What makes faith stick during college?

Research release

FYI Image FYI | Sep 5, 2011

Photo by Inbal Marilli

Findings from Sticky Faith research provide surprising insights into instilling lasting faith in young people.


Pasadena, California, Sept. 6, 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 what they call Sticky Faith research through the College Transition Project.

For many Christian church youth group graduates, the transition to college is rocky at best in terms of faith retention. 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 doesn’t just survive but 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 surprising and counterintuitive findings with enormous ramifications for the long-term faith development of teenagers and young adults in the United States:

1. While churches across the U.S. have tended to allocate financial and personnel resources toward building strong and dynamic youth groups, teenagers also need to rub shoulders and build relationships with adults of all ages.

Churches and families commonly assume that involving teenagers in various youth group and peer activities is the key to vibrant spirituality. Testing this premise, FYI assessed the relationship between teenagers’ faith maturity and their participation in a number of church and youth group activities, including small groups, short-term missions, and Sunday School. Contrary to what is widely assumed, more than any other participation variable measured in the Sticky Faith study, students’ participation in all-church worship during high school was consistently linked with developing a mature faith in both high school and college.

Rather than only attending their own Sunday School classes, worship services, small groups, and service activities, young people appear to benefit from intergenerational activities and venues that remove the walls (whether literal or metaphorical) separating the generations. Churches and families wanting to instill deep faith in youth should help them build a web of relationships with committed and caring adults, some of whom may serve as intentional mentors.

2. Churches and families think youth group graduates are ready for the struggles ahead, despite the students themselves feeling unprepared and challenged by everything from loneliness to difficulty finding a new church.

Only one in seven high school seniors report feeling prepared to face the challenges of college life. Few students seem ready for the intensity of the college experience and the perfect storm of loneliness, the search for new friends, being completely on their own for the first time, and the sudden availability of a lot of partying. One pervasive struggle for college students is finding a new church, as evident by the 40 percent of college freshman who report difficulty doing so. Young believers’ need for greater preparation is heightened by the powerful influence of their initial post-high school decisions. Young people retrospectively report that the first two weeks of their college freshman year set the trajectory for their remaining years in school.

Given both the importance of those first days at college, as well as the widespread lack of preparation, parents and leaders should consider talking earlier and more frequently about college while students are still in high school. Comprehensive preparation should include helping new college students develop a plan for the first two weeks complete with church attendance, as well as an investigation of ministries and churches near the college setting that can 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 their 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. “Jesus Jacket” is the phrase the FYI team coined to describe how student respondents frequently view their faith. In other words, they hold the perception that faith hasn’t changed them internally but is more like a jacket they wear when they feel like practicing certain behaviors. One of the dangers of reducing Christianity to this sort of external behavior is that when college students fail to live up to the activities they think define Christianity, their feelings of guilt can make them quick to toss the jacket aside and 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. In particular, young people better navigate their faith journey when adults share the challenges of their own spiritual paths—complete with past and present 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 potential of the research findings to transform youth, families, and churches. “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,” Dr. Powell says.

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 (both of which are published by Zondervan Publishing). 

More About the Research

Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark focused on two research projects: most recently the six-year-long College Transition Project, a series of groundbreaking studies conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute in collaboration with Dr. Cameron Lee, and the HURT Project.

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 a cross-section of Christian seniors transitioning to college. They come from different regions of the United States, having attended public, private, and Christian colleges and vocational schools. Fifty-nine percent are female and 40 percent are male. Of note, youth 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 students in the study 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 during one year as a substitute teacher at a California public school campus with permission to be a “participant-observer.” It evolved to include ongoing observations, interviews, open-ended conversations, and deliberate focus groups with high school and college students across the US and Canada.

The Fuller Youth Institute is located in Pasadena, California and 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.

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The Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) exists to translate RESEARCH into RESOURCES that TRANSFORM youth and family ministry.

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