Student: Grant Mitchell


Subject: Adolescent Development - PCB220


Lecturers: Dr Graham Barker / Ms Linda Salem


Title: Understanding Adolescent Faith Development


No. Words: 2299 (2443)


Due Date: Friday 7th May 1999


Submission Date:


There is some structure to the development of an adolescent's faith. With particular reference to faith in Jesus Christ this paper will discuss some of the forces that build faith, particularly acceptance, relationship, and reasons for belief, as well as some of the forces that retard faith development, particularly sinful nature and lack of freedom.


Structure of Faith Development

To look at the development of the adolescent's faith it is necessary to know where they are coming from, what they are heading toward, and what they are going through.


James Fowler's Stages of Faith gives an outline of these points.1 The adolescent is coming from a point of "mythical-literal faith" - a faith where "beliefs, attitudes and rules are interpreted literally."2 This is a time when the child will act on faith based on personal needs and change or grow in their faith based on reward and punishment. This is a time when standards need to be supplied.


The direction of the adolescent's faith is toward "individuative-reflective faith", which is "… an acceptance of personal responsibility for one's own beliefs, actions, attitudes and values."3 This direction usually involves an unspoken social contract of courtesy, and the development of self-chosen ethics.


The typical adolescent is going through a time of "synthetic-conventional faith". This is a time when "…adolescents do not yet have a sufficiently formulated identity to have autonomous beliefs, evaluations and perceptions."4 As adolescents develop their own ideals they will move through a time of faith based on being obedient toward an authority, and then a period of conflict against that authority.


Adolescence is a time when humans can experience God being active in one's life. Wyckoff and Richter state that "… the conflict-ridden transition through adolescence is the period of human development during which most individuals become mature enough to perceive the operation of God's creative process in their lives, and that this awareness makes them reif to experience the transforming moments of their lives with convictional force."5 Unfortunately, despite this potential, many people fail to achieve this perception of God due to past experiences or present circumstances, especially inter-personal experiences.



Relationships play an integral part in the development of the adolescent's faith. Stable and appropriate relations are essential to the understanding and experience of the Christian's relationship with Jesus Christ.


First and foremost adolescents need to be accepted by someone who finds them important and valuable. This is reflected in the attitude of grace, when an adolescent is "… valued and accepted for who they are and not for what they might be or do for the other."6


This acceptance needs to come from parents and members of the church as a reflection of God's acceptance, and then the adolescent needs to experience God's acceptance first hand. This is especially important as parents and youth leaders become realistic about their own capacity to fail, whereas God's acceptance is in unconditional and unqualified love and will never fail. This love calls adolescents to grow gently in obedience to God; but not just because they have to obey, but because God's acceptance of them compels them to. Huggins cites an example with his own daughter: "I made it a goal to relate to her in a way that communicated a deeper level of acceptance to her and her friends. I chose to be less hurried around them, focused my attention on listening to them more, and looked for opportunities to affirm anything positive I could see in their lives."7


Adolescents need to experience identity. They need to develop a self-ideal, which involves hero worship, learning about the person they want to become, and a collection of desirable traits to emulate.8


Adolescents need to know who they are, and especially that God accepts them for who they are, then calls them to obedience, not the other way around. This is expressed by Campbell in relation to parents, which then extends to God: "In order for a teen to identify with his parents, relate closely with them, and be able to accept their standards, he must feel genuinely loved and accepted by them."9 In this event of revealing God's love and acceptance to adolescents, parents and church members need to provide support, not condemnation. Speaking the truth in love, they will grow.10


Involvement and communication are paramount to developing relationships.11 12 Adolescents will be moving to a point of developing their own relationship with Christ by choice of will and action, and learning that involvement and communication are central. Parents and church members need to turn the focus away from the rights and wrongs. Adolescents may make mistakes, but they need to know they can be forgiven, especially by God.


Problems and Their Resolution

There are obstacles to the development of faith. These include self-centredness, lack of freedom, lack of responsibility, and lack of commitment.


At the core of humans is our sinful nature, the desire to be self-centred.13 This expresses itself explosively during adolescence, especially in conflict with authority and attempting to establish their own authority. Adolescents want to control their own lives, and ignore other authority figures, most notably parents and God. "Since every teen has foolish intentions to make life work apart from God, his basic assumptions about the events of life are always designed to maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency."14 Actions associated with sef-centredness are normal, but this does not make them right.


Huggins points out that people will give up their self-centred control when they learn that only God can satisfy their desires of love and acceptance: "Only when people become gripped with the reality of their inability to satisfy their deepest desires will they begin to thirst for God."15


Lack of freedom is a frequent experience of adolescence. However, "… if a person is not yet ready to accept all the responsibilities of living, then he is not ready to handle unrestricted freedom either."16 Adolescence is a time when freedom needs to be extended a piece at a time. This will require wisdom from parents and church leaders to know each individual's growth, and most importantly how trustworthy the adolescent has become: "As a child moves into the teenage years, discipline and training need to gradually change from a parent-control basis to a parent-trust basis, in which privileges and freedom depend on trustworthiness."17


Parents especially will appear to be losing their authority - this is why relationship is so important. If the relationship is right, adolescents will begin to assume responsibility for their own development. "Children on the road to independence still want acceptance, even if they don't get approval."18 It is a time when parents and church members more and more need to listen to, and often respect, teenager's decisions.19 This does not discount people sharing their own values, but they must not be inflicted upon the adolescent. Cline and Kay point this out, especially in relation to communicating responsibility: "Teens are only a few months or years away from a plunge into adult life. They deserve our best shot at "real world" communication. In that communication we do have every right to share - not preach - our values. By having straightforward, honest discussions, we are sending the message "I believe you are old enough to think wisely and make responsible choices.""20


God calls adolescents to know him, so they need to learn how to do this through their own efforts. God is also calling them to act for him (e.g. in ministry, evangelism, leadership, encouragement), and this requires that they be given some level of independence and responsibility. Parents and church leaders need to have "… eased up on the telling and teaching, and will have begun to delegate responsibility to them."21 This extension of responsibility will give adolescents what they need in another way: adolescents need to be involved, not just observing. They need opportunities to live out their faith, and encouragement to do so in the face of difficulty and opposition, particularly in school, at home, and in the life of the church.


There is a need for teachers and mentors from within the church to support adolescents, especially for those involved in the church who do not have Christian parents. This personal attention will also express acceptance and love, and will provide greater opportunities for adolescents to express commitment. Adolescents need to be encouraged to commit as much as they know of themselves to as much as they know of Jesus Christ. As adolescents learn more about Jesus or themselves, they need commit to what they now know or commit what they know about themselves to Jesus. This expression of gradual growth will provide an adolescent with truth and hope - especially since all Christians are going through this same continual experience.


Reasons For Belief

Adolescents will soon learn that the old methods of faith are insufficient, especially that this world does not provide what we ultimately need: "No adolescent wants to accept the fact that the world will never be the kind of place that can deeply satisfy him, or that he will never be the kind of person who can find satisfaction in it on his own."22


Fault will be found with authority figures, but this does not mean parents and church members should totally withdraw. "The adult, along with his/her values and morals, may be held at a suspicious distance. But the teenager feels more secure and experiences less trauma and disruption knowing that the caring adult is there."23 Parents need to continue to give their adolescents opportunity to know Christ: "Parent's have the responsibility to continually extend to their thirsty teen Christ's invitation to come and drink, with no guarantee of how their teen will respond."24


If parents and church leaders use an authoritarian model, they will do more harm then good. "Excessive use of force and dependency upon the external creates within the normal teenager an unhealthy, rigid defense that is destructive both to the teenager and to the family. This defense consists of over-dependency, angry rebellion, crippled development or self-esteem, inability to develop healthy relationships, and deep feelings of unworthiness and guilt about themselves."25 These defenses will then extend to God: the teenager will rebel against God, and perceive no worth or love from God since it is not being mirrored in physical reality.


It is not authority that adolescents need to grow in their faith, but reasons for belief. They need to know not just "what I do, but why I did it". They are receiving a lot of information in these years, just not enough of the right information: "… religious education has failed to give a significant proportion of young people enough information upon which to make up their minds."26 Adolescent minds are opening to new understanding - they can understand better ideas behind actions, plan and predict. Parents and church members need to give more than do's and don'ts, which seems to be the focus of society, especially when it comes to character that is worthy of acceptance. "As long as a kid can find a way to present himself as 'the kind of person the world and God can be proud of', he will experience little need for a personal relationship with a God whose desire it is to do for him what he still believes he can do for himself: correct his own deficiencies and satisfy the longings of his soul."27


Adolescents reach a point of need for personal relationship with God when they realise this world cannot give them what they want, and that God can. "Presenting the self to God is an act of the will that recognises God's reality and humanity as God's creation. The act, in essence, is an admission that fulfilled meaningful spiritual life cannot occur outside of a committed relationship with God. It expresses faith that God will participate actively in the person's life."28 Adolescents then need to develop standards on their own ground. Understanding why people did things will help adolescents find value in what people do


Adolescents are more able to assess their own progress. Adolescents have the capability to try to understand how their faith and relationship with God is proceeding. Parents and church members need to help adolescents understand that the possibility of poor relationship should not stop them from continuing to develop, that failure is something common to all Christians. These people also need to help the adolescent understand that they need to change from the inside out, not necessarily change the situations they are in.29 This needs to be done without crushing the adolescent - this is why love and acceptance is so important



Finally, the development of an adolescent's faith is interconnected with all other types of development.30 Adolescents are changing physically, in the ways they think, and the ways they relate socially. It is in these situations that faith needs to be worked out. It is more than an intellectual exercise; it is based on the whole person, and thus needs to be worked out in all facets of the adolescent's life, particularly in social interactions. This is also true because morality is not just what God says but a matter of making what God says a part of you because of its own value.



The development of an adolescent's faith will be impeded by the influence of their sinful nature, poor models of relationship from parents and church members, and a failure to integrate the development of faith into all other parts of development.


A sense of being accepted by God is the ultimate growth factor in an adolescent's faith, and thus the greatest need is for this acceptance to be reflected by parents and in the church through relationships of love.



1 G.K Olson, Counseling Teenagers (Loveland, Colorado, USA: Thom Schultz,1984), 506-507.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 D. Campbell Wyckoff and Don Richter, Religious Education Ministry with Youth (Birmingham, Alabama, USA: Religious Education, 1982), 213.

6 Jack O. Balswick and Judith K. Balswick, The Family - A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Book House, 1991), 53.

7 Kevin Huggins, Parenting Adolescents (Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA: Navpress, 1989), 174.

8 Olson, 28.

9 Ross Campbell, How to Really Love Your Teenager (Wheaton, Illinois, USA: Victor Books, 1981), 113.

10 Ephesians 4:15

11 Huggins, 176.

12 Foster Cline and Jim Fay, Parenting Teens with Love and Logic (Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA: Pinon Press, 1992), 235.

13 Romans 7-8

14 Huggins, 212.

15 Ibid., 230.

16 J. Dobson, Preparing for Adolescence, 2nd Ed. (Santa Ana, California, USA: Vision House, 1989), 128.

17 Campbell, 75.

18 Cline and Kay, 113

19 Huggins, 184.

20 Cline and Kay, 237.

21 Balswick and Balswick, 144.

22 Huggins, 213.

23 Olson, 33.

24 Huggins, 231.

25 Olson, 69.

26 Leslie J. Francis and William K. Kay, Teenage Religion and Values (Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing Fowler Wright, 1995), 199.

27 Huggins, 222.

28 Olson, 508.

29 Huggins, 230.

30 Olson, 505.


Balswick, Jack O. and Balswick, Judith K.

1991 The Family - A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Book House.


Campbell, Ross.

1981 How to Really Love Your Teenager. Wheaton, Illinois, USA: Victor Books.


Cline, Foster and Fay, Jim.

1991 Parenting Teens with Love and Logic. Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA: Pinon Press.


Dobson, J.

1989 Preparing for Adolescence. 2nd Ed. Santa Ana, California, USA: Vision House.


Francis, Leslie J. and Kay, William K.

1995 Teenage Religion and Values. Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing Fowler Wright.


Huggins, Kevin.

1989 Parenting Adolescents. Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA: Navpress.


Olson, G.K.

1984 Counseling Teenagers. Loveland, Colorado, USA: Thom Schultz.


Wyckoff, D. Campbell and Richter, Don.

1982 Religious Education Ministry with Youth. Birmingham, Alabama, USA: Religious Education.