Teenagers do seek the sacred. When coming of age, the big questions feel urgent. Why am I here? Why would it matter? Intern minister Erik Resley fans the adolescent embers of spirituality at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Milton, Mass.


 

Teenagers do seek the sacred. When coming of age, the big questions feel urgent. Why am I here? Why would it matter? Intern minister Erik Resley fans the adolescent embers of spirituality at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Milton, Mass.


In an upstairs meeting room, about 20 kids, ages 13 through 18, start off their weekly get-together by sharing “yippees” (joys) and “whomp-whomps” (sorrows). As each teen talks, everyone else is quiet. It is not a time to comment or judge or to fix anything. Rather, it’s about listening, and to give the speaker the gift of being fully heard. Later during discussions, count on their viewpoints to be fresh and their comments frank.


“I love the profundity of their spiritual experience and reflection, as well as the vitality and curiosity that they bring to the world,” said Resley, who is a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School.


Today’s kids are different in their religious understanding and practice as compared to older generations. Resley offered a few of his own significant observations.


Teens do value religious community. Sharing their experiences among friendships formed within a spiritual context give them a sense of safety where compassion and honesty are practiced.


Teens often seek to experience the religious mystery firsthand. They are more open to explore, experiment, and try perspective on for size, rather than wanting to be told the final answer.


Young people find rituals, such as worship services, symbolism, prayer and songs to be particularly engaging in experiencing the divine.


Teens love diversity. Compared to their elders, the younger generation is markedly more respectful and deeply intrigued by differences, whether they are opinions, backgrounds, or cultures. “They don’t need to think alike to love alike. Lady Gaga’s anthem, ‘Born This Way,’ encapsulates their approach to one another. They don’t feel a need for everyone to see the world in the same way,” said Resley.


Teens see religion and social action as intertwined. Community projects and volunteerism are ways of manifesting God’s goodness as well as feeling the power of God at work within themselves.


At weekly gatherings, Resley wants kids to flex their mind muscles by exercising reflection. For example, making wise choices is a learned skill, and even bad role modeling on reality TV can be used toward the greater good. One evening, teens watched an episode of “Jersey Shore,” where eight young housemates summer together, amid fights, drinking, jealousies and more. It sparked a talk about personal responsibility.


“I don’t ram answers down their throat, but we do talk about getting into situations they would later regret.  What is our responsibility to one another? There are limitations to happiness and pleasure,” said Resley.


Adolescence can be a hard grind through issues of popularity, social status, or self-acceptance. Additionally, today’s kids feel early pressures to succeed – the right college, and taking the right path to the right job. Kids wonder, “Will I need to sacrifice who I am to feel needed, or liked, or cared for?”


A religious commitment helps teens to view what “a right life” can look like, and in that picture ego and material wealth have greatly reduced roles. Living in accordance with God’s higher standards is not about outward appearance. It’s about inner transformation. Resley quoted Rabbi Abraham Heschel. “Religion is not the clinging to a shrine, but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”


To awaken a child to take that journey is important work. At First Parish, teens experience the sacred through each other’s companionship. It builds an understanding of the most profound friendship of all, a relationship with God.


Email Suzette Standring at suzmar@comcast.net or visit www.readsuzette.com. She is the award-winning author of “The Art of Column Writing” and teaches writing workshops nationally and through her TV series, “It’s All Write With Suzette.”