Faith and Adolescence

“We know relatively little about the religious lives of American adolescents,” said researchers writing in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2002.

It’s a statement that Calvin psychology professors Laura DeHaan and Julie Yonker agree with but would like to change.

“Research in this area has not kept up with research in other areas of developmental theory,” said Yonker. “We know much more about cognitive, social, identity development, but not with respect to faith formation.”

The research duo are contributing to this area of study, thanks to a grant from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Aided by student researcher Carolyn Affholter, DeHaan and Yonker will review and compile the literature that has already been published on the topic of religious faith in adolescents and young adults.

“We start by finding what is out there and what has been done,” said DeHaan. “We need to begin with what we do know.”

While initial data indicates that not a lot of study has been done, it also suggests that studies have been hampered by a lack of clarity.

“There are myriad definitions of what faith is,” said Yonker. “It has been defined by church attendance, how often one attends youth group, prayer frequency. None of those, though, really gets at the spirituality of a person.”

Through their research, DeHaan and Yonker hope to develop a clear definition of what identifies a person as religious or spiritual. “I hope that someday we can create a 10-or-so item scale that will include ways to get at how much your religious faith impacts the decisions you make,” said DeHaan.

“The little evidence we do have suggests that religious faith does impact adolescent and young adult behavior,” said DeHaan. “In terms of overall well-being and risk-taking, religious belief is associated with many positive outcomes.”

About the Author

Lynn Rosendale is associate director of communications and marketing at Calvin College.

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