What is Sticky Faith? from Fuller Youth Institute on Vimeo.

Most churches in America would give anything to develop a deep, growing faith in kids that “sticks” and continues to mature long-term. That interest is dwarfed only by parents’ desire to develop a deep, growing faith in their own kids.

Yet both national leaders with broad spheres of influence as well as local, grassroots practitioners are waking up to the reality that almost half of their graduating seniors struggle deeply with their faith in college.  Offering a few special “Senior Seminars” or giving seniors a “graduation Bible” and hoping for the best are both too little and too late.

In response to this problem, the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) has conducted the College Transition Project, a national longitudinal study following over 500 high school seniors during their first three years in college.  The goals of this research are to understand the dynamics of youth group graduates’ transition to college and to identify the relationships and best practices in youth ministries, churches, and families that can help set students on a trajectory of lifelong faith and service.

FYI’s research confirms that it’s never too early or too late to start developing faith that continues to grow and lasts.  Sticky Faith gives parents and leaders both a theological/philosophical framework and a host of practical relationship and programming ideas that develop long-term faith in teenagers. 

If you would like to explore the research method more in depth, please see the research overview below.  More specific inquiries can be made to



Defining Sticky Faith

The goal of this movement is to help teenagers develop Sticky Faith.  By “Sticky Faith” we mean a combination of characteristics, all of which exist in a dynamic tension…

  • Faith that is both internalized and externalized: a faith that is part of a student’s inner thoughts and emotions, and is also externalized in choices and actions that reflect that faith commitment.  These behaviors include regular attendance in a church/campus group, prayer and Bible reading, service to others, and lower participation in risk behaviors, in particular sex and alcohol (two behaviors we are studying specifically).  In other words, Sticky Faith involves whole-person life integration, at least to some degree.
  • Faith that is both personal [[We wrestled with how to describe the fact that God cares about and interacts with each individual and yet much of our faith growth is communal.  “Personal” is our best attempt but in using that term, we do not mean to imply an individualistic faith.]] and communal:  a faith that celebrates God’s specific care for each person while always locating faith in the global and local community of the Church.
  • Faith that is both mature and maturing:  a faith that shows marks of spiritual maturity but is also in process of growth.  We don’t assume a high school senior or college freshman (or a youth worker for that matter) will have a completely “mature” faith.  We are all in process.

Research Overview

The Fuller Youth Insititute’s College Transition Project is comprised of four separate research initiatives: an initial quantitative pilot study involving 69 youth group graduates, two three-year longitudinal (primarily quantitative) studies of high school seniors during their first three years in college, involving 162 and 227 students respectively, and qualitative interviews with 45 former youth group graduates between two and four years beyond high school graduation.

In 2004, the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), at that time know as the Center for Youth and Family Ministry, initiated a pilot research study called the College Transition Project (CTP) under the guidance of Dr. Cameron Lee from Fuller's School of Psychology, surveying a group of 69 college students who were alumni of a single youth group in the Northwest. The preliminary results suggested a link between a college student’s current spiritual state and the quality of key relationships during the high school years, including the youth group environment itself. As a result, in 2005–2006 FYI launched a broader study, recruiting students involved in church youth groups during the spring of their high school senior year. To participate in the survey, students were required to be 18 years of age or older, part of a church youth group, and intending to attend a college or university upon graduation. Students were recruited through FYI’s nationwide network of youth leader contacts, resulting in a sample of 162 students who were surveyed four times over three years. Thirty of these students participated in subsequent one-hour interviews during their fourth year out of high school.

In 2006-07, with the support of funding from the Lilly Endowment, FYI launched another nationwide longitudinal study of high school seniors connected to church youth groups to examine their experiences at five points: the spring of their senior year in high school, the fall and spring of their first year in college (2007-2008), the spring of their second year in college (2009), and the spring of their third year in college (2010). The primary goal of the study was to determine if there are programmatic and relational characteristics of high school youth ministries and churches that have a demonstrable relationship to how students make the faith adjustment to life beyond high school.

With support from another private foundation, Dr. Cheryl Crawford conducted two-hour qualitative interviews with 15 college students who had been part of a leadership development program at a Christian camp during high school. These interviews were conducted during spring semester of the freshman year of college. She subsequently interviewed the same students the following spring.


The sample for the longitudinal study launched in 2007 consisted of 227 high school seniors drawn from different regions across the United States. More than half (56.3 percent) of the respondents were female while 43.7 percent were male. The sample was predominantly White/Caucasian (78.0 percent). Asian/Asian American students comprised 11.0 percent of the sample, while Hispanic/Latino students accounted for 5.0 percent. African-American and Native American students each accounted for 1.4 percent of the sample. Participants reported a median grade point average of 3.5 to 3.99, with 63 percent of the sample having GPAs above 3.5. Given that 88 percent of seniors who apply to college have a GPA over 3.0, our sample represents a high-achieving group. [[Xianglei Chen, Joanna Wu, Shayna Tasoff, “The High School Senior Class of 2003–04: Steps Toward Postsecondary Enrollment,” US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, February 2010, table 4, ]]&nb.sp; The majority of the participants came from larger churches. The median youth group size was 51-100 students, while the median church size was reported to be over 800 members.

Participants were mostly from intact families, with 83.8 percent reporting that they lived with both their father and mother; another 4.1 percent lived with a parent and stepparent. Overall, the parents of the participants were well educated; more than two-thirds (69.7 percent) of the mothers and nearly three-quarters of the fathers (73.0 percent) held at least a college degree. By far the majority of the fathers (88.2 percent) of the participants were employed full-time, while fewer than half of the mothers were (42.5 percent).


From October 2006 to February 2007, members of the research team who had developed networks in four geographical regions of the United States (the Southwest, the Northwest, the Southeast, and the Northeast) identified churches representing size, denominational, socio-economic, and ethnic diversity. For this study, only churches employing full-time youth pastors were recruited. From March to June 2007, the youth ministry staff of each participating church was asked to invite senior students involved in their youth ministries to participate in the study. As with the pilot, students were eligible only if they were 18 years old or over and intended to attend a college upon graduation.

Students who agreed to participate in the study could do so in one of three ways: they could complete a paper-and-pencil version of the survey together (facilitated either by their youth pastor or a member of the FYI research team), they could complete a paper version of the survey individually at a time and place convenient to them, or they could complete an online version of the survey. In addition to the survey, each student was required to complete a consent form assuring confidentiality. Signed consent forms also contained an identification code that was unique to each individual, as well as contact information (i.e., an email address and a physical address) in order to track each student for future waves of data collection. All future data collection was done via online surveys.


Faith Measures. 

Five measures of faith development were employed by the FYI team (overseen by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Cameron Lee) in order to create a composite picture of both internalized and externalized faith commitments and behaviors. For four of the measures, participants are asked to rate their agreement with each item on a five-point scale, ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree(5). The Intrinsic Religious Motivation scale [[D. R. Hoge, “A Validated Intrinsic Religious Motivation Scale,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11 (1972): 369–76.]]  is comprised of ten items measuring the extent to which an individual’s religiosity is not simply external and behavioral but internalized in terms of one’s values and motivations. Sample items include, “My faith involves all of my life,” and “I try to carry my religion over into all my other dealings in life.” A similar measure, the Narrative Faith Relevance Scale, [[Cameron Lee, “Narrative Faith Relevance Scale” (unpublished manuscript, 2004).]] assesses the extent to which one’s decisions are influenced by the sense of having a relationship to God. Sample items include, “If and when I date someone, it is (or would be) important to me that God be pleased with the relationship,” and “In choosing what college to attend, it was important to me to seek God’s will.” The third measure is the 17-item short form of the Search Institute’s Faith Maturity Scale, [[P. L. Benson, M. J. Donahue, and J. A. Erickson, “The Faith Maturity Scale: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Empirical Validation,” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion 5 (1993): 1–26.]] including items like “My faith shapes how I think and act each and every day” and “My life is committed to Jesus Christ.” And the fourth is the Religious Support Scale, [[William E. Fiala, Jeffrey P. Bjorck, and Richard Gorsuch, “The Religious Support Scale: Construction, Validation, and Cross-Validation,” American Journal of Community Psychology 30 (2002): 761–86.]] assessing the extent to which participants feel supported and nurtured by God. Using social support items, the scale incorporates indicators such as “I am valued by God.”

The fifth measure is a measure of religious behavior created for the CTP pilot. Ten items assess the frequency of engagement in a variety of corporate and individual behaviors, including such items as “pray alone,” “read the Bible by yourself,” and “attend a worship service or church-related event with your parents.” Responses are given on a six-point scale, ranging from less than once a month (1) to once a day or more (6).

Youth group Experience Measures.

Three sets of items were created from qualitative data from earlier stages of the project in order to assess students’ participation in and attitudes toward their youth group experience. First, students were asked about the frequency of participation in eight items over the past two months or the past year, including activities like retreats, mission trips, and midweek youth group. Second, participants were presented with 22 statements representing why students go to youth group, including, “It’s where my friends are,” and “I learn about God there.” Students were asked to rate how true each statement was for them using a five-point scale ranging from not true at all (1) to completely true (5). Third, students were asked what they would want to see more of less of in their youth group. Thirteen items were presented, such as “one-on-one time with leaders” and “mission trips.” Participants responded on a five-point scale ranging from much less (1) to much more (5).

Other Measures.

In addition to these faith and youth ministry measures, other scales and questions were added related to perceived social support, parental support, support within the youth ministry, loneliness, extraversion, social desirability (as a control factor) and risk behaviors (sexual contact, alcohol use, and pornography use). Subsequent waves of data collection have included most of these same measures (particularly faith measures), in addition to scales and questions related to religious behaviors in college, the college spiritual environment, adjustment to college, doubts about faith, parental and other adult contact in college, parental faith discussions, preparation for decision making, and college participation in church and campus ministry.

The following are some of the spirituality instruments and their corresponding items.

Intrinsic Religious Motivation (Hoge, 1972)

1.   My faith involves all of my life.

2.   One should seek God’s guidance when making every important decision.

3.   It doesn’t matter so much what I believe as long as I live a moral life.

4.   In my life, I experience the presence of the Divine.

5.   My faith sometimes restricts my actions.      

6.   Although I am a religious person, I refuse to let religious considerations influence my everyday affairs.

7.   Nothing is as important to me as serving God as best I know how.                    

8.   Although I believe in my religion, I feel there are many more important things in life.

9.   I try hard to carry my religion over into all my other dealings in life.        

10. My religious beliefs are what really lie behind my whole approach to life.


Narrative Faith Relevance Scale (Lee, 2004)

1.   It is important to me that my future career somehow embody a calling from God.

2.   I try to see setbacks and crises as part of God’s larger plan.

3.   If and when I date someone, it is (or would be) important to me that God be pleased with the relationship.

4.   In thinking about my schedule, I try to cultivate the attitude that my time belongs to God.

5.   It is important to me that whatever money I have be used to serve God’s purposes.

6.   In choosing what college to attend, it is important to me to seek God’s will.

7.   When I think of the things I own or would like to own, I try to remember that everything I have belongs to God.


Faith Maturity Scale (Benson et al, 1993)

1.   I experience a deep communion with God.

2.   My faith shapes how I think and act each and every day.

3.   I help others with their religious questions and struggles.

4.   My faith helps me know right from wrong.

5.   I devote time to reading and studying the Bible.

6.   Every day I see evidence that God is active in the world.

7.   I seek out opportunities to help me grow spiritually.

8.   I take time for periods of prayer or meditation.

9.   I feel God’s presence in my relationships with other people.

10. My life is filled with meaning and purpose.

11. I try to apply my faith to political and social issues.

12. My life is committed to Jesus Christ.

13. I go out of my way to show love to people I meet.

14. I have a real sense that God is guiding me.

15. I like to worship and pray with others.

16. I think Christians must be about the business of creating international understanding and harmony.

17. I am spiritually moved by the beauty of God’s creation


Religious Support Scale (Fiala et al, 2002)

1. God gives me the sense that I belong.

2. I feel appreciated by God.

3. If something went wrong, God would give me help.

4. I am valued by God.

5. I can turn to God for advice when I have problems.

6. God cares about my life and situation.

7. I do NOT feel close to God.


High School Version of Religious Behavior Scale (created for the CTP pilot project)

For the following 8 items, please tell us how often you engaged in each of the behaviors listed, during the past 12 months: Less than once a month, About once a month, Two to three times a month, About once a week, Two to three times a week, Daily.

How often did you...

1.   talk with another Christian about your faith, outside of a church-related context?

2.   pray alone?

3.   attend a worship service or church-related event?

4.   speak or try to speak with a non-Christian about your faith?

5.   volunteer your time to serve others?

6.   participate in a small group of your peers for religious or spiritual purposes?

7.   read your Bible by yourself?

8.   meet with a spiritual mentor (other than your parents)?


College Version of Religious Behavior Scale

How often did you...

1.   talk with another Christian about your faith, outside of a church-related context?

2.   participate in an on-campus Christian fellowship?

3.   pray alone?

4.   attend a worship service or other event at a church off-campus?

5.   speak or try to speak with a non-Christian about your faith?

6.   volunteer your time to serve others?

7.   participate in a small group of your peers for religious or spiritual purposes?

8.   read your Bible by yourself?

9.   attend a school-sponsored chapel?

10. meet with an older Christian for spiritual growth, mentoring, or discipleship?

11. participate in service or justice work that helps people in need?

Please Note:

While use of full surveys or scales for research purposes requires express permission of the Fuller Youth Institute, certain subsections of the College Transition Project surveys are available here for free download and use as appropriate. Use in any explicit research capacity must be approved directly by the Fuller Youth Institute prior to such use.


Links to Others Addressing College Transition Issues An emerging network seeking to connect new college students with one another and with campus ministries.

Spirituality in Higher Education UCLA's national study of college students' search for meaning and purpose.

College Transition Initiative From the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.

Emerging Adulthood Research From Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.

Video Resource from the Youth Transition Network


Note: Click the PLAY button to watch this video on the FYI site, and click in the center of the video to be redirected to YouTube, where you have the option of showing the video full-screen.