In 2008 I was involved in running focus groups in Adelaide as part of Search Institute‘s global youth spirituality project. The project involved a survey of nearly 7,000 young people and 175 focus groups across 17 countries. This was the first step in refining a survey instrument that might be used more widely in stage 2. The sample group were 12-25 years and taken across many faiths, plus young people who identified as atheist or agnostic. The project also included 32 in depth interviews with young people who were identified as being spiritual exemplars, as well as a survey of 120 social scientists, theologians/ philosophers, and youth development experts.

The basis of the research was that spirituality was an intrinsic part of being human. Here are some findings:

  1. Most youth surveyed believe life has a spiritual dimension
  2. Some youth interpret experiences as spiritually meaningful; others do not
  3. Many young people want to talk about spiritual matters
  4. Most young people see themselves as spiritual, and most see themselves doing well spiritually
  5. Young people see spiritual development as both “part of who you are” and an intentional choice
  6. Many youth believe in or experience the transcendent
  7. Youth see religion and spirituality as related, but different
  8. Most young people see both spirituality and religion as positive
  9. Everyday experiences and relationships nurture young people’s spirit
  10. Youth most often nurture spiritual development alone or by helping others
  11. Many young people say family and friends help them spiritually—but one in five say “no one” does
  12. Most youth see their parents modeling religious or spiritual activities
  13. Levels of religious involvement vary considerably across participating countries

On the basis of the research, Search Institute proposed a guiding framework for further investigation. Spirituality was seen as having inter-related inward and outward dynamics around three core developmental processes:

Connecting 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.

Becoming aware of or awakened to self and life—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.

Developing a way of living—Expressing one’s 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.

While the project did not continue as it did not attract ongoing funding, the findings are both interesting and helpful as a framework for considering the spiritual development of young people.

Eugene Roehlkepartain et al, With Their Own Voices (Minneapolis: Search Institute, 2008).

I am making the report available for download here as it is no longer accessible on the Search Institute website.

DOWNLOAD With Their Own Voices Report (1.4mb PDF)