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

King, P. E. (2008). Spirituality as fertile ground for positive youth development. In R. M. Lerner, R. Roeser, & E. Phelps (Eds.). Positive youth development and spirituality: From theory to research (pp. 55–73). West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

King, P. E. (2016, May 5). Invitation to thrive. Address from the service for her installation into the Peter L. Benner Chair of Applied Development Science, School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary. Pasadena, CA.

Youniss, J., & Yates, M. (1997). Community service and social responsibility in youth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

reaching-by-Alexander-Lam-900x900Read part 1 of this series, “Spirituality Can Offer Youth More Than Education or Recreation Can Offer.”

The three blogs in this series have been developed from P. E. King (2008) Spirituality as fertile ground for positive youth development.

About the Author
Susan Wood

Susan Wood

Susan Wood is the community outreach communication specialist for the Thrive Center. Among other responsibilities, she manages, writes, edits, and promotes website content.