Youth Spirituality (Jacqueline Hodder)

  (22 June 08)

Youth Spirituality



This is the text of an address given to the Melbourne SoF Group in June, 2008 by Jacqueline Hodder.



Good evening and thank you for coming to my lecture on Youth Spirituality tonight. I am a Doctoral candidate at the Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne. I am nearing the end of my PhD and this talk forms part of my findings from my project.


In this lecture I will explore two varieties of spirituality evident in the interviews I conducted with young adults last year. I will begin with some background information about why I conducted the study, where the participants were drawn from and some general definitions associated with these 2 categories - 'New Age' and 'Evangelical'. I will then discuss the benefits and challenges associated with each belief system.




Why did I choose to undertake a doctorate in Youth Spirituality? Somewhat naively I suppose, I was interested in the relationship spirituality might play in underpinning young people's wellbeing and happiness. I think the supposition still holds water but there are questions. If spirituality is a key component missing from discussions on young people's health and wellbeing as Eckersley, Wierenga and Wyn recently argued, then how can that occur when spirituality is a nebulous concept and open to personal interpretation? I wondered if it is possible to conceive of a spiritual literacy in order for it to play a role in wellbeing and happiness. What would this spiritual literacy look like and what would be its implications? I am particularly interested in its implications in terms of education.


In 1999 the Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century declared that schooling provides, amongst a range of other factors, a spiritual foundation for young Australians. This may be the case in theory and attempts by the previous government to address a supposed value-gap may seem to go some way to providing a spiritual foundation but I think, in practice, it could be fair to say that Australians haven't really grappled with what is meant by the spiritual and what it might look like for education.


I therefore decided to investigate young people's understandings of spirituality and sought out those people for whom spirituality is a factor in their lives and for whom the concept has acquired some currency. In that way I thought I could assist to deepen the concept of spirituality and its role in young people's lives. Firstly though, let me spend a moment to describe the larger situation young people find themselves in today.


Young people today live in far more complex times than for those of us from previous generations. Their lives are defined by uncertain transitions between school and adult life, by a dominant culture of materialism and individualism which impacts on young people's lives by breaking down connections to community because people can tend to see each other in competitive terms rather than communal ones. Couple this with the impact of family breakdown and complicated blended family situations and you can begin to see why there is growing concern for the lives of young people from scholars and others. Eckersley, Wierenga & Wyn argued that a spiritual foundation for young people's lives could ameliorate many of these issues but how this would work in practice is unclear.


In contemporary society, spirituality is not necessarily conceived as a religious spirituality, although it can be. During the past 100 years or so, declining rates of attendance at mainstream Christian churches has meant that the church plays a less significant role in the lives of young people and their families. Further, migration has changed the face of religion. Today, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia. Where does this leave contemporary youth spirituality?


A recent major report into the Spirit of Generation Y suggests that young people are predominantly secular humanist: their worldview revolving around friends and family. The report surveyed a wide slice of the population but didn't target spiritual or religious young people directly. I thought that in order to deepen a concept of spirituality, I needed to ask young people who had pre-existing spiritual beliefs and who had thought about spirituality to be part of the study. In that way, I could deepen my understanding of the spirituality and explore how spirituality affects these young people's lives.


Who were the participants?


The participants were drawn from a variety of religious and socio-economic backgrounds however, for the purposes of this lecture, I will use examples from the 'New Age' group and the 'Evangelical' group. Stephanie, Evan and Serene come from what could be called a 'New Age' perspective and Millie, Jarryd and Keith come from an Evangelical perspective. Stephanie, Serene and Evan were interviewed individually but Millie, Jarryd and Keith were interviewed as part of 2 focus groups I conducted with members of an outer-suburban church I have named 'New Southern Baptist Church'. This church is modelled on the Hillsong idea. All names and places have been changed to protect the identities of the participants.


'New Age' and 'Evangelical' Spirituality


I would now like to spend the remainder of my time exploring in more depth, the implications of the two categories of belief I mentioned earlier - the 'New Age' and the 'Evangelical'.


Just before I move into that discussion I would like to briefly pause and give a rough idea what I mean when I talk about 'New Age' and 'Evangelical'.


'New Age' can be described as eclectic. People draw on a range of resources to construct a personal belief system. 'New Age' belief seeks to accept a wide variety of belief as part of a wider universal spiritual whole.


For instance, Stephanie says: "I try to do things through God or through the good source, so I still do Tarot cards and I still look at star signs. I'm not anti-religion, I'm respectful of people who stand up and actually express to me a spiritual belief. I remember hearing years ago a woman was talking about religion being the different facets of a diamond and it all comes from the same kind of centre, it's just different reflection, and I've always thought that makes some kind of sense".


'New Age' is perhaps not the most appropriate term for this belief system. The participants themselves describe themselves as 'seeking' but David Tacey uses the, perhaps, more accurate description 'postmodern spirituality'.


'Evangelical' by contrast is characterised by a belief in a religious doctrine that humanity needs salvation from sin and sees Jesus as the figure through which this redemption can occur. Evangelical Christianity also has many elements of morally conservative values such as a rejection of homosexuality and an emphasis on 'family values'.


For example, Jarryd tells me about his idea of spirituality:


"This might seem a little dramatic but I am of the belief, as a follower of Jesus, tat anyone who is not connected to Him has missed the eternal plan for their life so it's that serious to me. So, the place of spirituality in a person's life, and a young person especially, they cannot expect to live their potential or their plan the way they were created for or reach anything in a way of satisfaction or true fulfillment until they are in a true relationship with Jesus."


'New Age' beliefs - challenges and benefits


Stephanie maintains roots to her Catholic upbringing. She loves the ritual of the church but could not equate the church's teaching on homosexuality with her own view that it is not a sin. Stephanie also does Tarot and Horoscope readings. She doesn't describe herself as 'New Age' but as 'seeking'. "For me, I've just always been trying to work out what fits right with me, what sits right". Serene has a deep love for God and feels enveloped in this love most of the time. She is from an Assemblies of God church background but describes her views now as influenced by Eastern thought. Both Stephanie and Serene have tried to find a 'spiritual home' or church but as Serene says:


"I just can't stand it [church]. They preach such small minded sermons. That mass hysteria of the singing. I don't know, there's not much spiritual nourishment in those churches I don't think."


Evan is directed by spirit guides who talk to him when he trances. He is influenced by Michael Newton's Soul books. He has been on an incredibly difficult spiritual journey which is made more difficult by the intensely individual nature of the journey.


The challenge for people seeking to form their own belief system is in this very individual journey. Each person constructs a worldview from scratch rather than subscribing to a set of pre-determined beliefs. While this allows these young people to form beliefs that fit with their own particular worldviews and values, it does not provide them with ready-made access to a support network of like-minded people.


Researchers in this field worry about the way such beliefs are so personalised and individualised. I have tried to pinpoint the source of this worry and I think it boils down to three main concerns:


1. Concern for how young people make and receive moral guidance without the authority of the church

2. Concern 'New Age', beliefs are individualistic and therefore isolate people and do not provide constraints on thinking

3. Concern that 'New Age' belief is a target for marketers.


I will explore each of these concerns in a little more depth now.


1. Concern for how young people make and receive moral guidance without the authority of the church.

Researchers from the Spirit of Generation Y report worry that young people do not have access to the grand narratives that told a people where they were from, how to live their life, and where they were going. Bible stories and other religious artefacts once provided strong moral codes for living life and scholars argue that without these codes, people can drift in a maze of conflicting meanings, unsure where the foundations lie. While Stephanie, Serene and Evan all reject, to some extent, the authority of the church, preferring to build a value system predicated on some of the 'best' bits of world religions, their lives show no evidence of moral turpitude. All three are contributing significantly to society and living lives with strong civic orientations.


2. Concern 'New Age', individualistic beliefs isolate people from each other.

A recent longitudinal study into the effects of 'New Age' beliefs on the lives of young people showed that those practicing individual, rather than corporate beliefs, were at greater risk of anxiety/depression, disturbed and suspicious thinking and anti-social behaviour. There is some evidence that, in Evan's case, this could be accurate but there is no evidence of such behaviour in the lives of Stephanie and Serene. However, it is possible to see how the isolation inherent in a personalised belief system could lead some young people into risky areas.


3. Concern for 'New Age' beliefs as a marketing tool

Two scholars in the United States, Carrette & King, believe the word spiritual is a neat marketing tool because "it can mean anything you want it to as long as it sells". It is true that the use of spiritual technologies such as Tarot cards, horoscopes and spiritual healers, that Stephanie and Evan use, can have consumerist overtones. However, I think while there is evidence that anything can indeed be marketed, to brush off Serene, Stephanie and Evan's spiritual journey lightly as a simple use of spiritual technologies, is to deny the very genuine search for answers that each of these participants has undertaken.


To summarise, the individual journey of the 'New Age':

           allows young people to construct a spiritual worldview from a plethora of options

           does not mean that participants necessarily lack a moral code or guiding vision

           may be located within materalistic/individualistic culture but the searching is deeper than that


Evangelical Christianity - benefits and challenges


The Evangelical Christian category could be seen as more communally-based than so-called 'New Age' followers. What are the benefits and challenges that their belief system presents?


At New Southern Baptist Church, I interviewed 2 groups of Youth Leaders. These leaders are highly involved in the church, attending youth services and running a variety of groups every Friday night, often on top of a full working week. They also participate in lunchtime programs to a local government high school. The church seems very focussed on community. For instance, Millie says: "community. The biggest thing in the Bible is get around people, surround yourself with community".


The church runs many activities to make the community what it is. There's music groups, camps, basketball teams, fishing trips etc. and this provides a context of fun and encouragement.


Wuthnow (a researcher from the United States) who has investigated Evangelical churches in some depth, says that such churches are able to 'package' community. In a society devoid of strong links to community, such a package can seem very compelling. However such churches also come with set doctrinal values such as an emphasis on prosperity and conservative values. In 2006 Amanda Lohrey wrote a Quarterly Essay detailing her investigation into the links between Hillsong Church and politics within Australia. She noted many of the same things I found when I interviewed the young people from New Southern Baptist Church. The young people I interviewed used a surprising amount of business terminology and what could be called 'marketing speak' in my interviews with them. For instance, each of the young people pepper their conversations with words and phrases such as: 'growth', 'targets', 'outcomes', 'significant increase', 'resources'. When I first contacted the church about interviewing some of the Youth Leaders, I was surprised when the receptionist answered the phone, not with New Southern Baptist Church, but New Southern Business Centre.


So how does this fit within a discussion of the benefits and challenges posed by a 'New Age' versus 'Evangelical' belief?


I would argue that Evangelical churches such as New Southern Baptist Church provide a ready-made community that is very appealing to young people and this is perhaps more appealing because there is, conceivably, a gap writ large by Western society's focus on the material rather than the communal. The young people at New Southern Baptist Church seem to relish the fellowship the church provides and a community of like-minded people and a church that is fun. However in order to access these resources, young people need to be able to subscribe to a set of Evangelical Christian beliefs.


A lady called Tanya Levin wrote a book about her time within Hillsong Church. She spoke of these exact dilemmas - the need to belong juxtaposed with the cost of that belonging in terms of being unable to question church tenets openly. New Southern Baptist church operates at a powerful level in these young people's lives. It helps young people develop norms of behaviour and provides follow up resources. This is what Keith says he values about belonging to New Southern Baptist Church:


"For me it's that feeling like you're living a full life. It's a life with purpose and it's like to know that you're living a life that wasn't just some pure fluke. That you're living a life that's got purpose behind it - that it was actually part of the design of the universe, part of God's creation for the earth is just mind blowing and it gives you a fantastic sense of worth knowing that you're part of all that."


Susan Greenfield has a much darker take on group belonging taken too far. She warns that sublimating individual identity to group identity results in an over-extended collective identity that is not healthy. I can see a glimpse of the justification for such a point of view in light of the following quote from Jarryd:


"So a Christian tells us they don't need a church, they're not a Christian, they're confused because you can't actually love God and not love what He loves and He loves people."


To summarise


On the one hand there is a group of young people for whom the church provides fellowship and support and guidelines, and on the other, there is a group of people who have found similar avenues of comfort and support but who do not belong to a church. The Evangelical New Southern Baptist church provides the young people attending with connections and a common bond. That common bond is a belief in Jesus Christ and a desire to share the Evangelical Christian message. On the other hand, Serene, Stephanie and Evan want to find a community of like-minded people but cannot subscribe to a set of morally conservative values such as New Southern preaches. Both forms of belief operate at levels that present challenges and benefits to the young people involved. I will now spend a moment discussing these before concluding the talk.


Underneath the outward expressions of belief that both groups of young people express there are similarities. The young people in this project seek relationship to something, that for want of a better word, they call 'God'. They seek relationship to God, others, the wider community and themselves. They seek to know they are loved on a far more transcendental level than familial love. The way the find and express this love says more about an individual's personality, family background and life circumstances than any one factor.


For those from the 'New Age' group, there is a longing to belong but an unwillingness to compromise deeply held values in order to do so. In this sense I would like to speak to the mainstream churches whose messages are seen as below the level of love and acceptance that these young people seek. In the Evangelical church, the caution is more for the individual not to sublimate their identity for the sake of group belonging and to ask questions where required.


To finish I would like to recap the main points I have talked about today.


My project asked young people their conceptions and understandings of spirituality. The beliefs I have described here are 'New Age' and 'Evangelical'. Both beliefs provide comfort, assurance, love and peace. Participants from the 'New Age' category, maintain an integrity of belief but the cost is a sense of isolation from other spiritual travellers. Evangelical participants found belonging in the community of their church and fellowship with other people but the caution for such followers is in the sublimation of self to a collective group identity.




The spiritual journey is defined by a need to understand the self in relationship to God and others. The way in which beliefs take expression is determined by a wide variety of influences. Some people choose an individual route that can leave them feeling alone in the journey while others seek a community of believers but do not question received beliefs.


Perhaps one of the greatest challenges will be to mainstream churches who do not figure widely in this project. Perhaps there is a middle ground between the 2 but it may require mainstream churches to provide spaces for reflection, community and open dialogue. But perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to wider Western society and its failure to provide clear and sustaining narratives of meaning and which has sacrificed community upon the altar of capitalism. It is Western society that has, in the end, failed to meet the needs of young people seeking both community and spirituality.


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