Youth Development – A Search for Meaning, Connection, and Spirituality

Youth Development – A Search for Meaning, Connection, and Spirituality


This article discusses spirituality as an important element of youth development, and defines spirituality beyond religion.

The memory of that day will forever be etched in my mind. My parents sat me down and shared that my cousin Tracy, 7 years old, was struck and killed while riding his bike on the country road that passed by our house. Tracy and his parents lived in the house next door, and I would often spend time babysitting and playing with him. More than a relative, he was my little buddy. His sudden death crushed me. Then something happened. The waves of emotion that washed over me that day and in the ensuing weeks unveiled a mystery that created a hunger for meaning. Beyond the sense of loss and feelings of grief, I felt myself being cradled in family and community relationships in new ways, and in a connection to something larger than myself – something that conveyed warmth, invitation, a sense of belonging, and meaning.

Decades have come and gone since this upending life experience. However, I’ve never lost the hunger for connecting to deeper meaning, and it has compelled a life’s work with youth and adults centered in exploring ways to develop, grow, and change mindsets, behaviors, and interactions with others and the world. As it turns out, emerging research over the past 10 years confirms that this hunger for meaning – significance, belonging, and purpose is a universal driver of youth and human development across the world.

Search Institute shared in their book, Spiritual Development: New Directions for Youth Development, that spiritual development was found to be a critical part of positive youth development across traditions and cultures. As they began unpacking their research, a new definition for spiritual development came into focus. They state, “Spiritual development is, in part, a contant, ongoing, and dynamic interplay between one’s inward journey and one’s outward journey.”

It involves at least three core developmental processes (which are emphasized differently in different cultures and traditions):

Awareness or awakening: Being or becoming aware of or awakening to one’s self, others, and the universe (which may be understood as including the sacred or divine) in ways that cultivate identity, meaning, and purpose. This process can be subdivided into two themes:

    • Self-awareness: Awakening to one’s inherent strength.
    • World-awareness: Awakening to the beauty, majesty, and wonder of the universe.

• Interconnecting and belonging: Seeking, accepting, or experiencing significance in relationships to and interdependence with others, the world, or one’s sense of the transcendent (often including an understanding of God or a higher power); and linking to narratives, beliefs, and traditions that give meaning to human experience across time.

• Living an integrated life: Authentically expressing one’s strengths, identity, passions, values, and creativity through relationships, activities, and/or practices that shape bonds with oneself, family, community, humanity, the world, and/or that which one believes to be transcendent or sacred.

With these three deeply personal developmental processes at play in a young person’s emerging sense of identity, profound and life-shaping questions rise to the surface that include:

How do I develop my deepest, fundamental commitments?

How do find my place in family, community, world, universe?

How do I come to terms with issues of meaning, purpose, and identity beyond myself?

These questions are, at their core, spiritual development questions. And, as research illuminates and confirms, they are also the questions that address the critical issues in adolescent development. In their research on the relationship between spiritual development and identity processes, Templeton and Eccles state, “Spirituality is a personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions such as “Who am I?”, “What’s the meaning of my life?”, “Where am I going?” These are questions about personal identity.

Though these are the fundamental questions young people are struggling to find answers for, less than 2% of research on adolescence addresses spiritual development! Search Institute found that nearly 80 percent of youth stated that spirituality was vital to their sense of identity. Yet when asked, the majority of youth development professionals put spiritual development at the bottom of the list—below social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.

Lisa Miller found that adolescents, from all countries, are profoundly spiritual. She states, “They are experiencing spiritual stirrings as momentous and wondrous, and they are surprised that for the most part, nobody has talked to them about this experience. Nobody. Not even people they love dearly, have asked, or commented, or said something to make spiritual development part of a conversation, shared words that make their inner life a spoken reality.”

What if, in all our research initiatives and focuses on best practices to categorize, quantify, and measure healthy youth development, we have overlooked the most powerful driver of identity formation? What would it look like to push beyond narrowly defined religious categories that dissect or reinforce exclusivity in order to engage with youth in spiritual conversations fueled by questions like, “What’s the meaning of your life?” and “How are you discovering your purpose?” Apparently, there are a lot of young people out there who are just waiting for us to engage their curiosity and quest for deeper meaning.

Ritch Hochstetler, Chief Ideation Trailblazer at ULEAD

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