Youth Spirituality: How Young People Change

Monday, April 19th, 2010

From Pointers Volume 16. Number 3. September 2006.
Two years ago members of the Christian Research Association interviewed young people around Australia as part of its study of youth spirituality about their values, goals, spiritual beliefs and practices. In the final stage of the

study among school students the Christian Research Association returned to many of same young people to see what had and had not changed since they were last interviewed. This article will focus specifically on the changes that had occurred in their general values and goals and their spiritual beliefs and practices. (Please note that this study of school students undertaken by CRA is distinct from the ‘core’ study of the ‘Spirit of Generation Y’ which has been the responsibility of a wider team including researchers from Monash and the Australian Catholic University.)


The research into the spirituality of young people which the CRA has undertaken is in the concluding stage. The third and final stage of the study involved interviews with students who had been questioned two years ago. Much was learnt about the values, world views, and spiritual beliefs and practices of young people in the first and second aspects of the study – which were based on interviews and surveys. This final round sought to add a longitudinal element, and hence another perspective to the study.

Changes were examined in three ways. Firstly, students were asked about changes in their beliefs, values and practices over the last two years and what might have contributed to such changes. Secondly, the questions were turned around: what were the significant experiences they had had in the previous two years and what had been the impact of those experiences? Thirdly, some similar questions were used in both the first and second interviews so the researchers themselves could compare the responses.

The students interviewed came from a variety of Catholic and Lutheran schools across four States, in both rural and urban areas. While the first round of interviews included around 160 students, this report is based on interviews with 68 students, all of whom participated in the original interviews. While the bulk of interviews were conducted in person, often in the schools of the various students, a hand-full occurred over the phone.

This report considers two groups of changes: firstly changes to the values and goals of students, and secondly to their spirituality and church attendance.


Before addressing various aspects of change, it is important to note that a continuing trend was that many students were much more articulate about their values and beliefs than they had been two years earlier. In many cases, students were also more confident and self-assured, and generally had a better sense of who they were, in comparison with the first round of interviews. In this regard, increased maturity was evident.

Overall, there had been little change in the students’ primary values. Relationships with friends and family remained a central part of their lives, although some students suggested that they had developed a greater appreciation for these relationships. The importance of these relationships was a recurring theme throughout the interviews.

As students spoke about their daily and other important activities, family and especially friends were included as part of their description about what made that activity important. For example, soccer, netball and drama were some of the sports which young people were enjoying, not only for the exercise and creative aspects but also for the social element.

Friends and family were often the first people students would turn to for guidance, and were generally the most significant influence in their lives. These relationships contributed to the young people’s framework of beliefs and values (Fowler, 1986).

More evident were changes that had to do with the stage of life of the young people. The majority of the students involved in this round of interviews were either undertaking their VCE, HSC or equivalent, or entering this phase (year 10). This had a significant influence on some of their priorities. Some students indicated that, for the time being, other interests and concerns had to be put aside. Sports and hobbies could not be pursued at the same depth. It was noted that interests in social justice were also relegated in the list of priorities.

As students completed their secondary schooling, they did not revert to their foci of earlier years. Rather, further studies or establishing themselves in their careers often became a focus in their priorities and many young people continued to say they had little time for some of the things they enjoyed.

One girl who was in her second year out from school talked about her attempt to enter the entertainment industry. In that context, she spoke of her dreams and of the importance of focussing on herself for the moment. This may seem self-centred. Yet, she had found opportunities to do voluntary work that was associated with the career she wanted to pursue and was engaged in helping others in that way.

With the bulk of participating students at the point of adulthood, of growing personal independence and freedom, these students were being exposed to new opportunities and circumstances. Many mentioned that getting their driver’s licence had been important, while others spoke about the ability to have a job and earn money. Many students at this age are learning how to juggle more spheres of life (Fowler, 1986).

Other changes in values were influenced by factors beyond the students’ control, such as incurring an injury or becoming sick. These experiences in turn shape and guide the goals and general attitudes about life and self.


Generally students had a more defined understanding of their goals – from deciding on a specific profession to learning about the process required to reach their goal – than had been evident in the first interview. One student who had previously held the general goals to ‘settle down, have a wife, friends, enough money’, had become more specific in this round. This student was now aiming for a career in information technology.

In general, their goals had become more realistic. In some cases, this meant that they had less idea what career they might aim for. For example, one student commented:

I was wanting to be an actress, but now I don’t know what I will do. I’m in the process of sorting out what to do. I think I want to own a business.

Some other students had had to change their aims as they did not do as well in their studies as they had hoped. For example, since year 10 one student had wanted to work in law. Yet poor marks at school meant that she had to change her plans about how she achieved that goal. Instead of going directly to university, this student had to go though a year of college.

The immediate goal of many students in this round was success in their studies, with school taking up more of their time and attention than previously. Wider goals included travelling, having families of their own, being secure and having a comfortable life.

This is a significant time of life, with the students not only learning more about themselves. Their relationships grow in depth. They encounter a wider range of experiences through learning at school and vicariously through the media, through opportunities at university and successes in extra-curricular activities (Hughes et al, 2003, p. 4). Giddens refers to reflexivity to describe this process. Through various experiences, challenges and setbacks, students develop not only a better understanding of themselves, but actively rebuild their identity according to these developments (Giddens, 1991, p. 75). Giddens contends that instead of depending on the tradition from which they came, individuals are more likely continually to analyse and evaluate their own lives according to their own experiences.

This reflexive process was particularly evident in several students who had completed school and had decided to have a ‘gap year’. One of these students went overseas and worked in a youth club in the United Kingdom. Another who planned to be a doctor had taken a position for a year as a receptionist at a medical centre. These young people were actively seeking experiences on which they could reflect. In the light of these experiences they were making judgements about what they should do in the future.


In the surveys that had been conducted in schools, students emphasised the importance of having an exciting life. In this round of interviews, students were asked what it meant to have an exciting life and whether their ideas about excitement had changed over time.

With schooling at the forefront of students minds, an exciting life had taken a back-seat for some students. Some spoke about the growing importance of school, money, time and responding to opportunities in life. Several students saw themselves as becoming more mature and less into ‘mucking around’.

What excitement is has changed. I’ve grown more mature and can make better choices. I have moved from all fun activities to more serious. (15 year old female)

Beyond a change in focus, some said that excitement was a less important value now as they had achieved many of their goals for excitement. Part of this may have been the gradual move towards independence, which meant that greater freedom from parents and family allowed them to attend parties, drive cars, travel and have greater control over their relationships. While some young people saw part of the excitement of such experiences in the realising of their own independence, for others, growing freedom meant seeking more serious activities.

Some students thought that having a girlfriend or boyfriend was a part of having an exciting life although others said they preferred to be part of a wider group of friends than have one intimate relationship. Through such experiences, young people learn about themselves and make choices through which they build or rebuild their sense of self (Giddens, 1991, p. 75).

The study found that while some students flourished with the new opportunities to grow and develop, other students struggled. These students tended to offer fewer ideas about their goals, had less idea of how to achieve them, or generally struggled to talk about themselves.

Changes in Spirituality

Religious Beliefs

A number of students had developed their ideas on specific issues. Much of this could be attributed to a general maturing. It is important to recognise the numerous issues and experiences which the young people had encountered over the years. These often required students to make a decision or confirmation about what they believed. It is at this life stage that people are becoming aware of the contradictions and contentiousness of religious issues, not only from the students’ own traditions but also about the wider impact and role of religions in society (Fowler, 1986).

Many students considered spirituality to be a positive thing. A significant number were open to spiritual experiences – not limited to supernatural events but anything which may have impacted the students’ view or understanding about God or spirituality. This shows little change between the first and final round of interviews.

Many ‘spiritual experiences’ involved family and friends. Meaning about spirituality came not only from a church or personal spiritual revelation, but from the hard and trying times in life. Such experiences included relationship breakdowns or the death or sickness of a significant person in their lives. It is important to note that openness to spiritual experiences or positive attitudes to spirituality in general occurred regardless of whether or not students attended church on a regular basis.

Views of God had not changed markedly between the first and final stages of the study. What was apparent in this stage was the number of students struggling with questions about the nature of God and how God fits into the world. Students were also asked about their view of Jesus. Again, regardless of whether students attended church they were open to learning about Jesus, although several also expressed confusion about him.

The American sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, describes how grappling with particular questions and issues is one way in which people make their faith personal (1990, p. 129). Many young people tailor the tradition they had formally accepted to create their own sense of identity and ownership of the beliefs (Wuthnow, 1990, p. 129; Fowler, 1986). While ultimately they are given the opportunity to be responsible for their beliefs and integrate them into their lives, some express a limited commitment or even dismiss or ignore this aspect of their lives (Wuthnow, 1990, p. 130; Fowler, 1986).

Again, the model of constructing their world in an intentional and reflexive way appears to be appropriate. The students interviewed spoke about their acceptance of and respect for people from other denominations and religions and, in some cases, their interest in exploring these. Many showed a desire for new experiences, although there was often a sense that they wanted to do this on their own terms. Students were generally also open-minded towards religious faith. Most were aware of, and many had actively thought about, how to reconcile natural disasters with the belief in a loving and powerful God. They were well aware of the issues of religion and science and potential conflicts between them. Many were seeking ways of making sense of the variety of perspectives, constructing and shaping their beliefs through a reflexive process.

Church Attendance

Many students reported little change in their levels of church attendance. Of those that did, many had been attending church on an occasional basis two years ago but had stopped going in the interim. Others who had been going less regularly previously spoke about their increasing independence and greater awareness which had facilitated the change. Still others had changed because their levels of commitment to the church and connection to it (though family especially) had decreased.

For example, one student spoke about how her family had stopped attending, although she still attended occasionally when asked to participate in the choir.

While some of the general reasons for not attending revolved around practical goals such as earning money and studying, other reasons were based around their beliefs and attitudes about spirituality and the church. One comment made by several students was that in their view that it was not essential to go to church in order to believe in God and be a Christian. One student commented:

I don’t believe in going to church because why am I going to go to church to prove to other people I’m a Christian? I’ll pray by myself.

Another female student who was attending occasionally two years ago had moved to the city and had not joined a church. She also felt that her beliefs remained important to her even though she was not attending.

A significant number of students struggled with the content of the services, saying that church was boring, repetitive and old fashioned. However, much of this implied their inability to understand and connect with the language and culture of the church. For example, one female explained, ‘I just sit there and I don’t understand what the guy is talking about’, and a male reiterated that church is ‘just not exciting towards my age.’

Other students reported an increase in their regularity of attendance. For example, some students spoke about how they were expected by family to attend, yet their growing maturity and independence meant that they felt they were attending in their own right, out of their own desire to be there.

A few students who were attending more did so out of a personal decision. One girl had had a conversion experience at a Pentecostal convention. She had been convinced of the power of the Christian faith when she had seen people who had been ‘slain in the Spirit’.

Another young student had increased her attendance because of the influence of a friend. On the other hand, the most common reason behind increased involvement was having specific roles which allowed them to participate and contribute to the services. For example, one student had met a priest through her university who encouraged her to participate in the activities and services there, and another student was asked to play the guitar. Many of the young people who were attending regularly were participating in the music life of their churches.

Changes in the Lives of Young People

Significant life experiences such as moving interstate, a serious accident or illness within the family or an overseas holiday had various kinds of impact on their beliefs and practices. Sometimes these significant experiences had led to students becoming much more aware of what was happening to themselves and those around them. The challenge of experience drew some students into new levels of maturity. Others noted significant life changes through which they had experienced the loss of social networks and friends.

The role of experience was also evident in some of the stories they told about their journeys of faith. For example, several young people spoke of having their faith challenged and, in some cases, deepened by difficult experiences such as personal sickness or the death of a family member. Increased involvement in churches generally seemed associated with formal involvement, for example, through music. However, a few students also spoke of how faith had become personally more meaningful, while for others it had lost what relevance it might have once had.

Young people sometimes seek out significant life experiences. Most young people want to try things out for themselves and to learn by doing so. This was apparent as they spoke about their attitudes to girlfriends and boyfriends, about careers, and about the ways they put their faith together.

Changes in relationships and new depth in relationships were evident in a few cases. Such changes can have a real impact on young people. The resolving of tensions with parents and the growth in the depth of relationships with friends can help young people find a sense of purpose in life and develop goals for life. Relationships with teachers was one factor that had been very important to several students as they sought to work through problems.

Changes in maturity were often identified by students as they spoke of what had happened to them. Actions they had considered ‘fun’ were now seen as ‘childish’. However, other changes also appeared as part of the growth in maturity. Some young people spoke about a greater balance in what was important in life: both study and friends, both work and family. Maturity was also apparent in the greater articulation they were able to give to their goals, their attitudes and their beliefs. Along with the change in maturity often went new freedom and independence. One important point in this process, mentioned by several students, was obtaining their driving licences. At the same time, several students mentioned tensions with parents in relation to being independent.

Changes in life-stage were evident in many interviews. As students reached the final years of their schooling, they were more focussed on completing their secondary education successfully. Many students were thinking about future career paths. Older students were not necessarily clearer about those career paths. Many still had little idea what would be an appropriate career. However, in general, they were more realistic in their thinking, less captivated by glamorous careers or unattainable goals. Major changes had occurred for some of the students who had left school. All had tried more than one course or career before settling into the present course. With the move from school came greater responsibility for their own decisions.

The Self as a Reflexive Project

In Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, the social theorist, Anthony Giddens, describes the formation of the self as a ‘reflexive project for which the individual is responsible’ (1991, p.75). ‘We are’, he says, ‘not what we are, but what we make of ourselves’ through continuing ‘reconstructive endeavours’ (1991, p.75). He describes this process as ‘all pervasive’ and contributing to the primacy of the concern about ‘lifestyle’ (1991, p.81). This process involves choice within the plurality of options. Aspects of traditional culture are ‘adopted’ rather than being ‘handed down’ (1991, pp.80-81).

This process can be contrasted with the society in which the nature of the ‘self’ is largely given by the groups into which one is born. In many non-Western societies today, the self is largely a product of the social class, the political and religious groups in which grows up. The process of the development of the self involves socialisation into these groups, absorbing their language, their symbols and their beliefs. There may be narrow bands within which choices can be made in terms of occupation but, by and large, one has to accept one’s station.

What we have been describing through this article is the formation of the self as a reflexive project. We have caught glimpses of it in relation to the formation of personal goals and career options. We have seen it in the personal choices of primary values.

Giddens himself has suggested that within this context religion, as a form of tradition, would be undermined. Religious cosmology, he suggested, ‘is supplanted by reflexively organised knowledge, governed by empirical observation and logical thought, and focussed upon material technology and socially applied codes’ (1990, p.109). Something of this is apparent in the interviews. Yet, there are also glimpses of the incorporation of religious beliefs into the reflexive self. Young people continue to wrestle with religious beliefs and some young people incorporate them into the ways they see the world. Nevertheless, they are doing this in their own way and in their own time.

This discussion suggests that young people are searching for genuine experiences, especially those involving friends and family, although other meaningful connections also play a role. Thus, while family and friends attend church and young people feel they can contribute to the life of a church through given role and duties to perform, they found involvement more meaningful. The flip side is that if family and friends do not attend, if the students’ goals are oriented around working and playing sport, and if they are not familiar with the language and culture of a church, it is hard for students to be drawn into the collective worship experience.

The young people showed great interest in making decisions for themselves and in being independent in relation to their beliefs, their values and their practices. To have a constructive role in the growth of young people, schools, churches and even parents have to respect that desire for autonomy and engage in dialogue, respecting that process of reflexive construction.

Catherine Cook
and Philip Hughes


Fowler, J. ‘Stages of Faith’ in Wolski Conn, Joann (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development, Paulist, 1986, pp. 226-232, – http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/fowler.htm – accessed 09/08/2006

Giddens, A. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford University Press, California, 1991.

Hughes, P., et al. Exploring what Australians Value, Openbook Publishers, Adelaide, 2003.

Wuthnow, R. Growing up Religious, Beacon Press, Boston, 1990.