The Religious Practices of American Youth Project

The Religious Practices of American Youth is a research project being conducted at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill under the direction of Dr. Christian Smith, Professor in the Department of Sociology. This 4-year project, funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc., began in August 2001 and will continue until August 2005. This project is designed to enhance our understanding of the religious lives of American adolescents and will include a national telephone survey of youth and their parents, as well as in-depth interviews with a sub-sample of these youth. What follows is a more detailed description of the goals and design of the Religious Practices of American Youth Project.

The purpose of the proposed project is to research the shape and influence of religion and spirituality in the lives of American adolescents; to describe the extent and perceived effectiveness of the programs and opportunities that religious communities are offering to their youth; and to foster an informed national discussion about the influence of religion in youth’s lives, in order to encourage sustained reflection about and rethinking of our cultural and institutional practices with regard to youth and religion.

Prior to the formal start of this project, the research team spent one year doing preliminary planning research to assess the current state of the research on youth and religion and the needs for future research.  This planning work led to a number of conclusions about the current research project:

  • Existing research suggests we have every reason to believe that religion is an important influence in the lives of youth in many ways: even scattered and spotty findings to date suggest that there is a great deal more “out there” to be learned about youth and religion.
  • There is a need for a new study of youth and religion: previous studies on youth either examine religion superficially, use poor religion measures, employ problematic sampling methods, and/or are quite dated. 
  • The best research design for such a study would mix quantitative and qualitative methods: combine a national survey to provide a big-picture description and reliable statistical findings, with in-depth personal interviews to tap into complex, subjective motives, meanings, emotions, qualifications, etc.
In addition to these conclusions, our grant planning work has helped to clarify much of the potential value and purpose of this proposed project, including:
  • To provide a first ever, detailed, baseline, nationally-representative, descriptive mapping of the religious and spiritual practices, beliefs, experiences, histories, concerns, and involvements of American youth;
  • To develop much further and in greater detail what we know analytically about the influence of religion in the lives of youth; 
  • To inform parents and mentors of youth about how and why religion affects youth;
  • To provide an opportunity to investigate and to think more critically about the actual value that American culture and society broadly place on truly caring for and about American youth, and whether there are gaps between our culture’s kid-loving self concept and our actual cultural and institutional practices.
This project will be able to investigate a great number of questions about youth and religion that are of interest to multiple audiences and constituencies. The following are but some suggestive examples of the kinds of questions we intend in this project to research and answer: 
  • In what religious practices are different kinds of American youth in fact regularly engaged? 
  • What factors—familial, denominational, social—tend to keep youth involved in religious congregations and faith practices? Are there any particular experiences or processes which are crucial in solidifying the religious identities and commitments of youth? 
  • What programs and opportunities for youth involvement do different religious organizations offer to youth, how much do youth participate in them, and how do youth experience and evaluate these programs?
  • How do the religious interests, concerns, and practices of American youth vary between different races, ages, social classes, ecological settings (rural versus urban), and between boys and girls? 
  • In what ways does religion influence the extent and quality of family relationships, academic achievements, and community involvements of American youth?
This research project is designed to accomplish three major tasks at once. First, to collect quantitative data on a “big-picture,” macro scale, in order to be able to make convincing representative national claims about youth and religion. Second, to collect in-depth, qualitative data in order to help us better understand the texture and meanings of the lived experiences of youth, to sensitively interpret the quantitative data, and to generate “grounded” theories about the influences of religion in youth’s lives. Third, this project is designed to maintain contact with the youth we sample, to track changes in their lives over time, in order to be able through longitudinal analysis to make claims about the causal effects of religion in youth’s lives. Our research design package achieves all three of these objectives by combining a national telephone survey of 3,850 American youth and parents with 350 personal, in-depth interviews with a sub-sample of our surveyed youth, all of whom we will maintain contact with over time to make possible a second wave survey of our sample in late 2005. This approach unites the best in quantitative and qualitative methods, and cross-sectional and longitudinal research to produce the strongest possible research findings. 

Pilot Interviews
During the planning stages of this project, the research team conducted 30 pilot interviews with youth in the Durham and Chapel Hill, NC area.  Interviews were conducted with youth ranging in age from 12 to 18 years from a variety of religious and racial backgrounds. These pilot interviews were helpful in providing an early opportunity to learn about issues that are important to youth and how they talk about these matters in their own language.  They also helped the research team identify logistical and content-oriented refinements to the research design.

Telephone Survey
The project will field a national survey starting in early summer of 2002. We will employ a random-digit-dial telephone survey method with in-house subject randomization, in order to sample nationally-representative households with youth ages 13-17 present. We will also over-sample African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and Jewish households.  Our survey will also be made available in a Spanish language version for non-English respondents. Each completed case will consist of one 40-minute survey with one 13-17 year old youth randomly chosen within the household, and one 20-minute survey with one of the youth’s parents (to collect family, neighborhood, and school data that the youth may not know about). We expect that the survey effort will achieve a total of 3,850 completed cases. 

In-Depth Interviews
During the Summer of 2003 trained interviewers will conduct a total of 350 personal interviews with youth around the U.S. The interviewees will be sampled primarily from among our survey respondents, for follow-up, in-depth discussions about their religious, spiritual, family, and social lives. One of the great strengths of this proposed sampling procedure (sampling interview subjects from survey respondents—a unique method rarely employed by “mixed-methods” studies) is the ability to directly link the survey and interview answers, both to prepare better for the interview by studying survey responses, and to understand better the survey responses in light of the interview results. Interview subjects will also be sampled by religion, race, and geographical region of residence to reflect our national survey sample on these demographic traits. 

Longitudinal Survey Tracing
Second wave longitudinal surveys provide uniquely valuable data for understanding the causal effects of religion and other factors in social life, since they enable us to study the effects of variables measured in the first wave on diverse outcomes. These outcomes play themselves out over time and can only be observed in the second wave survey. This project will employ proven methods for maintaining regular post-survey contact with our survey respondents in order to maintaining the option of conducting a second-wave, longitudinal telephone survey with our survey respondents in 2005, three years after the first wave survey. 

As this project develops, we will be producing a variety of scholarly and popular books and edited volumes, topical research reports, newsletters, and conferences. To put yourself on our mailing list to receive information about these publications and other project products, click HERE. We will be happy to keep you updated on the progress and product of this project.