Spirituality in Youth Work?

In 2010, when I completed my Youth Work degree, I left university feeling as though faith had no place in youth work. I remember feeling deflated, as though I had to ‘take off’ part of myself in order to be a youth worker. 

When many people hear the word ‘spirituality’ or ‘spiritual’, it conjures up very diverse images and feelings depending on the experience of the individual. Some people think spirituality is purely religious, others think of it as something ‘Eastern’, something free, something mystical. To some, it is a positive thing, to others it is negative.  But is it really compatible with youth work, which is designed to be anti-oppressive, empowering, and non-coercive[1]?

Yes, I believe so! What I have come to realise over the past 10 years since then, and especially more recently so, is that there is a place for spirituality within youth work – a place where one can be both authentically spiritual, but also ethical in our practice with the young person. Let’s have a look at the what (is spirituality), the why (it’s compatible), and the how (to engage spiritually). 

Here’s the what

Spirituality is pretty difficult to define, since it is different to each person based on their religious and cultural identities, and their experiences. Many authors in this space have sought to create a definition, and most of these don’t require a religious affiliation either. Here are some of the words authors used to describe it:

  • “being part of ‘the grand scheme of things’”[2]
  • Intangible and complex[3]
  • Experience of the Sacred other[4] or pursuit of the sacred[5]
  • Connectedness[6] – to others, nature, oneself, to the Higher Power or grand scheme (e.g., God/s, spirit/s)[7]
  • Transcendent[8]
  • Part of who we are[9] and universal to everyone[10]
  • A provider of hope[11]
  • Listening to the ‘inner voice’[12]
  • Personal[13]
  • Purpose and Meaning[14]

In preparing to write this article, I also looked into some commentary on the Spirituality of First Nations People. To summarise (and I am definitely no expert on this), Aboriginal Spirituality adds another dimension of the interconnectedness of people with the land and all of nature[15]. There is a depth which recognises how all things – people, flora, fauna, land and space are connected spiritually[16]. Living itself – both in the good and the bad – is sacred, and Law is about maintaining this sacred connectedness.[17] Some modern spirituality might be seen as self-centred; however, Aboriginal spirituality contains a deep contemplation on the impact of one’s actions upon all of life and land.[18] This is a terribly reductive summary that has not done justice to Aboriginal Spirituality, so I urge you to do more reading on this matter – particularly listening to the voices of Aboriginal people themselves. 

What is clearly common amongst these definitions of spirituality is that of interconnectedness, being part of a greater purpose, and a sense of the sacred. These link to a ‘stripping back of self’, for example in one’s ego, for the sake of each of these three causes.[19] Each religion and non-religious spirituality might define each of these ideas differently, but it is important to start with what is common. 

Here’s the why

Many youth workers are afraid of engaging in spirituality with young people for fear of breaching boundaries or fear of offending young people.[20] I understand this fear, for it is motivated out of a desire to protect young people. Unfortunately, this means that spirituality is largely ignored in youth work, meaning this need that young people have is ignored too,[21] doing damage to the wellbeing and flourishing of young people.[22] A key of youth work is to work holistically,[23] and to ignore one aspect of young people’s lives is not holistic work.[24] According to many authorities on spirituality in youth work, the spiritual is an ever-present part of who we are and our relationships.[25] The spiritual forms part of our core identity.[26] Tacey[27]claims that to deny the spiritual aspect of ourselves (and therefore, others) will only lead to its distortion. Spirituality must be included in youth work because it is integral to young people’s wellbeing. 

There is much research that demonstrates that young people are already deeply and actively engaging in grassroots spirituality.[28] One such research project cited by Daughtry[29] found that 43% of young people are interested in the spiritual.[30] This is no small amount, that almost half of young people are interested in spirituality is something to take note of. Tacey[31] found that those who are interested in spiritual matters are responding to secularism: as society becomes more consumeristic, the more a feeling of ‘emptiness’ is experienced which drives young people to find spiritual fulfilment. Singleton et al[32] expanded on these percentages, explaining that this 43% is made up of young people who are Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR), ‘seekers’, and religiously committed. Their research also covered General Religious Education programs, which cover the basics of all religions (beliefs, and why they believe these things), and found that the program helped the students gain a greater understanding of religious people and helped them become more tolerant, reducing negative perceptions of religious minorities. Therefore, spirituality is essential to youth work because it is important to a big portion of young people, and it has huge value for a more inclusive society.[33] This is not to mention the positive impact that engaging in spirituality will have upon youth workers themselves,[34] which will only lead to better outcomes for young people, or the strong correlation between recovering from mental health difficulties and engaging in spirituality.[35]

Here’s the how

So, we have defined spirituality, and we have argued for its inclusion in youth work, but what does that mean practically? Green[36] offers an analogy which is quite helpful:

The tabla player waits patiently with their drums for the sitar player to receive ‘sruti’, or divine inspiration, and then ‘holds’ the music so that the sitar playing is supported and confirmed. When the sitar player falters, the tabla plays more strongly and with a more obvious beat; when the sitar is strong and confident, the tabla player retreats into the background. This sensitive waiting to hear what is needed and wanted involves mindfulness and concentration.

Working spiritually for young people means holding a ‘space’ for young people. During this space we create the needed silence to allow them to contemplate, reflect, reconnect, and speak when we need to. I recommend reading Maxine Green’s work, ‘Using your spiritual self as a youth work tool’[37], and Maxine Green and Phil Daughtry’s book, ‘The Art of Accompanying’[38]but here are some steps I have synthesised from various authors:

Step 1: Start with yourself

  • Quieten your soul (‘still your soul’)
  • Take time to reflect, withdraw, and study spirituality

Step 2: Create a contemplative, listening space

  • Be aware of the possibility of spiritual needs of the young person
  • When chatting with a young person, be mindful of the movements of their soul
  • Rid yourself of the need to transmit knowledge
  • Concentrate on the young person
  • Give adequate space to allow them to contemplate, and express the movements of their soul

Step 3: ‘Draw out’ what is ‘within’

  • Create experiences that allow young people to engage the spirit
  • For example: watching a jar of sand settle, picking cards that lead to a reflection on one’s life story, meditation, retreats, nature hikes 

Step 4: Engage in interfaith Dialogue[39]

  • Build opportunity for dialogue across faiths which is free from debate, competition and proselytising 
  • Aimed towards mutual understanding and mutual problem solving
  • Search for what they have in common (e.g., theological and scriptural similarities, values, experiences)

Spirituality is a journey, filled with potential. Would you like to learn more about Spiritual Youth Work? Get in touch with us! We can facilitate PD’s, workshops, and mentoring on this and other topics relevant to Youth Work. 

[1] YACWA/Youth Work WA code of ethics

[2] Eckersley, R., Wierenga, A., & Wyn, J. (2006). Success & wellbeing: A preview of the Australia 21 report on young people’s wellbeing. Youth Studies Australia, 25(1), 10 – 18, p. 12

[3] Green, M. (2015). Using your spiritual self as a youth work tool. In M. Smith, N. Stanton, & T. Whlie (eds.), Youth work and faith: Debates, delights and dilemmas (pp 138 – 151)Russell House, p. 139

[4] Daughtry, 2010 as cited in Green (2015), p. 140

[5] Tacey, D. (2016b). Spirituality, religion and youth in secular times. In P. Daughtry, & Devenish, S. (eds.), Spirituality for youth work: New vocabulary, concepts and practices (pp 16 – 31)Cambridge Scholars Publishing, p 4

[6] Daughtry (2010) as cited in Green (2015), p. 140; Tacey (2016b), p. 6; Senter, K.E., & Caldwell, K. (2002). Spirituality and the maintenance of change: A phenomenological study of women who leave abusive relationships. Contemporary Family Therapy, 24(4), 543-564. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1021269028756

[7] Tacey (2016b), p. 6

[8] Green, (2015), p. 141; Elkins, D., Hedstrom, L., Hughes, L., Leaf, J. and Saunders, C. (1988). Toward a Humanistic-phenomenological spirituality: Definition, description, and measurement. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 28(4), 5-18. Doi: 10.1177/0022167888284002; Senter and Caldwell (2002)

[9] Tacey, (2016b), p. 5 – 6 

[10] Daughtry, P. (2020). Portraits of the ‘shy hope’: Engaging Youth Spiritualities in the Australian Context. The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 10(1), 13 – 27, p. 24

[11] Daughtry (2020), p 15

[12] Tacey, D. (2010). What spirituality means to young adults. In S. Collins-Mayo & P. Dandelion (Eds.), Religion and Youth (pp. 65-71). Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate.

[13] Fazzino, L. (2014). Leaving the church behind: Applying a deconversion perspective to evangelical exit narratives. Journal Of Contemporary Religion29(2), 249-266. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13537903.2014.903664; Singleton, A. (2019). Religion and spirituality in contemporary Australia. In J. Germov & M. Poole (Eds.), Public Sociology (5th Ed.) (pp 328 – 344). Allen & Unwin.

[14] McCrindle Research (2017). Faith and belief in Australia. Baulkham Hills, NSW: McCrindle Research Pty. Ltd. Available from: http://faithandbelief.org.au

[15] Grieves, V. (2008). Aboriginal Spirituality: A baseline for Indigenous knowledges development in Australia. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 28(2), 368 – 398. 

[16] Grieves, 2008

[17] Grieves, 2008; Brady, V. (1996). Aboriginal Spirituality. Literature and Theology, 10(3), 242 – 251. 

[18] Grieves, 2008

[19] Green, 2015

[20] Green, M. (2008). Putting spiritual development of young people on the map: An English perspective. New Directions For Youth Development, (118), 59 – 72.

[21] Green, 2008

[22] Eckersley, Wierenga & Wyn, 2006, Green, 2008, Green 2015, Daughtry, 2020

[23] Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia. (2014). Code of ethics for Youth Workers in WA. Retrieved 1 March, 2019 from: https://www.yacwa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Youth-Work-Code-of-Ethics.pdf

[24] Green, 2015

[25] Tacey, D. (2016). Spiritual education: Drawing out what is within. In P. Daughtry, & Devenish, S. (eds.), Spirituality for youth work: New vocabulary, concepts and practices (pp 3 – 15)Cambridge Scholars Publishing; Daughtry, 2020, Green, 2015

[26] Green, 2008, Eckersley et al, 2006

[27] Tacey, 2016

[28] Eckersley et al, 2006, Tacey, 2016

[29] Daughtry, 2020

[30] Bouma and Halaloff 2017 & Singleton, Halaloff and Bouma, 2018 as cited in Daughtry, 2020

[31] Tacey, 2016

[32] Singleton, A., Rasmussen, M.L., Halafoff, A., & Bouma, G.D. (2019). The AGZ Study: Project report. ANU, Deakin and Monash Universities.

[33] Green, 2008

[34] Green, 2015

[35] Tacey, 2016

[36] Green, 2015, p. 142

[37] Green, 2015

[38] Green, M., & Daughtry, P. (2020). The Art of Accompanying. Immortalise.

[39] Garfinkel, R. (2008). What Works? Evaluating interfaith dialogue programs. DIANE publishing.

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