Feature in The Washington Post: "Study probes why college students leave church"
by Piet Levy (Religion News Service), September 14, 2011
PASADENA, Calif. — Millions of college freshmen are overwhelmed right now trying to make new friends, adjusting to more rigorous school work and learning to live away from home. Whether they also find time for church during their first two weeks on campus will set the mold for the rest of their college years, according to new research. ...READ MORE
ZONDERVAN RESEARCH RELEASE:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, SEPTEMBER 7, 2011
What Makes Faith Stick During College?
Findings from Fuller Youth Institute research provide
surprising insights on instilling lasting faith in young people.
Pasadena, California, Sept. 7, 2011—Parents and church youth leaders often see big changes in youth group graduates as they transition to college, but one change that can catch them off guard is a vastly diminished commitment to faith. To give parents, leaders, and churches the practical tools needed to instill long-term faith in young people, the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Seminary has just completed six years of “Sticky Faith” research through the College Transition Project.
Previous studies indicate that 40 percent to 50 percent of all youth group graduates fail to stick with their faith or connect with a faith community after high school.* To unearth why that is and what can be done to help students develop a faith that thrives over the long haul, FYI paired interviews of youth group graduates with a longitudinal study of approximately 500 youth group graduates during their first three years in college. Based on this research, FYI has unveiled three counterintuitive findings with enormous ramifications for the long-term faith development of American teenagers:
1. While most U.S. churches focus on building strong youth groups, teenagers also need to build relationships with adults of all ages.
Contrary to the assumption that involving teenagers in youth group and peer activities is the key to vibrant spirituality, students’ participation in all-church worship during high school was more consistently linked with developing a mature faith in both high school and college than any other participation variable. Rather than only attending their own Sunday School classes, worship services, small groups, and service activities, young people appear to benefit from intergenerational activities. Churches and families wanting to instill deep faith in youth should help them build a web of relationships with committed and caring adults.
2, Churches and families overestimate youth group graduates’ readiness for the struggles ahead with dire consequences for the faith.
Only one in seven high school seniors report feeling prepared to face the challenges of college life with few ready for the intensity of the college experience: loneliness, the search for new friends, being completely on their own for the first time, and the sudden availability of partying. One pervasive struggle for college students is finding a new church, as evident by the 40 percent of freshman who report difficulty doing so. Young people retrospectively report that the first two weeks of their college freshman year set the trajectory for their remaining years in school.
Parents and leaders should talk earlier and more frequently about college, including helping entering freshman develop a plan for the first two weeks complete with church attendance, as well as an investigation of ministries and churches nearby that offer a transitional lifeline.
3. While teaching young people the “dos” and “don’ts” of Christian living is important, an overemphasis on behaviors can sabotage faith long-term.
When asked what it means to be Christian, one-third of subjects as college juniors (all of whom were youth group graduates) failed to mention “Jesus” or “Christ” but rather emphasized behaviors. This and a few related findings suggest that students tend to view the gospel as a “do” and “don’t” list of behaviors instead of a faith that also transforms interior lives and beliefs. One of the dangers of reducing Christianity to this sort of external behavior is that when students fail to live up to the activities they think define Christianity, their feelings of guilt can make them quickly abandon their faith altogether.
Parents and leaders eager to build sticky faith in youth need to exemplify and explain that while particular behaviors and practices are part of the faith, the focus is on trusting (not just obeying) Christ along with explaining how he leads, guides, and changes us from the inside. Young people better navigate their faith journey when adults share the challenges of their own spiritual paths—including ups, downs, and turning points.
Commentary on the Findings
Dr. Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, expressed both concern over the faith trajectories of youth group graduates as well as optimism about the transformative potential of the research findings. “As many churches and denominations experience decline, and as anxious parents wonder about their children’s futures, this Sticky Faith research has the power to spark a movement that not only changes youth, but also families and churches. Throughout the research, we’ve been sharing preliminary results and are impressed with the powerful changes families and churches have already been able to make by incorporating the findings.”
Brand New Sticky Faith Resources
Expanded analyses of the groundbreaking Sticky Faith research and implications are fleshed out in two just-released books: Sticky Faith by Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, and Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition by Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford (Zondervan Publishing). For more information on the research and to sign up for a free FYI E-Journal, visit stickyfaith.org, or follow @stickyfaith on twitter.
Based in Pasadena, California, the Fuller Youth Institute (fulleryouthinstitute.org) is part of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world with more than 4,000 Master’s level and Doctoral students. The mission of the Fuller Youth Institute is to leverage research into resources that elevate leaders, youth, and families.
* Barna Update, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years.” The Barna Group, 2006, September 16, 2006; George H. Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll, 2006; and Christian Smith with Patricial Snell, Souls in Transition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 105, 108, 109, and 116.
NPR Interview with Kara Powell: "Guiding Children Through Religion"
by Michel Martin (NPR), August 30, 2011
Some parents feel responsible to shape their children's religious foundations while others prefer to let kids explore faith for themselves. Host Michel Martin explores the complications of spiritual parenting with Asra Nomani, professor of journalism at Georgetown University; Kara Powell, author of Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids; and Regina Brett, author of God Never Blinks. ...LISTEN TO THE STORY
ZONDERVAN PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, JULY 28, 2011
HOW CAN COLLEGE KIDS FIND FREEDOM
WITHOUT LOSING THEIR FAITH?
COMPREHENSIVE TRACKING STUDY CONDUCTED BY
FULLER YOUTH INSTITUTE PROVIDES SURPRISING
ANSWERS IN NEW BOOK
Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids
Dr. Kara E. Powell & Dr. Chap Clark
Zondervan, September 27, 2011)
Parents often see big changes in children during the first year in college, but one change that often catches them off guard is a diminished commitment to their faith.
In fact, various studies of young adult Christians have shown that by the time they receive their diploma four years later; approximately 40 to 50 percent of them will have abandoned their faith. Even those actively participating in church youth groups in high school, who, when polled the year before college, claimed they had every intention of sticking with their faith—approximately 80% in one study—aren’t immune.
How does such steadfast faith become so quickly unstuck?
That’s what Fuller Seminary faculty members Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark, along with a team of graduate students, set out to discover over a six year period with the College Transition Project*. Conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), the Project included qualitative and longitudinal quantitative studies of 500 Christian youth group members following high school graduation that tracked individual and collective journeys during the first three years of college.
The research results are the impetus for the latest book by Powell and Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids, a guide for parents of kids of all ages (from preschool to college), providing practical and developmentally appropriate suggestions on building faith that will stick through college and beyond.
“I am a different and better parent because of our research. Every day I interact and talk with my kids differently because of what we have learned," says Powell, FYI’s executive director and a mother of three who has been parenting for ten years and serving kids in youth ministry for twenty-five years. (Co-author Clark has been parenting for some thirty years and in various forms of youth, family and pastoral ministry for over 35 years.)
Whatever the age of the child, say the authors (who stress it’s never too late or too early to start building Sticky Faith), parents need to understand a few broad and fundamental concepts, including:
- Even more important than parental support throughout childhood, the research suggests that Sticky Faith depends on how parents express and live out their faith. Parents’ own faith is one of the primary influencers on their kids’ faith. Attend church just a couple of times a year? Expect the same from your kids.
- When asked what it means to be Christian, one-third of college juniors (prior youth group attendees) listed answers related to “doing” the faith—a lifestyle of external behaviors insufficient to sustain their faith. Instead of the “Gospel of Sin Management”—that is, a long list of dos and don’ts that defines being a Christian—parents need to focus on teaching how to trust (not just obey) Christ along with teaching how he leads, guides, and changes us from the inside.
- Kids need to develop a strong personal identity for faith to stick and community helps do just that. Whether it’s family or friends, building “social capital” into kids’ lives creates a network of caring supporters who aid in the self-discovery process and keep kids connected to faith for the long haul. Build a 5:1 (or 7:1, or 10:1, or whatever you determine works best for your family) sticky web adult to child ratio for mentoring your kids since other adults are often able to speak to them in ways you cannot as the parent.
Luckily for parents, Powell and Clark also provide a host of tested ideas, including family traditions and rituals, which serve to launch kids of all ages on that lifelong faith trajectory. Here are just a few:
- College-Bound Kids
Since only one in seven high school seniors report feeling prepared for college, start talking about life after high school before graduation. As part of practical discussions on issues such as managing money and time, help them plan a schedule that will include church attendance. Forty percent of college freshmen report difficulty finding a church, so help them make the connection before arrival for a smoother and stickier transition.
- High School Kids
While more than two million U.S. teens go on mission trips annually, five out of six report that these trips have little impact on their lives. For service that sticks, find causes that matter to your high schooler, ones that hit close to home. Make service a family affair, an ongoing process rather than a one-time event. By the way, the research shows that teens who serve younger children are more likely to develop stickier faith.
- Middle School Kids
Talk to your kids! And that means providing the space and time for quality conversations in the midst of having some fun too, perhaps while hiking, baking cookies, tennis, etc. Forget lecturing. Your job is to listen and ask questions. Talk about your faith—its ups and downs—and encourage your kids to talk about theirs, including their doubts (less than half of the kids studied don’t share their spiritual struggles with parents). Giving permission for independent thought leads to stickier faith.
- Preschool and Elementary School Kids
Healthy rituals in family life help reinforce identity and build a faith that starts young and sticks. Spend a few minutes each day debriefing your child’s day and saying prayers at bedtime. Celebrate everything—from the first day of school to the start of football season—with streamers, balloons, and a favorite food that matches the occasion. Perhaps at every birthday, have each person pray a word of thanksgiving for the unique gift of the birthday child.
Written by authors known for the integrity of their research and the intensity of their passion for young people, Sticky Faith delivers what nearly every Christian parent in America wants—a resource that empowers them to develop dynamic and robust faith in kids that sticks long term.
For youth pastors and ministries, Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition by Powell, Brad Griffin, and Dr. Cheryl Crawford is also being released in September 2011. Presenting youth workers with both a theological/philosophical framework and practical programming ideas that develop long-term faith in teenagers, each chapter in the book presents a summary of FYI’s quantitative and qualitative research, along with the implications of this research, including program ideas suggested and tested by youth ministries nationwide.
As well, Sticky Faith Parent Curriculum, a DVD by Powell, will release December 2011 in time for the holiday gift season.
For more, visit www.stickyfaith.org or follow Twitter @stickyfaith
*About the Research
Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark focused on two research projects: the HURT Project and the College Transition Project, a series of groundbreaking studies conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute in collaboration with their colleague, Dr. Cameron Lee, over six years.
The 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 additional qualitative interviews with 45 former youth group graduates currently in college.
Thanks to a sizable research grant from the Lilly Endowment, central to the College Transition Project are two longitudinal studies of 384 youth group seniors during their first three years in college. The majority of the students surveyed took their first online questionnaire during the spring of their senior year in high school, and then one or two online questionnaires during their freshman, sophomore, and junior years in college. Each phase of data allowed researchers to peel away less significant layers of the transition and focus on what lay at the Sticky Faith core. The research was not designed to prove causation, rather to discover strong correlations between variables that might predict the relationships between those variables.
Students in the study represent “typical” Christian seniors transitioning to college. They come from different regions of the US. They attend public, private, and Christian colleges and vocational schools. 59 percent are female and 41 percent are male. Of note, kids in the sample do tend to have higher high school grade point averages and are more likely to come from intact families than the typical student heading to college. The kids also tend to come from larger than average churches that employ full-time professional youth pastors.
The HURT Project is based on Dr. Clark’s qualitative research conducted from 2001 to 2010. It started with recording stories and coding observations collected over a year as a substitute teacher at a California public school campus with permission to be a “participant-observer.” It evolved to include on-going observations, interviews, open-ended conversations, and deliberate focus groups with high school and college students across the US and Canada.
About the Authors
Dr. Kara E. Powell is executive director at Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. She has authored or co-authored several books, including Essential Leadership, Deep Justice in a Broken World, and Help! I’m a Woman in Youth Ministry. She is the general editor for The Fuller Youth Institute E-Journal and regularly speaks at conferences and seminars. She lives with her husband and three children in Pasadena, California.
Dr. Chapman “Chap” Clark is Vice Provost for Regional Campuses and Masters Programs and Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Chap’s extensive publication of books, articles and videos focus primarily on relationships. Among his many books are Hurt 2.0, When Kids Hurt, Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World (co-authored with his wife, Dee), and Deep Justice in a Broken World. Chap and Dee currently live in Gig Harbor, Washington.
Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids
Dr. Kara E. Powell & Dr. Chap Clark
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (September 2011)
List Price: $14.99
Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers
Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (September 2011)
List Price: $16.99
Sticky Faith Parent Curriculum
Kara E. Powell
Publisher: Zondervan (December 2011)