Spirituality Can Offer Youth More Than Education or Recreation Can Offer

Susan Wood Spirituality and Religion 2 Comments

Are you saying a synagogue or church can nurture thriving young people better than a great scouts program or a Boys and Girls Club with engaged, caring leaders?

Do you think greater resources for character development can come from a healthy mosque or temple community than from a Little League team or a classroom whose coach or teacher connects with students at a personal level?

Our answer is “this is often the case!” We know that caring adults can impact the lives of children and youth in many contexts. Teachers, coaches, youth program leaders—and parents—can all be positive role models, and just one caring adult can change a young person’s life. These adults are absolutely vital resources to promote thriving. Many different educational and recreational activities definitely contribute to positive youth development.

JerusalemReligTrads-1000x600But spirituality and religion have the potential for a broader and deeper impact on young people than other activities and communities.

Thrive Center researchers and others hold that spiritual and religious communities—unlike other contexts—operate in three dimensions: ideological, social, and transcendent. Rarely do clubs, sports, or schools offer resources in all three of these arenas. The combination of these three realms makes spiritual contexts especially powerful—for good or for bad.

Everyone within a spiritual tradition should take to heart the tremendous impact their community can have. They should also understand the role of these three dimensions in forming a thriving young person. Youth and adults who thrive do not simply fulfill their personal potential, they contribute to others; they have a sense of meaning and purpose; they demonstrate fidelity in their commitments, beliefs, and values.

Understanding these three dimensions of spirituality can help community members use spirituality’s potential power for good rather than allowing it to become a harmful force.

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

This first installment of the “Spirituality Can Offer Youth More” series discusses the importance of the ideological dimension. Parts 2 and 3 will examine the social and the transcendent dimensions.

The Ideological Dimension

ideologyThe word ideology may have negative connotations for many, evoking thoughts of rigid belief systems, “brainwashing,” or political propaganda. Merriam-Webster (2016) defines it as (a) “a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture” and (b) “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”

Anyone whose thought and behavior shows consistency across time and circumstances has some kind of ideology or worldview—whether or not it is clearly articulated. In a highly cohesive society, one may simply absorb the community’s beliefs and values. But young people today encounter beliefs and lifestyles from all types of media and many different cultures, religions, and social groups. When these contradict each other, how does one make sense of the world? How does one discern meaning in one’s life—especially in the face of even normal family tensions, personal insecurities, and competing social groups, not to mention global terrorism, ecological crisis, and economic uncertainty?

The young person must draw upon some kind of ideology to make sense of the world and of his or her own life. Narratives about training, discipline, success, and purpose may undergird sports, academics, art, and entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, these do not embody a tradition of narratives about the origin, nature, and purpose of life—intertwined with a longstanding set of values and morals.

“Spirituality,” however, “entails the intentional identification and integration of beliefs, narrative, and values in the process of making meaning” (King, 2008, p. 57). By their very nature, spiritual and religious contexts embody meaning-making beliefs and traditions that have stood the test of time.

Those in any religious community need to appreciate their tradition’s rich ideological resources for helping young people develop a coherent worldview. Then they can convey that ideology in a positive and helpful manner:

  • Present clearly and truthfully the tradition’s core beliefs.
  • Yet allow questions and doubt, and take the questions of children and youth seriously. “It’s not doubt or hard questions that are toxic to faith. It’s silence” (Candy, Griffin, & Powell, 2016).
  • Answer the question that is actually being asked in language understandable by the child or youth—without patronizing or belittling.
  • If you have similar questions, be willing to admit that. If you don’t have satisfactory answers, discuss the issues and explain why you still hold to your tradition’s worldview.
  • Investigate together the ways one’s tradition deals with various dilemmas posed by young people.
  • Explain the reasons and values that guide behavior in your religion or spiritual worldview.

Explaining the reason that a behavior is desirable or undesirable is called “value induction.” This method for motivating behavior contrasts with the methods of asserting power, offering rewards or withdrawing love in that these other methods only work short term. “Decades of research unambiguously shows that value induction is the only mode of influencing children that has lasting benefits. Children who understand and appreciate a parent’s values are more likely to internalize them and act on them (Mascolo, 2015).

With regard to values, moreover, spiritual traditions are more likely to be prosocial and encourage members to contribute to society. Research has shown that religious youth are more likely than the less-religious to participate in community service (Kerestes, Youniss, & Metz, 2004; Youisss, McLellan, & Yates, 1999). These young people also explain their behavior with a religious rationale, which supports the importance of spirituality’s ideological component in positive youth development.

Religions have a rich ideological context in that they actively promote a coherent worldview that offers prosocial values and behavioral norms grounded in a belief system. . . . Especially in a culture where people are bombarded with many different values and beliefs, religion’s ability to provide a clear and consistent set of beliefs and values enables people to grow in their ability to make sense of the world, find meaning and have faith. Religion offers ultimate answers and perspective about the larger issues in life. (Balswick, King, & Reimer, 2016, p. 329)


Balswick, J. O., King, P. E., & Reimer, K. S. (2016). The reciprocating self: Human development in theological perspective (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Candy, J., Griffin, B. M., & Powell, K. (2015). Can I ask that? Vol. 2: More hard questions about God and faith. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Youth Institute; see also vol. 1: Can I ask that? 8 Hard questions about God and faith (2014).

Kerestes, M., Youniss, J., & Metz, E. (2004). Longitudinal patterns of religious perspective and civic integration. Applied Developmental Sciences, 8(1), 39–46.

King, P. E. (2008). Spirituality as fertile groud 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.

Mascolo, M. (2015, May 22). What really motivates kids. Psychology Today (online edition). Retrieved from Retrieved May 20, 2016, from

Youisss, J., McLellan, J. A., & Yates, M. (1999). Religion, community service, and identity in American youth. Journal of Adolexcence 22(2), 243–253.

2Generations-laughter-by-Nathan-AndersonRead part 2 of this series, “Spirituality Can Offer Youth More: Belonging—the Social Dimension.”

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.