Teens Need Engagement with Meaningful Spiritual Experiences
Teens attend religious services less frequently as they get older through about age thirty. The number of unaffiliated young adults is increasing (RS). In the National Study on Youth and Religion, 8% said they see themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” while 46% said this was “somewhat true.” Recent studies show that young people need transcendent experiences, but they also need opportunities for transformation and the ability to contribute to their community in a meaningful way.
Shared experiences of serving or leading in communal settings can empower young people to feel a sense of agency over their spiritual lives, leading to more transcendent experiences and meaningful contribution to their communities. When young people are empowered to do this amongst themselves, it creates an opportunity for them to create peer-to-peer relationships with others who are engaging in the process of ideological formation.
We see the decline in church attendance amongst nearly every age group and can’t help but wonder why this is. When a young person experiences a transcendent moment, it gives them something to root their ideology in that goes beyond the material and the mundane. This is especially important for young people to have at an early age as their brains are ripe for developing new pathways. Young people are constantly making new connections. Being in a spiritual community affords them opportunities to make those connections within a social group that can provide something tangible for them to root themselves in when doubt or questions come. This commitment is known as fidelity, which is a loyalty or commitment to a set of beliefs. This happens when a transcendent experience “sticks,” meaning it moves the young person through the threshold of theory into a real life experience.
It Doesn’t Have to be Complicated—Transcendence is Simple
In the book Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren demonstrates how transcendence does not necessarily occur in the extraordinary. Although those miraculous, mountaintop experiences that many people of faith reflect on as moments of profound intimacy with God, God is also found in the ordinary. God’s presence can be experienced through how we make our beds in the morning, how we connect with a friend over a cup of coffee or how we go out of our way to say hello to our neighbor. Connecting faith to the mundane can root young people’s spirituality in something beyond the church building. It creates a sense of stability that no matter where they move, their faith is an established part of their identity.
A faith that is coherent and consistent shouldn’t be contained to the walls of a church building. A faith that is formed through relationships with others does not require a formal structure because its very existence was never dependent on the building itself. Creating liturgies that last does not require the formality of religion, but a healthy church community can expose kids to powerful meaning making mechanisms that enhances their ability to seek out communities of meaning and purpose for the rest of their lives.
Kids Already Crave Community
Most adolescents place a lot of importance on the activities they engage in with others (RS 192) Church can provide young people with the opportunity to meet other young people who are also searching for ways to create meaning as they grow and develop more robust cognitive capacities for relating to others. Young people are seeking ways to establish their identity independent of their nuclear families and elicit affirmation, acceptance and belonging from the people in the groups they seek to be a part of.
Adolescents who engage in community are able to differentiate themselves from their families in the safety of a community that can cultivate new values or affirm the ones they want to hold to. While young people crave unique ways to express themselves and differentiate themselves from their parents, they are looking for other “independent” people to do so with. Young people need each other, but they can also benefit from communities where belonging and emotional safety are of high value. The responsibility of the church is to evolve away from preparing them for static career roles, but to instead help them blossom into adults who can be bearers of the image of God in whatever role they pursue.
Crafting a Community
We recognize and hold the weight of knowing that a community has the capacity to be detrimental to youth development. Curiosity can be something that’s feared by churches and pastors who are leary about feeding into further skepticism. Young people who are creative and artistic may not express their spirituality in a way that is socially acceptable. A neurodiverse young person may need help finding a goodness of fit that accommodates the ways in which they relate and learn best in community if their only option is a typical youth group setting.
Yet we know that all young people need connection—their identities cannot be formed in isolation from one another. Youth who participate in community are creating a tapestry that will allow them to see themselves as a thread in a much larger web of people. That’s something that can stay with them across the lifespan of development.
If you’re still unsure or have been hurt by the community in the past, we grieve with you. We know religion and faith communities can go awry. But we also know that experiencing transcendence can look different for everyone. It can look like sharing a meal with others in the community; it can look like spending time in prayer; it can look like immersing yourself in nature. It can look like non-traditional communal gatherings such as yoga or hiking with others.
But regardless of what your transcendent space ends up looking like, know that your kids need others and they need space to ask questions and find consistent and grounded answers. Ultimately, they need space to engage in the process of identity formation, they need a purpose beyond themselves, and they need to know they have agency to impact the world around them for good—this is done through being in relationships where the individual and the community are both seen as inherently worthy.
Ideas to consider
- Mentorship – Find a mentor for your child to connect with consistently. Intergenerational relationships within a community can provide a space for young people to explore and learn about the life experiences of those around them.
- Shared experiences – Immersive experience like camp or community service projects can help young people imagine what church looks like beyond the church building.
- Embrace their creativity – Not all kids learn the same, especially in the context of church. Consider how your child’s learning style may influence their experience in your particular church context. If it seems like something is lacking, consider how you might be able to engage their learning style at home or connect with their youth leader to discuss new ways of teaching and connecting with the kids in your church. Chances are there are other kids who would benefit from this as well.
- Questions – Take time to get curious. Ask your child what’s one they wish they could ask God? Or start by asking what they think God is like.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways to support your child getting connected to a church community. Rather it can be a place to start getting curious about the unique ways God made your child and how you can equip them to thrive in a faith community.
Kids and Community (Part 1): How to Find the Right One for Your Kids to Thrive
How do you find a community to support your family? What kinds of support help families grow spiritually healthy and thrive.
Kids and Community (Part 2): Adolescents and the Value of Loving Relationships that Display a Loving God
Why do kids need a community that models love, and what does emotional safety have to do with it. Part 2 of a 3-part series.
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