Spiritual Development

We ­­­­­­­often tend to think of spiritual development as religious development - or instruction in religion. We differentiate between “what is taught and what is caught”, but do we really understand the difference between religious instruction, religiosity and spiritual development? Are we able to discern when spiritual development is taking place aside from the learned facts, concepts and the occasional “catch them being good” moments?

There are many people who believe that spiritual development is all about the individual’s ability to “center” their core being, to reach equilibrium, to find peace and love, to “transcend” wrongs and negative feelings1; to “love life or love death”2.

Perhaps before we try to define spiritual development and explain what it entails, it might be helpful to look at the differences between spirituality and religiosity.

Defining Spirituality

First of all, religious instruction is very, very different from spiritual development. Religious instruction is just that – instruction in one’s set of religious beliefs. It is expressed in the organized practice and discipline of certain beliefs about self, God and humanity. Religiosity, of course, refers to the adherence and dedication to religious practices, activities and beliefs.

Spiritual development, though, is a more profound. Spiritual development involves the “integration of one’s beliefs, values, meaning and self-worth… intangible elements, such as beliefs about self and others…”3.  Within the three main learning domains, religious beliefs may eventually be part of what a person believes about himself and others, but it is only one of the many factors that make up the spiritual domain. Spiritual development is also impacted by an individual’s understandings and concepts relating to social and emotional stability. As such, spiritual development is the development of an individual’s personhood – the defining of who they are and what they should be.

Understanding the difference between the religious instruction and spiritual development will go a long way in helping to understand how to foster spiritual development. It will also help to inform and guide the process of religious instruction.

The Spiritual Domain

How does spiritual development, emotional stability and social concepts relate? Using a triangulation of heuristic and hermeneutic methodologies, research and observations have shown that an individual’s belief systems are foundational to the development of emotional stability and social concepts. Spiritual development is a synthesis of belief systems, social concepts and emotional stability. The interplay between these is very intricate. Belief systems, though, are not limited to religious content. Belief systems incorporate thoughts and feelings about other people, animals, nature - even politics and entertainment and other aspects of life. 

When studying religious and non-religious individuals (based on their self-proclaimed status), there is a marked difference in individual levels of spiritual development. Both religious and non-religious individuals who demonstrate a higher level of spiritual development also demonstrate a deeper reverence for life - all life. They are more (1) aware, (2) empathetic and (3) responsive to the social and emotional state of those in whom they come in contact.

Interestingly, many religious* individuals who demonstrate a higher level of spiritual development believe it is a directive of their religious beliefs to demonstrate a deeper reverence for all life. They firmly believe it is their responsibility to cultivate a higher level of (1) awareness, (2) empathy and (3) responsiveness to the social and emotional state of those in whom they come in contact. They believe in an eternal life with a knowing, loving God and strive to meet a higher standard they believe He has set.  

It does not stop here, though. Individuals who demonstrate a higher level of spiritual development tend to also be more discerning regarding their personal thoughts, feelings and opinions regarding politics, entertainment and other aspects of life. Their life choices are a reflection of their spiritual development which is a synthesis of their belief systems and social and emotional intelligence.

Stimulating Spiritual Development

The answer to how a teacher, minister or parent can stimulate the spiritual domain of their charges encompasses purposeful inclusion of various opportunities to develop awareness, empathy and responsiveness to social and emotional situations thus helping to form belief systems.  

For instance, beauty can be in a room’s décor and setup, but purposefully bring in live plants, animals, fountains and gardens in order to teach the children how to care for the various forms of life and beauty that are present in our everyday world. Forms of life bring beauty, and the activities related to the care of the various forms of life enhance one’s awareness and appreciation for that which is outside of self.

Let children grow up learning important habits of useful labor and to work quickly and thoroughly (7MR 3.1; 7MR 14.1). Give children personal time and attention, teaching them habits of carefulness and quietness (7 MR 11.1, 11.2). Teach children pleasantly, with reasonable requirements, expressed kindness and wise direction (7 MR 20.3), to be subordinate to laws and rules, and instill virtues into their opening minds (7MR 12.1, 12.2; CG 193.2). All these lessons can be taught through daily work with plants and animals. These lessons, too, will help children learn about whom they are and who they should be.

Are there new and improved techniques for fostering spiritual development? Probably not. We have built upon the components of working with plants and animals to include teaching techniques typically found in religious curriculum, all of which are good methods and can be used very effectively (see Pedagogical Practices). In addition, teachers, ministers and parents can delve deeper by helping students to observe the salient features and subtle elements of Biblical stories; asking “why” questions, “I wonder” questions, and “what if” questions. The natural world, though, still provides the most valuable opportunities for sharing the gospel and drawing people toward Christ.


If indeed we accept the definition of spirituality as the integration of beliefs, values, meaning, and self-worth, then we must understand that we are not talking about religiosity, metaphysics or transcendentalism all of which are forms of religion even if not directly tied to a denomination.

Consider Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13. The sower went out to sow and he spread good seed. As teachers, ministers and parents, we are responsible to sow the seed. Some hearts are receptive; others are not. The micro-environmental aspect of familial and communal life has a profound impact on an individual’s belief systems and understanding of self and others4. It also impacts the perceived role of each person as well as the value placed on each.

Our job is to sow the seed; God will take care of the seed sown; His Name will be glorified; and, He will take care of the young plant. Just continue to sow the seed.

Speaking appointments are typically scheduled 12 months in advance. 

To schedule a speaking appointment with Dr. Gillan Byrne, please use the email link or call (479) 216-9771. 

*This statement is based on interviews and observations of mainly Christian, Jewish, and Catholic individuals.


1Conference presentations given by: Karen-Marie Yust, Mary Rothschild and John Surr, Fr. Gerard Stoyles, Machteld Reynaert, Holly Allen and Robbie Howerton, Marialuisamercedes Gonzalez de Benatuil, Ruth Wills, International Conferences on Children’s Spirituality, The Politics of Children’s Spirituality: Identifying and Responding to Social Practices That Put Children At Risk, August 2011, Richmond, VA,

2 Mary Elizabeth Moore, in the introduction to her edited volume, Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World. (2008). Chalice Press: Atlanta, GA.

3Gillan, S. (2007). Young children and spirituality, p. 1, ¶3 & p. 2, ¶ 1& 2. Unpublished manuscript.

4Perry, Bruce, D. (1998). Incubated in Terror: Neurodevelopmental Factors in the “Cycle of Violence”. In Joy D. Osofsky (Ed.), Children in a violent society. (pp. 124-149). New York, NY: Gilford Press. ISBN 978-1-57230-387-4