Implications Of The Study Of Youth Spirituality

From Pointers, Volume 16. Number 3. September 2006.

As the study of youth spirituality comes to an end, we have begun exploring the implications of the findings for church and youth activities, for schools and religious education, and for parents and the young people themselves. A final formal meeting with the sponsors of the project was held on 18th August 2006 and several of the sponsors spoke of what they saw as significant implications for their various contexts. This article is based partly on my own reflections and partly on those who spoke at that meeting. This is just the start of the process. The Christian Research Association is looking forward to holding consultations in various places towards the end of this year and the start of 2007.

The Changing Culture

Having noted the low levels of involvement among young people in churches and their vagueness about beliefs, one has to ask whether the churches have failed young people. Have they failed to pass on the heritage of faith that has been handed down over many generations?

In some of the interviews we conducted in Christian schools, we asked students about their own beliefs, and then asked them about what they had been taught. They could explain the Christian faith the school was teaching. But the differences between the school’s teaching and their own beliefs were most informative. Young people take what works for them. They put together their beliefs in a way that is meaningful for them. Those aspects that are not meaningful are not explicitly rejected, but rather fade into obscurity.

We followed this up through many in-depth interviews. Young people saw it as their responsibility to put their own beliefs together. They were aware of the many sources of information. They could talk about the problems in the relationship between religion and science. Many were wrestling with the issue of how the suffering that arises from natural disasters can be reconciled with the idea of a loving and powerful God.

Some young people indicated that they found it impossible to accept Church teaching on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and premarital sexual activity. Some pointed to the human failures within the church, of paedophilia and other forms of abuse. In the light of all this, they were putting together, albeit vaguely and unsystematically, beliefs that made sense to them.

Western culture has changed. Throughout the Western world, young people have been brought up not to accept what is handed to them. Rather, they see it as their right to work things through for themselves. Many people of previous generations have come to those same difficult issues later in life.

Sometimes people wrestle with them within the churches. Sometimes they hope that someone else will come up with the solution. Contemporary Australian young people start from the standpoint of the individual, in most cases outside the context of a church, putting together beliefs and practices that make sense to them.

An Environment for Exploring Faith

The general pattern in church life has been to invite people into the church and then provide them with opportunities to explore life and faith. The entrance is clearly marked on Sundays, but entry points are not so evident on other days of the week. But attending a church on Sundays demands a certain amount of commitment. One is expected to join in the hymns and the responsive prayers. Some churches expect one to find the reading in the pew Bible and to be able to follow it. And then one has to listen passively to the sermon. There are no opportunities for questions or discussion, no chance to express one’s disagreement.

We found that young people generally reacted strongly when beliefs and practices were thrust upon them. They objected to the school that taught them what they should believe. “Our principal pretty much told us we had to believe in God and the Church”, said one student attending a Christian school. “Kind of annoying because we all feel that we want to believe in what we want to,” she continued. “I was kind of confused. I just thought we don’t have to do that because you tell us to.”

Young people told us, however, that they enjoyed listening to the experiences of people they respected. Sometimes, in the church schools, they warmed more to services when teachers took them rather than the chaplain or priest. Often, they enjoyed input from other students. They were keen to know what would work for them in their own lives, here and now. Such input made it more meaningful to them. A few jokes to make it more fun, some visual elements to make it interesting, and it might hold their attention.

I was talking with a class of students in a Catholic school about what were most ‘fun’ experiences they had ever had. I expected the usual range of answers: a pop concert, a visit to a theme park, extreme sports, and so on. But this class was unanimous in its opinion. It was the last spiritual retreat they went on. “Why was that so much fun?”, I asked. “Because we said things to our friends that we would never normally say”, they said. The retreat had focussed on relationships. It had provided them with the opportunity to deepen their relationships and to appreciate each other at a new depth. That had been fun.

In his reflections on the findings of the project, Garry Everett , who works with the Queensland Catholic Education Commission, noted that in his experience religious education has been approached primarily from a cognitive perspective. However, Generation Y are evidently approaching spirituality and putting life together affectively.

He went on to comment that religious education has generally been approached as if it was delivering certitude. However, Generation Y see themselves as being on a journey and are not convinced by the certitude. It has offered what it saw as a system of meaning while most young people believe there can be no great all-encompassing system. They are looking for experiential markers and techniques.

I wonder if the churches can do better at providing opportunities for people to explore faith without first requiring that people make a commitment, or expecting people to participate in the strange and culturally foreign rituals that occur on Sunday mornings? I wonder if we can open opportunities for discussion and dialogue without making assumptions about the existence of a total system of belief that can be delivered with certitude? Can we start those discussions with the issues of everyday life: about friends and family, about fun and freedom?

Young people want to be taken seriously. They want their autonomy in matters of faith to be respected. But they are willing to enter into dialogue if they feel that the environment will let them explore faith in ways that are meaningful to them.

Their parents often have similar attitudes and are no more involved in the churches than their children. One of the surprises in the data was how close the attitudes and beliefs of Generation Y were to their parents and how much Generation Y takes from their parents. The Broken Bay Catholic Schools Office noted that this may mean that we need to take seriously the whole family in the dialogue.


For many young people, worship is a very strange activity. Many have little understanding of the symbols and the language. The language does not have to be 19th century for them to be confused. We asked a range of students in church schools what they understood by ‘grace’. A few knew that it was the prayer you say at the meal table, but almost no one could get much further than that. I am sure they had heard the term, but they had not absorbed it. It had not connected with what they already knew or had experienced.

Many young people have told us that they are simply bored by church services. Those that occur in the context of a Christian school are boring. Those that occur in a local church are usually worse. Much of the time, they fail to connect with the language, the thoughts and the interests of the young people.

One of the highest values amongst contemporary young people is ‘excitement’. We have been exploring what they mean by this. They want experiences that are new, that are different, that capture their attention and absorb them. Many freely admit that they find it hard to concentrate on words alone. They have been born into a world full of moving images and short bites of information.

It dawned on me that what is new for one person looks just the same to another. I turn on a commercial radio station and all I hear is unpleasant noise. I cannot tell one band from another. The differences between hip-hop, rap and other sorts of contemporary music escape me. Just a bar of classical music, and I certainly know whether it is classical or romantic, whether it is Mozart or Tchaikovsky. The new symphony of Vivaldi that has just been discovered I find exciting. The new rock band means nothing to me.

Those of us who have attended services of worship all our lives are attuned to the tiny differences, the different wording in the prayer or the hymn in a different place. Such differences escape many in our pews, let alone the outsider who becomes easily bored by what, to them, is the sameness of it all.
We have built our network of churches on the basis of geographical area. But today’s communities are centred around tastes and interests, styles and passions. The language, the assumptions, the worldview of one community are very different from that of another.

Worship that expresses what we feel must be in the language of the heart. Among younger people in our community that means that worship will be different from one group to another, both in language and style, in symbol and focus.

As God came into our culture to express God’s self, so we need to express our worship in the language and symbols of our culture. Indeed, part of the function of worship is to lift our culture to new heights as its forms of expression are used for worship. Youth forms of communication are multi-sensory. They are colourful with a strong physical and emotional beat. Most importantly, however, they relate to a world in which young people are trying, each in their individualistic way, to put their lives together – their relationships, study, work; the world of fun and excitement, of chill-out times, and sometimes of confusion and hurt.

Philip Hughes


The core part of this study of young people was conducted by a team of researchers: Michael Mason and Ruth Webber (ACU), Andrew Singleton (Monash), and Philip Hughes (CRA). The Christian Research Association alone was responsible for the additional surveys and interviews in schools. For more details, see the CRA website: Philip Hughes takes sole responsibility for the opinions about implications for the study that are expressed here.

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