The Faith Factor: Kids and God

Although clinical psychology has focused on the healing of persons and the treatment and prevention of pathology, there is a burgeoning movement to promote positive and optimal development.1 The emerging field of positive youth development (PYD) has captured the attention of scholars and practitioners alike, providing a refreshing vision for what young people can and should become: competent, moral, social, spiritual, joyful, contributing members of society.2 Rather than emphasizing negative indicators of “health,” such as lack of depression, violence, and substance abuse, positive youth development emphasizes the potential for young people to thrive, and from a Christian perspective—the potential for young people to become all God created them to be.

This emerging field recognizes the importance of spirituality in the lives of young people.3 Scholars and practitioners acknowledge that religion and faith can be important resources for youth—providing them with important sources of social support, meaning, values, and identity. In fact, there is a strong body of evidence demonstrating that religion is associated with positive outcomes for young people. These findings suggest that religion acts as a resource for support, resiliency, encouragement, coping, meaning, satisfaction, values, and behavioral prescriptives. In addition, research suggests that religion acts to buffer against various risks such as substance abuse, violence, and delinquency.4

While interest in the benefits of religion to adolescent well-being has grown, current studies provide little theoretical explanation for these positive effects, and few theoretical models have been advanced to explain the positive relationship between religion and developmental outcomes. In our recent book, Jack Balswick, Kevin Reimer, and I propose an integrated model of human development. Drawing upon theological anthropology and psychological theories, we suggest a developmental teleology5 that gives insight into why religion seems to be so beneficial to young people.6 Following theologians such as Anderson, Barth, Grenz, Gunton, Shults, and Volf, we focus on relationality as the key aspect of being human and anchor our understanding of the human self in Trinitarian theology.

We view the members of the Trinity as persons-in-relation who gain their identity from their interrelationality.7 The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unity as one, yet remain three distinct persons. The communion of the Godhead does not compromise the distinctness of each.8 In this way, particularity and relatedness coexist because the Trinity’s relatedness is characterized by perfect reciprocity where the three live with and for each other.

To be made in the image of God is to mirror this relationality—to exist as reciprocating selves, as unique individuals living in relationship with God and human others. To live according to God’s design is to glorify God as a distinct human being in communion with God and others in mutually giving and receiving relationships. Consequently, we understand a person not just as an individual but as one who finds his or her true being in relationship with God and with others. Although living in unity with God and human others is central to our understanding of God’s intention for us, such relatedness does not sacrifice the God-given uniqueness and particularity of the individual. Just as the Father, Son, and Spirit remain distinct persons within the Godhead, so do we as humans remain unique in our relationships with God and others.

Distinctness in relationships provides an apt frame for understanding adolescents. Psychological theories describe in detail the prominence and importance of relationships for adolescents. There is little psychological literature, however, about the young person’s relationship with God. As evangelicals we emphasize the value of a person’s relationship with God. But how might this relationship benefit the youth’s development?

Religious communities can nurture the uniqueness of the individual as well as promote unity with God and others. Clinicians, youth ministers, and youth workers can promote development by nurturing the type of relationship with God and a community of believers which enhances and solidifies the young person’s sense of identity, providing meaning, purpose, and transcendence.

Uniqueness in Adolescence

Adolescence is the season for becoming a unique person. Independence, autonomy, differentiation, and individuation are all crucial aspects of adolescent development. The formation and consolidation of a sense of identity is central to the emergence of a reciprocating self. Young persons create internal cohesion by clarifying and consolidating their experiences of self in the context of familial, vocational, and societal roles.9 Personal goals, values, and worldviews are integrated into a set of meanings and purpose that support self-understanding. The quest for identity is marked by yearnings and behaviors that simultaneously bond youth to and locate them within something bigger than themselves and affirm their sense of uniqueness and independence.

Unity in Adolescence

Perhaps ironically, just as adolescents spend considerable energy differentiating themselves and emphasizing their uniqueness and autonomy, they often do so while conforming to peer expectations. To adolescents, relationships are everything. Once again, religious communities offer important and healthy experiences of relatedness that can meet the young person’s developmental needs to belong.

Faith offers a profound sense of connection to God and to others. In the Evangelical tradition this connection comes through the believer’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Our ability to worship God the Father occurs through our participation in the life of the Son through the Spirit.

Understanding ourselves as beloved sons or daughters of God is an essential element of our faith. Our faith provides spiritual disciplines, rituals, and sacraments through which young people may experience themselves in relationship to God.

In addition, youth may find a profound sense of belonging as a member of a faith community. As young people participate in congregations, they can locate themselves within a historic tradition with a community of believers who have gone before them, as well as a present body of believers that live alongside them, allowing youth to be a part of something greater than themselves. The Lord’s Supper (i.e., Communion) provides Christian youth with a consistent experience of connection to all believers past and present. By taking the bread and wine, one experiences union with Christ and communes with all the saints.

From a theological perspective we understand that young people are created to be in relationship with God and with others. From a psychological perspective, we can understand how one’s relationship with God can promote a healthy sense of uniqueness and draw young people into a relationship with God and others. We can understand how a young person’s relationship with God enables him or her to live according to God’s design—as differentiated individuals in mutual relationships with others. Practitioners serving youth can nurture a young person’s relationship with God in order to enable them to become all God created them to be.

1. M. Seligman and M. Csikszentmihalyi, “Positive Psychology: An Introduction,” American Psychologist 55 (2000): 5–14.
2. P. L. Benson, N. Leffert, P. C. Scales, and D. A. Blyth, “Beyond the ‘Village’ Rhetoric: Creating Healthy Communities for Children and Adolescents,” Applied Developmental Science 2, no. 3 (1998): 138–59; W. Damon, “What Is Positive Youth Development?” The Annals of the American Academy 591 (2004): 13–24; R. M. Lerner, Liberty: Thriving and Civic Engagement among America’s Youth (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004).
3. P. E. King, and P. L. Benson, “Spiritual Development and Adolescent Well-being and Thriving and Well-being,” in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, ed. G. C. Roehlkepartain, P. E. King, L. M. Wagener, and P. L. Benson (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).
4. M. Regnerus, C. Smith, and M. Fritsch, Religion in the Lives of American Adolescents: A Review of the Literature (Chapel Hill, NC: National Study of Youth and Religion, 2003); E. C. Roehlkepartain, P. E. King, L. M. Wagener, and P. L. Benson, The Handbook for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).
5. Developmental teleology is a theological understanding of human development (i.e., God’s view of our completion).
6. J. O. Balswick, P. E. King, and K. S. Reimer, The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).
7. S. J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); F. L. Shuts, Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).
8. R. S. Anderson, On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Seminary Press, 1982).
9. E. H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1950).

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Winter 2006, “Psychology and Spirituality.”