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Not religious, but spiritual:

02 November 2006

 New research stresses young people’s love of spirituality, but not Church, writes Rachel Harden

Young people are very spiritual, but find formal religion, particularly church, boring and irrelevant, says a new report from Sarum College. Its author concludes that "religious institutions are best placed to engage with the spirituality of young people", and challenges them to do so, despite the negative opinion held by many young people of the Church.

Buried Spirituality by Phil Rankin, a community and youth worker, calls for a thorough rethink of religious education in schools, with more emphasis on cultural and spiritual dimensions. Such ideas are just some of the results of a detailed three-year survey of groups of young people across Britain about their views of spirituality.

The author, who is the Fellow in the Spirituality of Young People at Sarum College, Salisbury, stresses that he studied a range of social groupings, including "goths, skaters, sports people, and so on". Young people were always approached in groups and in public spaces to give them a sense of freedom and choice, rather than dealing with invited groups in an enclosed setting.

Sixty-four groups took part in the survey, 16 in each of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, in venues from parks, restaurants, and bookshops to airport lounges. First, the young people were asked whether they perceived themselves to be spiritual, and what they thought the word spiritual meant: the responses were varied, but carried a similar theme.

"It’s religion. People who go to church and believe in God are spiritual."

"It made me think of something special. There’s lots of people who believe in God, but that doesn’t make them spiritual. Maybe we are all spiritual in a way because we all think about God, if God exists or whatever. Maybe there’s something in us that makes us think about things like that . . . Being spiritual seems to me so much more than being religious."

Yet, when it came to specific questions about church and Christians, the young people were much more direct, although their comments ran along similar lines.

"If Jesus is supposed to be God or whatever, then Christians shouldn’t be all boring like they are."

"People go to church and hear some man talking and telling them what the Bible says. Well, I can read it for myself if I want; I don’t need someone telling me what’s right or how to act."

"Sometimes I even pray, but I’d never want to sit in church or stuff like that."

"I want to decide how I feel about God and the Bible or whatever, about what’s good and bad for me, but church doesn’t let you do that."

The author concludes that many young people see churchgoers as false, hypocritical, irrelevant, and even judgemental. "I hope this shows the depth of feeling among young people about religion. Those ultimately responsible for young peoples’ reaction to religion are those attending or supporting the institutions, and, in order to respond to the current situation, something of the reasons behind young peoples’ angry reaction needs to be understood."

Mr Rankin says it is wrong to assume that TV programmes such as The Vicar of Dibley form a young person’s view of church. He emphasises that their perception of religion seems to be drawn from false and incomplete information from a range of sources.

The report also describes how many young people talked of experiences that they considered to be spiritual, but that they did not always give them that name. Suzi spoke in detail of how she had tried to hang herself as a young teenager. "I was actually standing on this chair, trying to put my head through the loop, and it literally wouldn’t go through."

The author comments: "Although she remains very uncertain, Suzi is clear that her experiences involve some revelation from God. She is adamant that God did not allow her to die, and that she was alive for a reason."

The survey prompted similar observations about prayer — young people giving descriptions of communicating spiritually, but not always calling it prayer. "Young people are not necessarily considering prayer in traditional ways, but they do value the activity," it concludes.

Summing up his work, Mr Rankin writes: "From this research, it is very obvious that young people are asking spiritual questions and that they have a desire to reflect on their spirituality. There is also clear evidence that many young people are having extraordinary experiences that they do not fully understand, but they have a desire to reflect on their spirituality. The difficulty lies not in the expressing, asking, or reflecting, but that space is not being provided so that young people can better undertake these activities."

He concludes: "I suggest that a lack of opportunity to reflect on important issues is leaving many young people unaware of their purpose and place in the world, and that this is one of the root causes of some of the social difficulties found right across the UK."

He recommends creating space for young people to reflect, but leaves it to individual churches to decide how to carry this forward in their particular situation.

Buried Spirituality by Phil Rankin (Sarum College Press, £7.50 including postage, 0-9534836-9-X; available from www.sarumcollegebookshop.co.uk, phone 01722 326899).

Young people and the Bible

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