The spiritual life of American teenagers
Catholic teens are looking for quiet spaces to develop personal relationships with Jesus through prayer and contemplation.
When I think of my teen years, I mostly remember a dark road. When I turned 15 I got my license and, with a small sum of money my dad gave me after he sold my childhood home, I bought myself a real beater of a car that you could hear coming from blocks away. I didn’t want to go home; my mother had died the year before, and my Dad had remarried and had a whole new family and a new house where I felt like a stranger. So I was always driving. Gas was less than a dollar a gallon then, and though I usually couldn’t afford dinner, I could always scavenge enough pennies and nickels to get a few more miles.
Sometimes I’d pick up another kid I saw walking on the roadside. My hometown was like that then; I felt like I knew everyone. Even when I didn’t, if they were of a certain age and dressed a certain way, I could bet I knew someone who knew them. I made a lot of new friends that way. My old friends—the friends I’d grown up with—were part of another universe, one from which I’d been expelled by personal tragedy. There was an awkwardness between us now, too many moments when none of us knew what to say. I needed friends like me, I thought. Friends who didn’t have to be home for dinner.
It was on one of those long, aimless nights that I ended up in the chapel of St. Margaret Mary. Perpetual adoration was going on, but even though I’d been raised Catholic and had gone to Catholic school my whole life, I had no idea what Eucharistic adoration was. I don’t think I even knew the Eucharist was there. But I liked that the chapel was quiet and candlelit and safe. It felt like home. It felt like my mom. I remember I signed my name in the little book at the back of the church and sat in a pew. The chapel was empty and dimly lit. The only noise was the air conditioning rattling on and off. The air smelled of spent matches.
Sitting in that chapel made me feel safe. It gave me a place to step outside of my life. And it set me on a lifelong journey toward faith and a relationship with God.
When I started writing this story about the spirituality of teenagers, I wanted to see if kids today have experiences similar to mine. But the teens I talked to weren’t traveling alone with no one waiting for them at home. They weren’t necessarily troubled or “at risk.” However, like me, they expressed a need for a place to be apart from their lives: an oasis, a time to step outside of themselves, their problems, their schedules, and their responsibilities.
For many of these teenagers, time in church—especially time spent in adoration and silent prayer—was their chance to plug into another kind of experience altogether. Like me, they each responded positively to the opportunity to be quiet and alone with Jesus—together. In adoration, there is no pressure, no set prayer, no youth programs that pander to what they think young adults want. Just presence.
Columbia University professor and psychologist Lisa Miller, author of The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (St. Martin’s Press), suggests that during the teen years, along with a surge in hormones, teens experience an increase in capacity and desire for connection with others and with God. Teens—far from being less interested in communication and relationship—are “propelled like clockwork into an accentuated hunger for transcendence, a search for ultimate meaning and purpose, and the desire for unitive connection.”
Miller argues that the right kind of influence during this tandem hormonal and spiritual “surge” can “make or break the development of adolescent spirituality and can influence the child’s lifelong physical and mental health.” According to her, children who have healthy spirituality (defined as a personal relationship to a higher power who is both attentive and loving) are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, to become depressed, or to have unprotected sex.
The teens I talked to have found this relationship with a higher power. But it wasn’t necessarily through the pizza, music, and games in their youth group—although they have that, too. They came to church because it gave them something they couldn’t get anywhere else: a communal, spiritual experience rooted in traditional worship and silent prayer. At a time when many churches treat teen ministry like an afterthought or as a checklist of requirements for confirmation, these young adults seek something more—a deep and profound relationship with God.
The right priorities
According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, the decline in religious practice among young people isn’t the result of negative experiences in church or even lack of belief. One study revealed that the number one reason adolescents become less religious is that they get “too busy,” citing school, work, extracurricular activities, and friends as examples of things that leave less time for religious participation and devotion during the teen years.
Unlike the stressed, busy, overscheduled, overachieving teens we hear so much about these days, I didn’t have anywhere to be when I was in high school—no club meetings, no soccer practice, no piano lessons. I got booted from the high school dance team after my mom died because I missed too many events. By my sophomore year I was barely going to school at all, though I somehow maintained passing grades. Instead I’d scoop the loose change from my dad’s dresser and, if there was any left after putting a couple gallons of gas in the tank, I’d splurge on single cigarettes from the quitter’s cup at the Shell station on the corner.
I took refuge in my community’s Catholic churches because I could come and go anonymously. The doors were always open; I could sneak in, light a candle, and slip out again, unseen by anyone but God. In a time when I felt I was failing, it was a relief to go somewhere where I wasn’t observed or graded or judged. Those clandestine moments were the beginning of a real relationship with God.
The teens I talked to felt a similar relief. Adeline, 13, says, “At Mass I feel comforted, safe, and protected. I get anxious sometimes and [going to church] makes me feel calm, like I’m able to relax. I’m OK there.”
But in a culture where parents prioritize grades, sports, and extracurricular activities, religious practice—worship, prayer, and communion with other believers—often simply gets dropped from a packed schedule. Even engaged parents who obsess about their child’s report cards, diet, and screen time often give short shrift to their souls.
Burr, 18, says there’s something in the Mass that he can’t get anywhere else. “I have a friend who came to church with me who isn’t Catholic, and he said, ‘It was cool, but it made me uncomfortable because I felt this presence and it was overwhelming,’ ” he says. “And I knew just what he meant. It can be overwhelming. It’s real. He’s there.”
That belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist—the conviction that Christ is present in this special way in the Mass—is one of the reasons Burr remains a Catholic. He suffers from anxiety and ADHD, but he says spending time outdoors in God’s creation helps him manage his emotions. “When I hear the ski hitting the snow and I make that connection to the earth, I feel connected to God,” he says.
Coming to youth group every Wednesday also helps. “It’s a mini-Sunday in the middle of the week,” he says, “a check-in to remind you of who you really are, what’s really important. I can be who I really am there. We have a real bond. They’re like family to me.”
The need for community
Marie, 15, said when she was in fifth grade her dad got fired, and it changed everything about her life. “I lost my faith,” she says. Because she went to Catholic school and wore a uniform on the school bus, one kid who said he was atheist started to challenge her, asking her questions about what she believed.
“I couldn’t answer him,” she says. “I realized I could talk a lot about why I thought abortion was wrong, but I couldn’t answer why I believed there’s a God.”
For Marie, asking the hard questions about what and why she believed, and hearing the answers of other believers, strengthened her faith.
Around the same time, she started taking long walks with her cousin River, who is 15. “River wants to know, he needs to know, everything. And his hunger to know more inspired me,” Marie says. “Those walks with him reinforced what I was learning at school and at church.” Struggling to articulate with a trusted friend her reasons for believing in God and being a Catholic brought her faith life out of the theoretical realm and into the practical. It made it that much more real.
“The more I talked to Marie, the more we wanted to know,” says River. “I felt like we were set on fire. Those walks changed the way I think about everything. Before then, faith was really just about going to Mass.”
For teens like Marie and River, part of what fuels their faith is expressing it in community and being able to talk to others who are wrestling with the same questions and issues. Just as my teenage self was compelled to pick up fellow wanderers on the side of the road, these kids are seeking someone who can identify with their lives and who can stand with them when they feel most alone.
Sarah, 17, felt like she never fit in at school. “People would say I isolated myself, but I just never clicked with anybody,” she says. “I was teased. I was ostracized. I struggled with loving people. . . . It’s hard to love people who are telling you you’ll never be good enough for them.”
But when she took a mission trip to Haiti with her friend Grace to provide medical supplies and care to the poorest sections of Port-au-Prince, she said seeing so much love and joy amid pain and poverty made her stronger.
“Cleaning the deep wounds of these mothers and babies with smallpox and malaria, all I could think was, I’m serving Jesus on the cross. I’m cleaning his wounds,” she says. “There were times I could hear him whispering in my ear.”
Grace, 17, says when she and Sarah were in Haiti and heard the children who were crying and hungry and in pain she thought she might not be able to handle it. “They literally handed us a bucket of supplies from a shack and pointed,” she says. “I realized, if we don’t do this, nobody else is coming to help today.”
“And then, while we were working,” she says, “we heard this glorious music. There was Mass happening nearby. I felt the call that night: ‘Serve me this way.’ ” Since then she’s started training to be a missionary nurse, working toward an associate degree while still in high school.
Many of the teens expressed their deep desire for meaningful service and close relationships. According to Skip Masback, a youth pastor and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture’s Adolescent Faith and Flourishing Program, this desire is exactly why we need to change the way we minister to youth in our homes and our churches. We should recognize this natural phase of their development as a time to encourage their spiritual lives. In so many communities, teen ministry is an afterthought—slapdash and underfunded—when it should be a priority.
A place to pray
“Teenagers desire community,” says Abigail Ulbrich, director of youth ministry at Christ the King Parish in South Bend, Indiana. “But I’m also struck by how much they ask for silent prayer. They love the rhythm and the history of the liturgy of the hours.” Masback, who previously led youth ministry in a Congregationalist church, mentioned that his youth groups asked him for more meditation, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius.
“Obviously being able to talk to each other about their faith is important,” says Ulbrich, “[Teens] have an energy and a desire to connect that adults have stifled in themselves. But turning to prayer enables them to reset, to turn their minds and hearts back to God. They know they’re never alone. They have each other, and they have God.”
For teens, faith is about developing a relationship with God. Liturgical ritual is one way they find that opportunity. So while community is essential (teenagers need age-appropriate support systems and friends to whom they can discuss their struggles and questions) prayer has to be a part of that.
Rori, 15, says she was “that awkward missionary kid on the playground asking everyone if they know Jesus, and they’d just be like, ‘I wanna play tag.’ ” She describes herself as an overachiever, even in her faith. “I’m always trying to rush ahead of God,” she says, and by way of example, reveals she tried to do the Marian consecration prayer, “33 Days to Morning Glory,” in a week. “But trying to outpace God never works,” she says. “I have to remember that He doesn’t want me to do stuff. He just wants me to know him.”
As a teenager, I found peace and the beginnings of a lifelong relationship with God in that quiet church. And, while my life threw up different challenges from those of the kids I talked to, they too found meaning in the Eucharist and the quiet contemplation of God.
Kendall, 16, started to question her faith when, in sixth grade, her uncle was killed while serving in the military overseas. “He was my godfather,” she says. “That hit me hard.” But then, that summer she went to a Steubenville Youth Conference.
“During adoration I vividly remember kneeling and looking at the Eucharist and thinking, if that’s Jesus, he knows my Uncle Matt,” she says. “That’s when I realized, this is God. This is who I worship.”
Brady, 18, says he looks forward to adoration every Wednesday for reasons that feel very familiar to me. “The lights are low, and it’s just you and the presence. You can just sit there with Jesus right there in front of you and feel like you’re alone with him.”
As a teenager stumbling across the lights at St. Margaret Mary, I couldn’t believe my dumb luck at finding such a refuge, a place that was beautiful and secure, where the doors were always open. Now I see it as grace. I remember being alone there, as I remember being alone for most of those years. Now I know that someone else must have been there, that the host is never unwatched. But in my memory, it was just me and God.
Somehow, that chapel with its open doors—open to me even in the middle of the night—stayed with me on the dark roads. I never forgot it. I always knew I could come home to the Catholic Church and eventually, as an adult, I did.
Today I have my own daughter and one of my deepest fears is leaving her motherless in adolescence; I sicken at the thought of her navigating her own dark roads alone, exposed, without me to protect her. I fear her becoming one of those kids on the side of the road who have nowhere to be at dinner time.
I want to give my daughter a faith strong enough to survive if I don’t. But now, when I worry about how I can give my daughter this powerful protection, I’m reminded of my many conversations with these teenagers. Like me, they’d been challenged by family crises—death and job loss and abandonment. But unlike me, they’d encountered a way to ask and attempt to find answers to their toughest questions and someone to invite them to the table where they belong. And invite them again. And again.
Their passion, in every sense of the word, was not their undoing, but their invitation to God.
Remembering her uncle’s death, Kendall told me, “that experience broke me down, and then it somehow made me stronger. It was a miracle. That’s how God works.”
This article also appears in the August 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 8, pages 12–17).