In Theory: When do we develop spirituality?

According to an article published last week in the Los Angeles Times, a long-term study conducted by three UCLA researchers and recently published in a new book reveals that college can be the best time for students to discover themselves spiritually. The study, which surveyed 112,000 American college freshman (14,000 of whom were surveyed again in their junior year) highlights several factors that lead students to discover their spiritual side on a deeper level (such engaging in the liberal arts or performing volunteer work), while other factors seem to reduce that possibility (such as engaging in the math and science fields, partying, or being overexposed to television and video games).

What do you think? Do you agree with the study? Could college be the best time for young people to explore their spirituality on a much deeper level, as opposed to, say, when they were in high school? Do you believe this period in a young adult's life is particularly crucial to his/her spiritual development? Or is spiritual development a continuing process? Is there one point in life where spiritual development is greater than another?


The young-adult period — often coinciding with the college years — is a most significant phase of our development into full adulthood. It is often depicted as a crazy time, with no rules to follow and an abundance of time with little responsibility. However, for many young adults, this is far from reality. For them, it is a very serious time, a time for reflection, a time of endless possibilities for the future.

Many of the young adults who I know and see regularly, especially at holiday time, are full of questions. And many of the questions are about God's impact on their lives and their relationship with him. They are looking for answers, but they are also patient enough to appreciate the fact that the answers do not pop up like a Christmas jack-in-the-box.

For many of them, it is really the first time that they have the luxury to ask questions and not be rebuked for asking them, or being told, "You know better than that," or just not taken seriously.

Their questions are often very profound and they are looking for discussion rather than answers. They realize that what they are questioning is of profound importance for their future lives, and they appreciate the time others take with them in a deep and often penetrating experience for both parties involved.

In our church, we tend to create scenarios for this type of discussion. For several years the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has provided evenings called Theology on Tap. These are opportunities for all young adults to come together, not just to hear a speaker on some aspect of faith and life, but to engage in discussions with their peers.

The young-adult years are very special, and young adults deserve our respect as they grapple with the many new aspects of life and responsibility.

We know the Lord is with them in their quest and all will be well.

The Rev. Richard Albarano

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church,



Eighty percent of people come to Christ before the age of 18 years old. After that, only 20% come to Christ later in life. This is why it is crucial, as far as salvation goes, for parents to raise their kids up in their religion — modeling it, living it, teaching it. And this is also why Christian friends and youth pastors are crucial for those who do not come from believing families.

I agree that the study is addressing the fact that young adults come to a deeper knowledge of themselves, and/or a "spiritual" side of themselves. But is this directly related to God? A true relationship involving obedience to him? Holiness? I don't believe so, based on research in the subjects of psychology, theology and the integration of the two.

I believe college is the beginning of discovering oneself but greatly mingled with, and influenced by, a time of brief discovery of freedom, partying, experimentation and the like. Some may actually begin to give their lives over to a real spirituality — meaning devotion to their religion, and God, in particular. The rest may be experimenting with diverse types of "spirituality" that are not developed from a solid sense of self and maturation, but dabbling in many things to discover and, eventually develop, that sense of self.

As far as life being a continuous spiritual journey? Absolutely. For those devout in serving their God and truly seeking holiness, we should never stop growing, leading people to God, and maturing in the sense where we discover aspects of ourselves that need to be laid aside, confessed and/or matured/healed.

The Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian

La Vie Counseling Center,



When we go to college, our world truly expands. We are suddenly given more independence than we have ever had before. We become acquainted with a greater number of people who came from different backgrounds and different faiths than our own. We're exposed to different approaches to life than we learned during our childhood, and our upbringing is challenged. In short, during these years we must decide who we really are and what we really believe for ourselves. So naturally this is a critical time in our spiritual development. In addition, we often meet our potential spouses in college, and their spirituality affects our own and the rest of our lives as well. Spiritual growth continues throughout our lives (or at least it should, and it can), but these years generally point us to the path we follow the rest of our lives.

Solomon encouraged and admonished the young person who is finally allowed to make his own choices: "Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things. So, remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth ..." (Ecclesiastes 11:9-11).

Choosing our college and occupation and mate are important life-impacting decisions. But the most beneficial decision is to choose to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. He himself is the foundation upon which anyone may build a truly fulfilling life.

Pastor Jon Barta

Valley Baptist Church,



I feel a little old and naïve answering this question.

As a pastor, I'm just so eternally hopeful for my beautiful young people that I can't consider properly the temptations and distractions on a college campus. College should indeed be a time of academic and personal exploration in the best of ways — a time to find out what you're truly passionate about so that you can begin to build your life around work that you love and the gifts God has given you. It's a time to develop the friends who will be a network of support, perhaps for your whole life. It's a time to fall in love in that deep and overwhelming way that you may never dare to let yourself do again.

When I ran a summer mission program with youth participants and young-adult staff members, the community and the work were so intense that we consistently experienced this amazing love — a love so profound that we didn't always know what to do with it. It seems that the switch inside you that turns on with love is the same whether it's God or another person. After the summers of service, some of the young-adult staff people experienced calls to the ministry, teaching or social work. Some married each other. Others have done both. Many young-adult staff people continue on their Christian spiritual paths, and that's because they've allowed themselves to be touched by God in this deepest of places in their souls.

Maybe when we get older, we put up more barriers to this depth of experience, preferring the safety of the known to the thrill and intensity of a new, as yet unknown love. So while it might not be crucial to develop spiritually during college, you definitely don't want to waste the passion of youth on "Call of Duty: Black Ops."

Choose experiences wisely.

Find awesome mentors.

Stay open to true love.

The Rev. Paige Eaves

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church,

La Crescenta


College is too late to start to discover and/or experience spirituality. Our youth should be given opportunities early on to experience spirituality, to question their spirituality and to come to a true belief in their convictions.

I am a firm believer in two principals that apply to educating our youth on religious matters, one found in the Bible and the other a maxim often taught within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Proverbs 22:6 states: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

The maxim is: "Teach them correct principles and they will govern themselves."

In reading this, some may argue that I'm suggesting the indoctrination of the young so that they will not depart from their original religion when they grow old. My view is far from that. Rather, children should be taught early about God, the Bible and spirituality, but they also should be encouraged to ask questions, to test their beliefs and to learn about different religious traditions and beliefs.

College should be just another step in the process, not the start of the process. The college years are a great opportunity for our youth to expand their horizons, if done wisely. In fact, I've encouraged my children to go beyond the traditional college experience. Both of my college-age sons have spent time overseas providing service to the poor, experiencing different cultures and learning languages. My daughter is currently planning a study-abroad experience.

In sum, one's spirituality and relationship with God is a continuous process that should start early and continue throughout life.

Rick Callister

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints La Cañada II Ward,

La Cañada


The article superficially covers the results of a 224-page, seven-year study by the most distinguished researchers in the field, with a quarter or more of The Times article being anecdotal quotes.

I believe using the space for actual findings or analysis of the study could have been more interesting and more informative.

Readers who are interested in the topic of student spirituality may want to delve deeper into the research itself at If knowledgeable about survey research, one may question a study's methodology; for example, that the random sample was not properly selected or that the survey questions were biased. Flawed data analysis can have led to unwarranted conclusions. One will, of course, have personal feelings and opinions in reaction to the study's findings. However, it is just not valid to read a brief summary of research at this level and decide that you don't "agree" with it.

College puts students in a broader milieu than high school, which is usually on home turf. Especially if not commuting, many live with those different from themselves in race, class and creed for the first time. The curriculum poses the challenge of new ideas, we hope. So, yes, I think spirituality can and does expand and take different directions as part of a young person's broader emotional and psychic growth. Along with learning how to indulge variously without making a fool of oneself and other useful adult skills, this is a big part of what college is all about.

As for differences in spiritual paths between the humanities and sciences, perhaps we have a chicken versus the egg thing. If humans make religion, not vice versa, similarly those with a spiritual bent may be drawn to the humanities rather than to the logical sciences. That applies equally well to partying instead of going to church.

Whereas I knew everything in high school, and in college I was sure about most stuff, at this point, as I approach the end of middle age, I am now beginning to figure out one or two things. Human emotional and intellectual development, spiritual or otherwise, is a continuing and lifelong process. Where there is life there can be growth, for which we may all rejoice.

Roberta Medford




College certainly provides opportunity to explore and expand, but it can also dispense destruction and confusion.

The study concluded that "many students struggled with their religious beliefs and became less certain of them during their college years." The Christian community has been aware of this for some time, as many studies have shown the devastating impact on faith in young people attending secular institutions.

While going off to college will provide an eye-opening experience for students — who will be introduced to all kinds of subjects and ways of thinking — it will also be a venture into unfriendly and generally antagonistic environments as far as godly religion is concerned. It isn't that what the Christian kids are going to hear will trump what Christian scholars and apologists have been cogently answering for two millennia, it's that secular college professors and campuses push only un-Christian world views and do so unhindered and constantly.

Besides having to pass tests and do projects for their teachers who hold the power of grades, students admire their mentors and put tremendous stock in their lettered pontifications. If teens haven't been taught how to defend their faith through church and family, it's likely that they will find themselves unarmed when accosted by endless lectures promoting naturalism, godlessness and anti-Christianism. Half the kids lose their faith within the first year.

Along with this is the glut of bizarre and/or popular religious options being offered that serve as lures from the faith of Christ, not to mention all the mind-altering substances available that also beckon to loosen cherished beliefs. Curiosity, peer pressure and first time away from home all contribute to vulnerability.

I would suggest finding schools with reputations favorable to faith, or sending kids to Christian universities. Education began in this country for the Christian purpose of Bible reading and developing moral citizens, and we believe in education that glorifies God, but not for subversive, politically-correct indoctrination.

The Rev. Bryan Griem,

Montrose Community Church,



I believe that spiritual growth should be a life-long, continuous process, but it is clear that one's youthful years are definitely a crucial time for development.

Human beings must always nurture and care for the divine soul within.

Judaism teaches that we must constantly study and grow as a person until our very last day. Each of us should ask ourselves daily: How can I make today better then yesterday, what can I do to enhance my life and the lives of my family and friends, and indeed, how can I advance the welfare of all humanity? Our lives should be defined by perpetual progress, and we should challenge ourselves to always reach for higher and loftier goals.

At the same time, it is clear that greater emphasis is placed on study during our youthful years. There are various reasons for this. First, young people seem to have an easier ability to grasp and retain certain basic information that will then serve as a foundation for all further learning in life. Also, as we get older, the responsibilities of family and work grow more numerous, and our ability to spend significant time in study is greatly hampered. It is, therefore, a given that the "keys of study" are held by young people, and as a result, college students will be most receptive to the message of religion and spirituality.

It is for this reason that almost all religious groups have a strong presence on college campuses across the world, offering the seeking student a place where he or she can further their quest for spiritual fulfillment. Young adults often make fundamental choices and gain key insights that shape their characters for life. That's why I strongly support various on-campus religious organizations to help guide young people in productive directions and encourage them to become ethical, positive members of their religious communities later in life.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad Jewish Center,



As a graduate of a liberal-arts college, I am biased about what the liberal-arts experience can offer. I do believe that the college experience can be the best time for a person to explore his/her spirituality on a much deeper level.

I had a marvelous Old Testament course as a college sophomore, and that course made me want to major in religion, and I did. However, I also believe spiritual development is a continuing process, and one is never finished with that growth process. The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that we are all in the process of "becoming," and I agree.

But those college-age years really are important, because our minds seem to be particularly able to be "imprinted," for lack of a better word. Think of the military: It prefers to get young (i.e., college-age) recruits. Think of the music you listened to when you were 18 or 19 or 20, whether it was classical or rock 'n' roll; that's still probably your favorite music, right? Our minds are oh-so-fertile at that age, and what we allow ourselves to learn then seems to stick, whether it's music, philosophy, religion, or whatever.

The Rev. Clifford L. "Skip" Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church,

La Cañada

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