You Found Me

I work a lot with graduate students and some clients who are in the “emerging adult” stage (defined as approximately 18-29). Many of them feel lost in their spiritual journey and are experiencing significant struggles. But this is not the whole picture. A significant number of emerging adults are spiritually mature for their age/stage and growing a lot during this time in their lives. This, in part, inspired a current, ongoing study I am conducting of spiritual exemplars in the emerging adult stage.

I would like to offer a few preliminary observations from this study to the emerging adults who feel lost on their spiritual journey, and invite those of you who are older leaders to “listen” in. These observations come from your peers—young adults who were nominated by mentors as spiritual exemplars for this study. While these young adults have their own struggles, I hope the common themes emerging from their vibrant spiritual lives will provide encouragement and direction for your spiritual journey.

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Your Secret Life in Christ

Last night, at a Good Friday experience at my church I was powerfully reminded of Jesus' amazing sacrifice for my sins.  As I reflect this season on Jesus dying in my place for my sin, I am awestruck once again that I can never repay the debt I owe Christ. From a debt that can never be repaid flows a life long discovery of gratitude.  And that is our secret life in Christ.

The ancient Church Fathers didn’t use the word mysticism.  However, the adjective, mystikos, on which the word mysticism is based, was used frequently. The noun mysterion means, most simply, “a secret” and so the adjective mystikos essentially means “simple or hidden.” The word carried the idea of the secret life available in Christ because the depth of the gospel has unending implications for our lives.

Relationships, theology, and suffering play important roles in spiritual growth

This is the fifth and final reflection in this blog series on the spirituality of students at Christian colleges. We asked students across the United States to rate how various aspects of the school environment and programs impacted their spiritual development, ranging from very negative to very positive.

The top three growth facilitators were peer relationships, working through suffering, and Bible/theology classes. This, and numerous findings from both studies, highlight the centrality of relationships and a biblical worldview for spiritual development. This suggests that we need to communicate a theological framework for growing through relationships, and for the role of suffering in spiritual growth.  In addition, we need to develop a relational environment that will help students process their suffering in a growth-producing way.    

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Students tend to fit one of five Christian spirituality types

Every student has unique needs. There is no “one size fits all” spiritual growth plan. While colleges and universities can't tailor spiritual growth programs for every individual, they can start to identify groups of students with different needs. The Spiritual Transformation Inventory (STI) and the national data from this project help us move in this direction.

 We found five different types or groups in terms of their pattern of scores on the 22 scales. This suggests that we need to identify these groups so that we can tailor spiritual formation plans to their needs.

·     Type 1 (21.4 percent of the sample) is secure and engaged; in other words, quite spiritually mature for this stage. This group was highly secure in their sense of connection to God and highly spiritually engaged in practices and community. We need to further strengthen these mature students and encourage them toward leadership.

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Relationships are students’ top struggle

This is the third reflection in this blog series on the spirituality of students at Christian colleges. Crises and trials are common. Over half the sample reported experiencing a crisis in the past year. When asked to describe their crises in an open-ended format, the most frequently reported crises included loss of relationship, relationship stresses, and health concerns. We also asked students to describe their most difficult spiritual struggles, and the top three they reported were relational conflict, busyness,and lust/sex/pornography.

These open-ended responses all suggest that emerging adulthood is a time of relational difficulties and this affects every aspect of students’ spirituality. Relational loss, stress, and conflict is the norm for college students, which stems from their identity exploration and instability that is an intrinsic part of this stage of life.

Seniors Report Lower Spiritual Vitality than Freshman

This is the second reflection in this blog series on the spirituality of students at Christian colleges.  When we look at how students’ spirituality changes over time, many of the indicators of spiritual development went down over time, but some went up. For example, scores trended worse on the frequency of spiritual disciplines, the centrality of faith and an anxious connection to God, but better on an overall sense of spiritual well-being. On national data collected at one point in time, we found that seniors scored lower than freshmen on 19 of the 22 measures. 

How do we make sense of this? When we look at this in the context of brain development and “emerging adulthood,” I think this is probably a normal developmental trajectory. The brain goes through a massive reorganization between the ages of 12 and 18, and this continues into the early 20s. Parallel to these brain changes, students’ identity, sense of self, and worldview all go through an extensive reorganization during this period as well. With all this brain and identity reorganization, it makes sense that this is a time of spiritual instability.

Students are Secure, but Unpracticed Spiritually

In this blog, I offer the first of five reflections on the spirituality of college students attending Christian colleges, based on national data.  Overall, the data indicate that students feel a secure relational connection to God, experience a strong sense of meaning and are developing a Christian perspective on life, and yet they are low on practicing spiritual disciplines.

First, I think the secure connection to God, sense of meaning and Christian perspective is noteworthy good news. Despite the instability and struggles of this stage, the breakdown of the family and increasing rates of emotional problems among children and college students, students attending Christian colleges have a secure connection with God, which is the foundation for spiritual development.

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Spirituality at a Crossroads: The Spiritual Lives of Students at Christian Colleges

This is an introduction to a six-part blog series based on an article I wrote for the Biola Magazine (Fall, 2010) summarizing five years of research on the spirituality of students at Christian colleges.  In each of the next five blogs I will consider and expand on one of five reflections synthesized from the data.  In this blog, I provide a brief overview of the research projects and the theoretical model driving my research program on spiritual transformation.

One of the most important goals of Christian colleges and universities is to help students grow spiritually and develop their character. Likewise, one of the biggest challenges Christian universities (like Biola where I teach) face is evaluating how we are doing in this area. In fact, secular accrediting agencies have begun asking such schools for evidence that they are assessing and improving student spiritual development, since it is a core part of our mission.

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Spiritual Tipping Points: Mindfulness and Contemplative Prayer

As I continue this brief series on spiritual tipping points, in this blog I want to address two related spiritual practices that can pave the way for tipping points: mindfulness and contemplative prayer.  The practice of mindful awareness has to do with focusing your attention on your direct experience in the present moment, and fostering a certain orientation to your experience characterized by curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love.  It is a core component of centering, or contemplative prayer within the Christian tradition. Mindful awareness isn’t just being aware in a general sense. It has to do with being aware of aspects of your mind, and this can be done in the context of prayer.  So it is being aware of your mind and soul, and bringing your true self into relationship with God.  These kinds of practices have been difficult for me, but they have also been tremendously helpful.  When I think of mindfulness and contemplative prayer, I think of some of the teachings of ancient spiritual directors. 

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Spiritual Tipping Points

Today I begin a short series on change and transformation. One of the things I love about being a psychotherapist and educator is that I get a front row seat to witness my clients and students changing and growing.  Two of the most common questions my clients ask early on in therapy are: “how does this process work?”;  and “how long will it take?”  Often times, these questions betray an overwhelming fear that the process won’t work; that there is no hope for them to change. 

I think of a client I’ll call Jessica who was plagued by a deep sense of loss that impacted all her relationships, including her relationship with God.  Her gut level belief was that everyone, including God, would eventually leave her.  The overwhelming anxiety from this expectation contributed to a painful relational pattern in which Jessica relied heavily on others to manage her emotions and comfort her, contributing to them pulling away and leaving her, yet again.  Sadly, she helped create the very experience she most feared: abandonment.  Despite constant effort, Jessica couldn’t seem to change this pattern, and it continued for the first few years of therapy.  I can remember many sessions well into the therapy in which Jessica would tearfully ask me, “Do you think this will ever change for me?”  She didn’t know how to have a different kind of relationship.  And she was scared to give up the only thing she knew about how relationships worked for her.      

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Todd is a Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. His writing, research, and speaking focus on relational approaches to spiritual transformation and leadership.

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