|The Religious Practices of American
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.
PURPOSE OF THIS 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:
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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