Encouraging theological reflection among young adults

Encouraging theological reflection among young adults

By Eileen P. Doherty

In today’s high-tech world, it is not unusual for a young adult, on any given day, to send and receive 50 text messages, check a Facebook or MySpace account three or four times, watch a couple YouTube videos, and participate in a gaming session online. They are tuned in through the I-Touch, Blackberry, computer and TV. We’re moving more and more into a digitized world. In colleges and universities, we have realized that changes in characteristics of students develop much more quickly than before. It used to be that we focused mainly on “generations”— X, Y, Millenials. Now we know that significant changes to our student bodies are occurring every 2-3 years, as the world spins through its light-speed technological changes.

It might seem that today’s young adults would not be interested in slowing down the speed of their existence to engage in reflection. Theological reflection may seem unrealistic. Yet, from my many years working in campus ministry and in my current position as a dean of students, I have come to see the real need among young adults for quiet, slowing down and going deeper instead of broader. Now, more than ever, they need to find the space, time and tools to listen to the still, small voice within themselves, to hear the all-too often muffled voice of God.

Easier said than done? Perhaps. But successful youth and young adults groups, as well as campus ministry centers, have found ways to engage men and women in reflection, including theological reflection. The key lies in finding out what is important to the individual. What issues, problems, experiences, dreams or joys are central to that person? Too often we can make the mistake of thinking that what worked for us will work for them. This is not likely, unless we are very close in age or experience. At 40 years old, I avoid reflecting back to “when I was in college” because of course, that was before most of my students were born.

We must engage their experience. In sitting with a student one-on-one, or listening to a group of students brainstorm about a retreat program, I know it is important to pay close attention to their experience. It usually involves reading between the lines and asking a number of probing questions to help them clarify the real issues. Too often, even in my own experience of working with a mentor, a spiritual director, or a counselor, he or she has jumped too quickly to conclusions about what the real issues are, instead of listening carefully and getting the fuller picture. I, too, have done this same thing—thinking that I know what the experience of the person has been, only to find out later that I reacted far too quickly. We must not forget the uniqueness of each person, as an individual living in a particular place and time, from a particular culture, with a personal history that can belong to no one else. We must pay close attention and pray that God helps us see clearly.

With an important experience in hand, we can then pull out our set of tools to work that experience into an opportunity for theological reflection. The significant experience can be anything: a family issue, a friendship, a romance, competition in school or on the ball field, fitting in, feeling inadequate, fearful or homesick, etc.

An important next step, one that can be easily overlooked, is to help the individual name feelings that are associated with this experience. If we jump straight from experience to the intellectual side of theology, we will miss the doorway to bring us there—the affect. It is our feelings that open the doorway to deep reflection and allow images to surface that will bring us further into it. In fact, conversion, in its most genuine form, is an emotional experience. I doubt any of us have come to faith in God because it sounds good on paper. Rather, we have been transformed somehow by the beauty or goodness of God, which has opened the door to accepting the truth of God.

From an experience, and accompanying feelings, the work of theological reflection begins. I sometimes ask students, if they have any sense of Scripture, about Bible stories that stand out for them. What parables or stories come to mind? And do any of them resonate with their experience? If students can’t think of any, I throw out some of my own ideas. Is it like the loaves and fishes? Or the betrayal of Peter? Or the woman at the well? Or Jonah and the whale? If one seems like it might fit, we read it together and explore it further. If none come to mind, I might give them some citations to read on their own later.

Of course, a working knowledge of Scripture cannot always be assumed. Another approach is to ask questions about the image of God they hold most dear: Who is God to you? Who told you about God and what did they tell you? Do you believe it? What do you picture when you think about God? Everyone has an image or images of God. It might be appropriate to ask them to explore a different image of God as they work through an experience. For example, someone who judges him or herself harshly might benefit from a more tender image of God, and for someone who lacks direction or motivation a strong father image might be appropriate. Textual sources, either from Scripture or other spiritual writings, will help in offering a differing image of God.

Additionally, the lives of the saints can be a source of profound reflection for young adults. Most young adults are not, of their own initiative, going to venture into the study of saints. Yet, in my experience, a good story can reel them slowly in—both into the normal, very human side of the saints’ lives and into the story of what made others recognize their holiness and close relationship with God. Young people are desperate for good heroes, and the saints provide such an opportunity. The mystical lives of John of the Cross or Hildegard of Bingen, the heroic acts of Joan of Arc, the redemption of Augustine, the ordinariness of Therese of Lisieux, or the compassion of Teresa of Calcutta—all of these are opportunities for a person to think about his or her own life of faith and where God might be calling him or her to share God’s gifts with the world.

Social justice opens door to faith

Certainly we must not forget that social justice is a significant doorway to faith for many young people. Volunteering at a homeless shelter, marching for the rights of the unborn, or advocating for fair trade, environmentalism or health care reform—these types of passions in young people are admirable and can lead to a much deeper faith life and commitment to the Gospel once explored and integrated. Catholic social teaching provides ample material to connect the passions of social justice with Scripture and the rich tradition of the church. There are many published resources on the social teaching of the church that are written to be easily accessible to this age group. In the past I have taught courses on Catholic social teaching and have observed in wonderment as my students’ eyes lit up, comprehending the impact of this teaching. “The church wrote this?’’ Yes, our church teaches so much more than what the media tells us in sound bites, I tell them. The richness of the social justice tradition resonates well with some young adults.

It may not be easy or even appropriate to begin the theological reflection cycle starting with an experience. We can also begin with a Scripture passage, a story of a saint or saint-like person, or a social justice teaching. Many a good discussion has begun first with source material, as cited above. However, this can be a little trickier, since we have to choose ahead of time what the material will be. I can’t count the number of times that I have used what I thought was a great source for reflection, only to discover that it didn’t resonate well with the person or group. So, if you want to try this route, I suggest asking others in ministry about things they have used successfully. Alternatively, choosing a movie or YouTube clip on a salient contemporary issue might be a good resource, and applicable material from the tradition can be brought into the discussion later as the video is opened up through dialogue.

A final word to the wise for engaging in theological reflection with young adults: individuals in the 18-30 age range are not all in the same stages of development. Particularly important for theological reflection is cognitive development, which has been shown to be closely related to both faith and moral development. There are many cognitive theorists who have explored this kind of development, but I like the work of Marcia Baxter Magolda (1992). Baxter Magolda, who bases her work largely on that of theorists Jean Piaget and William Perry, offers four stages of development. The first is absolute knowing. Someone at this stage relies heavily, if not exclusively, on authority figures to arrive at conclusions. The second stage is labeled transitional knowing. In this stage, a person begins to question whether authority figures have all the answers, yet still wishes they did. Independent knowing is the third stage, and it refers to a change in focus from authority residing outside the self, to an internal authority. Adults in this stage are generally relativistic. They believe what they believe, but often cannot back it up with sound reasoning and are ready to accept someone else’s differing reasoning based on a belief “it’s OK for them.” Mature cognitive development requires contextual knowing, which is the ability to sift through different types of evidence and conclusions, to listen to the thoughts of others, to integrate information in a given context, and to arrive at a reasoned conclusion. Most importantly, there is an understanding that at the end of the day some answers or conclusions will be better than others.

Therefore, it is prudent to listen for the stage of development of the individual when companioning him or her in reflection. Is she looking to you for all the answers? Perhaps you should share your uncertainty regarding a particular situation. Is he tentatively expressing his own thoughts, but still looking for reassurance that he is OK? Then by all means encourage the journey to independence by affirming his own expressions. Is she caught in the quagmire of relativism? Do not judge this harshly; she may be on her way to a more mature development. But ask some tough questions to get her thinking more deeply and seeing issues from multiple perspectives. While we may want to push someone into a more mature stage, to enhance his or her understanding, that simply is impossible. The most we can do is challenge a person’s thinking to include more complex processes and thoughts, usually by asking good, but not-too-threatening “devil’s advocate” questions.

Theological reflection with young adults can be fresh, energizing, rewarding work. Their insights and ideas continually enhance my own learning, as well as my faith life. What a privilege it is to accompany them on their journeys, to see God through their eyes and to be challenged over and over again to expand our own understandings of God and how the divine works in our lives.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.


Eileen P. Doherty is the dean of students at Saint Xavier University in Chicago and previously spent 15 years working in campus ministry. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education at Loyola University of Chicago, where she also earned a master of divinity degree. Her research interests include the spiritual and leadership development of college students. She lives in Evergreen Park, IL with her husband and four children.


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