Spirituality is not a minor story with today’s students. The National Youth Study of Religion (www.youthandreligion.org) found that most teenagers believed in God at some level, but only 1 in 10 would be described as “devoted” to their faith. They do not equate their spiritual growth with church attendance and they largely believe that their faith runs in the background rather than influencing day-to-day decisions. Their moral decision making is not necessarily guided by their relationship with Christ. Part of our challenge as parents and student ministers is to “connect the dots.”
A quote that I believe has been attributed to Og Mandino goes something like this: “We aren’t human beings. We are humans becoming.” It’s easy to see development in the other areas of maturation, but how do we observe spiritual formation?
We can celebrate the first steps of a baby or the first shave of an adolescent (physical development), but can we measure spiritual “firsts?” I would answer — definitely. But measuring spiritual growth is unlike measuring physical growth or cognitive (mental) growth. My children both have graduated marks on the door facing of their bedroom doors, signifying their change in height from one year to the next.
What would the spiritual comparison be? A mark for a decision in Bible school? Another mark for baptism? Another for a testimony in church following a mission trip? What about a choir solo … aren’t those markers in spiritual development? Again, definitely. Anything that is not growing is not natural.
However, unlike physical and possibly mental development, the sequence of changes is not predictable. with regard to sequence. Rapid spiritual growth does not necessarily follow conversion and in some ways depends upon actions of parents, pastors and friends. That is what makes describing spiritual development a little like trying to hold a raw oyster (sorry, my Louisiana roots are showing).
A look at some of the adults in our churches may lead one to believe that growth toward spiritual maturity can be slow, and perhaps even optional. In addition, persons come to Christ as Savior at different points in their lives. Therefore, a person celebrating their first “spiritual birthday” may be eight years old or forty-eight years old.
Here’s an age breakdown of students spiritual development, along with some observations.
Preteens are just entering the drama called adolescence. Their bodies will change a lot in just a few months (the growth spurt). The girls are ahead of the guys in development. This is one of the reasons that I do not recommend including 6th graders in a larger youth ministry. The chance of being bullied is significant for later maturing children. Spiritually, preteens are beginning to realize that choices are becoming complicated and that they can and do choose to sin. For children who have made professions of faith, assurance of salvation is a great conversation. For children who have not made a decision to trust Christ, a clear presentation of the gospel with understandable theological explanation is vital.
Guys are catching up developmentally with the girls in middle school. Socially, most middle-schoolers still prefer same-sex friends. Emotionally, hormones are raging. Spiritual conversations may have to fight through the clutter of a new awareness of the hormone-induced awareness of the opposite sex. Spiritual questions may revolve around hypothetical situations and some false information is shared when Internet “research” is conducted. According to the almost every study, parents are the primary spiritual guides for adolescents at this age. Adults are respected, and often sought. Intentional and challenging discipleship at church creates platforms for interaction.
The high school years may be the most critical for spiritual formation. Physical change is leveling out, emotional upheaval is somewhat stabilized, and confidence is growing in mental abilities. Spiritually, some key developments occur. According to research I conducted at the seminary, About 75% of my students (studying to be ministers) indicated that something happened in the 9th or 10th grade that changed or challenged their spiritual maturity. They indicated that they understood a call to ministry, repented of lifestyle choices that did not glorify God or decided to “get serious” about their faith. I believe that much of this data indicates an increasing ability to think abstractly. In family discussions we should be honest about the messiness of our world and the challenge to believe that God is in control.
Collegians are adults. If the exit point of adolescence is “full acceptance of adult responsibility” (emotional, intellectual, and financial independence), it is fair to say that adolescence in our culture lasts well into the 20’s. With increasingly challenging financial times and lengthening educational journey (grad school and beyond), the key spiritual element in the collegiate years is ownership. Building on the critical thought of the high school years, now young adults need to internalize their faith. Many young adults are disillusioned with the church. I believe that spiritual formation with college students has to do with experience, community, and relationships where questions are asked and answered. Mission experiences can be pivotal, and small groups that provide accountability and encouragement are vital for discipleship.
Spiritual formation is a lifelong process. If preteens, middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and collegians see adults who have not “outgrown” discipleship, missions, Bible study, and community, they will see that growing up as Jesus did — in “wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” — is a fulfilling adventure, lived out in families and churches.
Dr. Allen Jackson is the founder of the Youth Ministry Institute. He is a professor of Youth and Collegiate Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.