Spirituality Can Offer Youth More: The Transcendent Dimension

Susan Wood Spirituality and Religion 0 Comments

– Part 3 of a 3-part series –

This three-part series has been 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.

Reaching-spiritualityMany communities and programs contribute to positive youth development. Yet spiritual and religious communities, unlike other contexts, operate in three dimensions: ideological, social, and transcendent:

This combination makes spiritual contexts especially potent—for good or for bad. Now we take up the very powerful “bigger than me” dimension.

People are not ultimately intelligible apart from the family and community within which he or she exists. Furthermore, people are not intelligible without reference to the transcendent horizon within which they exist and to which their deepest longings point. (Benner, 2016, p. 22)

Bigger Than Me: The Transcendent Dimension
A young person might learn about the values and ideology of democracy in a good civics class. If modeled by an engaging teacher and supported by experiences in one’s family, a scouting group, or community service organization, the young person may very well adopt those values and go on to lead a life of meaningful contribution to others. Nevertheless, “many youth programs and organizations offer ideology and rich social environments, but not many intentionally promote experiences of transcendence, where young persons actually experience a reality beyond themselves” (King, 2008, p. 60). But why does an experience of the transcendent, say in nature or meditation, or of a special relationship with God, matter? transcendent experience can be the catalyst for personal transformation. For instance, the Thrive Center examined the conversion experiences of 45 adolescents participating in Young Life camps in the study “Spiritual Transformation and Virtue Development in Adolescents in Young Life,” a Christian youth organization reporting high rates of conversion and spiritual transformative experiences (Schnitker, Felke, Barrett, & Emmons, 2014, p. 83; see also Shepherd Beyenberg, 2016). Spiritual or religious transformation involves reordering within a person. This often involves reshaping of identity, purpose, commitments, and/or sense of belonging. In some cases this reflects a radical reordering and in others a smaller shift (King, Clardy, & Ramos, 2014).

This study measured spiritual transformation with participant self-reports and with assessments of spirituality and religiousness one to two weeks prior to attending camp, immediately after, and then one year later. Among adolescents who had a first-time spiritual experience, their participation in the youth organization did not account for the increases in virtues that the study found. Rather, the growth in virtues was the result of changes in their spirituality and religiousness after a reported first-time spiritually transforming encounter. First-time conversion experiences were predictive of virtues increases in gratitude and patience.

Awareness of the transcendent dimension can promote identity formation, sense of worth, and meaning or purpose (King, 2003, 2008). Personal identity and meaning cannot develop in isolation. Spirituality and religion foster a sense of interconnectedness with others in community, with historical tradition, with nature, the universe, or cosmic spirit. Likewise, rituals—whether in worship, spiritual practices, or rites of passage—increase awareness of connection with others, with tradition, and with the divine.

A sense of transcendence and connection strengthens one’s beliefs, morals, and fidelity to those beliefs. This notion of fidelity includes contribution back or acts of service informed by the community’s beliefs and morals. seventeen-year-old boy from the United States who was identified as a spiritual exemplar reflects this concept of fidelity:

It (spirituality) makes me feel like I’m in a great orchestra of people who have always been so tight and had this great sense of morality and community. And I’m just glad that I can contribute to that. (Balswick, King, & Reimer, 2016, p. 311)

Not only did this this youth exhibit thoughts and feelings of connection to God, nature, and humanity, he also engaged in acts of service. In a study of teens identified as spiritual exemplars, twenty-nine of the thirty youth reported participation in some kind of service. The same young man described above also said this: “My spirituality motivates me to provide impassioned service, from a religion of compassion, not of compulsion. I take all that is a part of who I am and put it into a life of service work” (King, Clardy, & Ramos, 2014).

One’s identity (“who I am”), belief system, sense of meaning, motivation, and interconnection directly relate to an awareness of the transcendent: I am part of something bigger than me. And transcendent encounters can be called spiritual encounters—experiences that often take place in the context of a religious community.

Lest the reader question these studies’ findings due to the institution’s (Fuller Theological Seminary) Christian context, note that Columbia University psychologist Lisa Miller draws similar conclusions in her book The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (2015). Its compilation of recent psychological and neurological research builds the case that

Children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better equipped to deal with life’s ordinary (and even extraordinary) traumas than those who are not. Teenagers, in particular, are exponentially better off if they’re in touch with their spiritual sides—less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, to engage in risky sex, to cope with depression. . . .

[T]here is no single factor that will protect your adolescent like a personal sense of spirituality. (Miller, 2015)

Beyond mere protection, no single factor will contribute to a young person’s well-being, fulfillment, and meaningful contribution to something greater than oneself like a personal sense of spirituality. In short, a young person’s connection with the transcendent goes hand in hand with thriving.

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.

Benner, D. G. (2016). Human being and becoming: Living the adventure of life and love. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

King, P. E. (2003). Religion and identity: The role of ideological, social, and spiritual contexts. Applied Developmental Sciences, 7(3), 197–204.

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., Clardy, C. E., & Ramos, J. S. (2014). Adolescent spiritual exemplars: Exploring spirituality in the lives of diverse youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 29(2), 186–212.

Miller, L. [The author of the review article is a different Lisa Miller than the book author.] (2015, April 16). Why kids need spirituality. Science of Us. Retrieved from

Schnitker, S. A., Felke, T. J., Barrett, J. L., & Emmons, R. A. (2014). Longitudinal study of religious and spiritual transformation in adolescents attending Young Life summer camp: Assessing the epistemic, intrapsychic, and moral sociability functions of conversion. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(2), 83–93.

Shepherd Beyenberg, A. (2016, July 19). Adolescents and Spirituality: Do Mountaintop Spiritual Experiences Really Make a Difference? Blog on The Thrive Center for Human Development website:


Read part 1 of this series, “Spirituality Can Offer Youth More Than Education or Recreation Can Offer.”



Read 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.



See also “Finding Yourself in an Ocean of Options.”


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.