Making Spiritual Distinctions Detecting the Faith Conditions of Youth

Despite the way they are often stereotyped, young people are incorrigibly religious. Teens, especially 13- to 18-year-olds, are not the spiritually alienated, disillusioned, irreverent, post-modern relativists they’re popularly portrayed to be. Rather, they are actually quite conventional in their religious beliefs. (It is the few exceptions that make for the dramatic irreligious or conflicted images that interest the media and feed the stereotype.)

Sure, they show a variety of faces: blank, confused, frustrated, sarcastic, supercilious, superficial, giddy, dejected, and sometimes even hardened. Yet in, with, and under these different expressions whirs the mind of a religionist who subscribes to a pretty commonplace set of ideas about God. Have you ever wondered, then, why kids sometimes just don’t catch on to our ministry efforts? Much of the answer is that they are alarmingly conventional in their religious beliefs, and this conventionality, not extremism, makes our ministry difficult. Their notions about God often don’t line up well with the ministry of Christ’s Gospel we bring to them.

So youth workers who look and listen beyond the surface persona that young people portray will not be surprised by the research of Christian Smith in his new book, Soul Searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Smith is a respected sociologist of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with several well-received books and studies to his name. Consider a few summary points about most kids (with the exception of at-risk youth and those from dysfunctional families, estimated at about 10% to 20% of the population):

  • Teenagers today are socialized into and invested in mainstream social values, committed to the social mainstream, and want to succeed in it.
  • Outward appearances to the contrary (such as the current tattoo fad), kids largely share their parents’ core values.
  • Kids (at least prior to going to college) have a very benign attitude toward religion. The assertion that they want to be “spiritual but not religious” is a conceptual distinction that kids don’t even grasp. However, they do not want to be too religious and, thus, weird.
  • Yet these young people are, Smith notes, “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices.” Whether churched or not, they don’t actually know anything about their religious assumptions and beliefs.
  • When asked, then, about their beliefs, they combine their induction into mainstream social values (success, therapy, being nice, and having fun are examples) with our culture’s broad, vague assent to God and religion (think Oprah). They equate moral rights and wrongs with faith, and faith with a sense of emotional well-being.
  • As a result, young people–churched or not–end up with what Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and not a faith in the Triune God who has delivered up the Son of Man on the cross for our salvation and sanctification. (See the interesting interview with Smith at

But from our experience, we already know that their spiritual perceptions don’t line up well with a Biblical understanding of the Gospel. And so did St. Paul, which is why he provides us with assistance for making spiritual distinctions to assess where others are in their faith relationship with Christ. Some of that assistance is found in 1 Cor. 2-3 where he identifies three general spiritual conditions: psykikos, sarkikos, and pneumatikos.

Three Spiritual Distinctions

Paul writes in 1 Cor. 2:14, “The unspiritual man [psykikos, one whose spirit is “natura” or “of this world”] does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (NRSV) Although the unspiritual person is not a Christian, she is not necessarily irreligious. Like our world, most folks in Paul’s world were religious. But she does not understand the things of the Holy Spirit. She can’t, and it would be unreasonable and unhelpful for us to minister to her as though she could. As Paul says in Rom 8:7, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Paul continues, “The spiritual person [pneumatikos, one who has the Spirit of God and actively uses the Word of God to continue and advance in discipleship] makes judgments about all things.” The spiritual person Paul refers to here is a disciple: someone deliberately living out his faith. As Paul says in Gal 5:25, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” (See also Hebr 5:14 – 6:3.)

Paul then writes, “But I brethren, I could not address you as spiritual men [pneumatikos] but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.” Paul’s word here for “men of the flesh” is sarkikos, from the Greek word, sarx, for flesh, an expression he uses to indicate the old Adam or Eve still in us. Sarkikos is the spiritual condition Paul uses to identify the Corinthian Christians to whom he writes. He’s not questioning their saving faith which he confirms repeatedly at the beginning of the letter. But they don’t think or believe with “the mind of Christ” (2:16). Their outlook is still fixed on the things of this world, what Paul calls “the flesh.” And so he continues, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food….” (See also Eph 4:14.)

These distinctions are not aimed to pigeon-hole and label people or create a hierarchy of faith. The aim is to assess their relationship with Jesus so that we may better adjust and apply our ministry. Paul gives Timothy this same encouragement when he writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (II Tim 2:15). And we see Jesus making these distinctions in the Gospels as he works differently with different souls: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, the woman taken in adultery, Zacchaeus. Ours is not a one-size-fits-all ministry.

Three Barriers to Faith

To further assist our care for souls, it can be helpful to detect the circumstances which may be constraining spiritual growth and confining kids in, for example, that “moralistic therapeutic deism.” We can take some cues from the practice of Christian apologetics and ask why people in their different spiritual conditions sometimes resist receiving the truth and promises of God. Barriers to faith and growth may include ignorance, pride, or a moral problem.

With ignorance, a person, Christian or not, simply has questions that haven’t been satisfactorily answered. Perhaps she has heard unhelpful responses like, “Well, you just have to have faith,” or “Because the Bible says so.” Sometimes she has some pieces of the puzzle but doesn’t yet have enough to see the picture. She asks important questions that are beyond her present scope of understanding. A correct piece of information offered prematurely doesn’t help. The doctrine of predestination often presents such a problem. But when the gaps of ignorance are filled in a constructive and sequential way, that person can continue toward a new, restored, or growing faith relationship with Jesus.

The problem of pride isn’t addressed by providing information or answers. When pride is the barrier, we can correctly respond to all that person’s objections and challenges, but she’ll still resist receiving the promises of God. That’s because with the promises of God also come God’s sovereignty and our submission to his Lordship. Some of our kids are stuck in pride. Perhaps they’re highly intelligent, athletic, popular, or otherwise talented or well-off. Perhaps some family dynamics have cultivated in them an excessive autonomy. Perhaps they’ve gotten a taste of what they consider “freedom” and they’re not willing to yield an inch, let alone a life.

What do we do? We clarify. We don’t fight or get exasperated, no matter how exasperating these kids can be. They need a clear picture of where they stand with God. We can calmly say, “You don’t seem to be interested in God as your god right now. You seem to trust yourself and make your own rules and future. You call the shots and don’t answer to anybody. Is that about right?” They’re usually pretty honest and with a moment’s reflection will say, “Yeah, I guess that is about right.” And now you both know where you stand.

Our style and posture is not to be hostile or resentful about this kid’s attitude. Actually, we’ve just made a little progress, as Jesus did with some Pharisees. Meanwhile we remain concerned about this kid’s spiritual welfare, careful to treat her with kindness and respect but also with total honesty because her pride will infect all of her life and her spiritual condition. Eventually, some event will come along that exhausts her autonomy–her boyfriend dumps her, she gets busted for drugs, her friends get tired of her arrogance–and there’s our opportunity to reconcile her with the real source of freedom.

A third hindrance to faith formation is a moral problem. One morning Kathy, with tears streaming down her face, leaned into my doorway, screamed at me, “I hate your God,” and rushed away. After confirming she was in a safe location for the time being, I followed up later and learned that her sexually abusive step-father had molested her that morning. Kathy was in a terrible moral dilemma and was trying to make spiritual sense of it. She couldn’t fit a loving, compassionate heavenly Father into her experience at home.

Though usually not this dramatic, moral problems do abound for our young people: sex, drugs, divorce, death, betrayal. These and other moral dilemmas can get in the way of their relationship with God. The problem isn’t so much rejection of God as it is the pain of sin and their turning to that religion of moralistic therapeutic deism. What do we do in such cases? We avoid personalizing their expressions as attacks on us or the things of faith. We look past the behavior to see the hurt. We listen. We inquire but don’t badger or pry. (The specific situation certainly may require attention as it did with Kathy, and we intervene and refer when necessary.) These kids need to know someone has noticed their dilemma. We can gently wonder aloud, “I think you care about your relationship with God, but it seems as if something is getting in your way. I’m wondering if something has happened to you, or if you have done something that is coming between you and God.” If we get a response, we can voice God’s promises of comfort or forgiveness and assist further as appropriate. If we don’t get a response, we keep our door and our ears open.

From Teen Deism to the Gospel

By and large, our young people are and will remain religious. But their religion is quite conventional and conforms to the thin spirituality of their culture. They see religion as moralism and the obligation to be nice. And they see God as the one who is on call to “be there” for them when they screw up or feel bad but who otherwise resides in the background until needed. This god is not the Christ who calls us to a new kingdom and empowers us with his promises for a life in a fallen creation that is characterized by both suffering and hope.

The spiritual distinctions we’ve considered here can help us assess where others are in their faith relationship or non-relationship with God. By employing them, we can better work with kids to help them do their own spiritual self-assessment. We employ the distinctions not like formulas that give us the correct solution instantly but more like a balance scale where we move the counter-weight back and forth, carefully and cautiously adjusting our perceptions. We avoid any fast, easy assumptions as we gain a better understanding of that person’s spiritual condition. We proceed patiently. We plant, we water, we wait. And we remain hopeful, for through our ministry “God will give the growth” (I Cor 3:6).

End Note: Many of us re-read The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel by C.F.W. Walther every few years. Now might be a good time to review Walther’s excellent inventory of the many different spiritual conditions we encounter in our work. Use the complete edition translated by Dau, the edited version from Bouman, or the brief version, God’s Yes and God’s No, all available from Concordia Publishing House.

Dr. Russ Moulds is a professor of psychology at Concordia University Nebraska.

thESource is published on the Web by LCMS District & Congregational Services-Youth Ministry. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 1333 South Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295; 1-800-248-1930; Editor: Gretchen M. Jameson. VOL. 2 NO. 12 November 2005.

Published December 1, 2005

About the author

Dr. Russ Moulds serves as a professor of education at Concordia University-Nebraska.
View more from Russ

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