We asked four seasoned youth workers one simple but pressing questions: What does teen spirituality look like? Here’s what they said…

Sylvia Sullard: Adolescent spiritual growth can be hard to spot and appear uneven; but in my experience, it is usually the little moments that give peeks into growth…such as when forgiveness is offered or received honestly: There is an increasing awareness of others, or speech patterns change from foul and negative to clean and uplifting.

David Hanson: I agree, Sylvia. Spiritual growth can be difficult to discern, especially in students who feel uneasy discussing their faith—or feelings at all for that matter. The more we can get students talking with adults about what they are feeling and experiencing as it pertains to faith, the better we will understand where they are and where they need to grow. That said, our call is to help students gain a holistic understanding of faith.

We must help them walk that fine line between heart change and obedience.

If they demonstrate great faith, but there’s no discernible fruit, I push them toward small acts of obedience. If students are walking through empty rituals, trying to be obedient, I challenge their whys, and we talk about what it means to find satisfaction in Christ.

Tim Balfanz: I agree with David when it comes to faith and works. When youth begin to understand and experience God’s free gift of grace, the works or fruit will happen out of the love they have experienced from God.

When students are growing in their faith, they stop focusing on themselves and begin to look to the needs around them.

They begin to understand they have everything they need in Christ; and because they already have all they need, they live radical lives serving others.

Jen Bradbury: Certainly I hope spiritual growth manifests in servanthood and in the fruit of the spirits. That said, I also think you can spot spiritual growth in teens by the questions they’re asking and doubts they’re expressing. My experience has been that teens who honestly are asking questions about their faith typically are growing in that faith.

Questions often prompt them to search for answers individually and within our faith communities. That, in turn, often enables teens to take ownership of their faith.

Sylvia Sullard: It may be helpful to define a bit more how serving others looks for authentic spiritual growth. I don’t think I would include going on mission trips—or one-day serving opportunities—as markers for a teen’s growth.

I have seen way too many teens do these trips, get excited, say a lot of spiritual words, and then come home to previous behavior of bullying, treating siblings poorly, gossip or other not-so-Christ-like actions.

Of course, this is not always true, but we must be careful not to highlight these bigger moments as the identifiers of growth, either for the teens or our congregations. I fully agree with Jen that teens’ questions and doubts also are ways to spot growth. Do we not find that faith is like gardening in that it takes time to grow, and for quite a while it may be pretty hard to spot?

About The Author

Jen Bradbury serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. She’s the author of The Jesus Gap. Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal and The Christian Century, and she blogs regularly at ymjen.com. When not doing ministry, she and her husband, Doug, can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their daughter, Hope.

Sylvia Sullard serves as the HS Youth Director for Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church on San Juan Island in Washington State. She has been an islander youth director for 18 years. Sylvia graduated from Seattle Pacific U in 1992 and has been in youth ministry since that time.

David Hanson is the lead Student Pastor for The Fellowship Church’s Round Rock and Hutto campuses. David is a graduate of Texas Tech University and Truett Theological Seminary and has served in youth ministry for ten years. David blogs about youth ministry at www.TheYouthMinistryBlog.com.

Tim Balfanz serves as the Associate Pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Moline, Illinois. A new youth pastor, Tim holds a Master of Divinity from Luther Seminary. Tim has been a youth pastor for the last 2 years, but has been working with youth for the last 7 years.

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