Growing Youth Spirituality Conference – An Overview

On Friday 19th and Saturday 20th July, more than 80 people gathered at Tabor College in Melbourne for the ‘Growing Youth Spirituality’ conference. Those who attend came from around Australia. Many were working as teachers or chaplains in schools. Others were youth workers and some were working in local churches. Some ministers, a couple of priests and a bishop joined the conference. Others participants were working in educational or denominational offices developing programs and activities for youth ministry. People from a broad range of denominations attended the conference.

The conference began by noting that, materially, young people in Australia are doing very well. Most are beneficiaries of a wealthy, prosperous culture where there is high quality education and healthcare and where the leisure options for distracting them are endless. However, many young Australians are not feeling good about life. They are finding it hard to make sense of it and to find a place and a purpose. Associated with this is the fact that most young Australians find that religious traditions and commitments do not connect well with them.

Philip Hughes (Christian Research Association) and Rowan Lewis (Tabor College) explored sociological and psychological accounts why Australian young people are not connecting easily with religious traditions or finding a sense of place and purpose in life. Philip Hughes noted that most young people have been raised to work through the meaning of life experiences from individualistic perspectives which seek meaning in their own subjectivity and experience rather than through reason and duty. Rowan Lewis spoke of young people’s need to belong, but they also the processes of individuation through which they find their personal identity.

Friday evening, Naomi Swindon from Scripture Union earthed the conference through stories of young people who had not found it easy to find a place in society. She told of how projects such as the developing a BMX track, or encouraging people to care for trees affected by drought, or mentoring had led to a concern for others beyond themselves and a sense of place and identity. She spoke of how there is gold in every person, sometimes covered by dirt, but how ‘growing spirituality’ involves finding that gold.

On Saturday morning, Rachael Kohn, the presenter of ‘The Spirit of Things’ on ABC National Radio, reminded us that part of growing spirituality means accepting contradictions and vulnerability. She noted that many young people want to be in control and to have answers. However, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, people who work among the suffering live with the big questions unanswered. She suggested, as a response to this, in growing youth spirituality, our focus should be more on how we live and what we do, rather than what we believe.

Three presenters spoke of different ways and different contexts in which Australians are trying to ‘grow youth spirituality’. Kath Engebretson (Australian Catholic University) spoke of the lack of understanding of the Christian tradition among students in Catholic schools and the need for a special effort to pick up again the ‘chain of memory’ which constitutes the Christian tradition.

Stephen Chatelier spoke of the Christian school context. He said that some of the students see the emphasis on faith at school as ‘overload’ in the way it complements home and church and see its demands as embarrassing among their peers. Some react to being ‘Bible bashed’ while others say they have faith and don’t want to think more about it. Stephen suggested some Christian schools are too focussed on thinking and conception rather than the affective domain and practice. He suggested that the emphasis on spirituality needed to ‘normalised’ in the students’ experience as a whole ethos, rather than something extra that was forced on them. He argued that Christian schools needed to invite, not demand, the journey into the spiritual and there needed to be an openness to diverse responses to the divine rather than the formation of cloistered communities.

Peter Mangold, a chaplain at a government school in Victoria, began by noting his very different context in which young people found it very strange to think about religion or spirituality. He suggested that, in that context, it was often most helpful to think of helping young people to develop a framework of meaning and to support young people in making sense of the experiences of life. In so doing, he said, one must help them re-shape unhelpful beliefs and assist in the integration of experiences into their lives and making explicit values and perspectives. He argued that the role of the chaplain is journeying with people in a relational way, mentoring relationships and helping young people to engage with the ‘largeness of life’. He spoke of ways in which he was doing this through ‘Changing Perspectives’ camps and through teaching psychology and personal health.

Four other speakers briefly outlined specific programs through which they were addressing the growth of spirituality among young people. Karen Dymke (a teacher and consultant) spoke about the Rite Journey, developing positive rites of passage through processes of challenge and celebration as young people move into adulthood. Rohan Waters (a former teacher and chaplain) spoke of his program, Veta, which offers Christian learning pathways for young people. Angela Sawyer (Victorian Council for Christian Education) spoke of the need to develop contextual Bible study which would be transformative of the lives of young people. Stephen Reid (Christian Research Association) noted the dominance of sport in the lives of most Australians and asked if sport could be incorporated into the vision of youth ministry. He noted briefly the research he was doing on sports chaplaincy as a way of engaging with young people.

In the afternoon, the morning’s speakers had the opportunity to take participants deeper through workshops, providing more information about the various resources and contexts for growing youth spirituality.

Thus, the conference stimulated the participants by opening up the challenges of growing youth ministry and by suggesting a variety of methods and resources through which one might respond to the challenges. Several of the break-out groups which had met three times through the conference noted that there were no easy answers, no solutions were appropriate in all circumstances. Indeed, the very nature of spirituality cannot be simply defined or contained with a program or set of procedures. Nevertheless, the conference stimulated those who attended to reflect on their own situation, and perhaps to refine what they were doing or to try new ways of ‘searching for the gold’ that exists in every person whom God has created.

Philip Hughes

A .pdf of the opening presentation by Philip Hughes can be downloaded from here:  Growing Youth Spirituality: What the Research is Telling Us (Philip Hughes) (PDF)

A .pdf of the opening presentation by Rowan Lewis can be downloaded from here: Rowan Lewis – Developing Faith-Notes.pptx-3(PDF)

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