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Practical Spiritual Rites of Passage: Adolescence

I grew up and later became a youth leader within an evangelical church that takes pride in its theological thrust in ministry. My growing experience and engagement with youth ministries in varying contexts today testifies that many youth visit church and experience personal conversion but struggle to grow and mature in their faith. This experience also confirms that youth leaders and parents in these contexts do not know how to deal with youth who face the societal challenges common to many youth growing up in a dynamic, globalised and digital society. This is true within both African and international youth ministry.

It is my assumption that youth ministry should create spaces in which God is discovered amidst the young person’s search for self. Youth ministry within many of the contexts experienced above has not focussed on helping youth think theologically because it has viewed these youth as consumers of theology rather than people who help construct religious discourse. This is because these contexts has not taken the spiritual formation of its youth seriously and here I include taking the identity and moral formation of these youth seriously. This includes taking the cultural backgrounds of the youth into consideration.

Saneta Maiko (2007:12- 65) [1] , a Kenyan theologian, describes adolescence in Africa as a time where youth are experiencing initiation rites and rituals that prepare them for adulthood. The end of this stage is marked by successfully completing the rituals and sense of confirmed self-esteem. Maiko notes mid- adolescence (15- 17 years old) as the age at which young people are most likely making life-long decisions about God because they have the capacity for epistemologically understanding faith. Initiation is seen as a spiritual occasion in a young person’s life as it symbolises rebirth. Circumcision rites are emphasized in adolescent years when the young person is usually between twelve and thirteen years old. During this time practical knowledge about culture and life- skills (cooking, hunting, etc.) are passed onto these youth. African cultural tradition also stresses the importance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy when referring to the spiritual formation of its youth (Maiko, 2006:11-12). Oral narratives like storytelling are prioritized in passing on the faith because investing in youth is imperative as they are gifts from ancestors.

Powell, Griffin and Crawford (2013: 62)[2] recommend that Christian rituals and rites of passage be developed to assist them in this regard. Rituals helps young people understand who they are within the larger family and faith community because these rituals exhibit that their stories are intertwined with the Story of God. Rites of passage celebrate and acknowledge what they are experiencing at different stages of their spiritual growth process. Rituals to acknowledge their age transitions from childhood to youth; cultural milestones such as attaining a driver’s licence and spiritual milestones such as getting baptised or confirmed are all examples that could be considered. Experiences enhancing spiritual formation such as worship, bible study, prayer, youth club, etc. can also be used at spiritual rituals and the value thereof should be explained and discussed with these youth. Many churches fail to include youth in communion for example. They too could be involved in administering this important mode of spiritual formation. Helping youth discover and use their spiritual gifts could be understood as a spiritual rite of passage because doing this includes them in the faith community. Once youth are encouraged to use these as they discover who God is and how they fit into his-story, they will begin to experience a growing faith and feel useful in the church and world today.

Journaling could also be helpful in helping youth reflect on their faith journey as a ritual (Powell, et al, 2013: 65). This reflective process aids them in their identity formation as well. Youth need to understand the value of dignity in others as they embark on a faith journey.

These rituals would help them understand the value of others and also give them a sense of care for others. If this is instilled as part of identity formation, youth will not only respect themselves better but also respect the other better as they grow in God’s sense of service – being able to live amidst the challenges, ambiguities and needs of others instead of comparing in a search for status and instead of only a few getting involved in God’s mission.

[1] Maiko, S. M. 2007. Youth, Faith and Culture: Contemporary Theories and Practices of Youth Ministry. USA: Author House

[2] Powell, K.Griffin, B.M. & Crawford, C.A. 2011. Sticky faith youth worker edition: Practical ideas to nurture long-term faith in teenagers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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