The Sticky Faith Research

"God is not the friend he was in high school. He is now more like the grandparent in the home that I visit only on holidays or special occasions." - Ely

Nearly half of graduating high school seniors go on to struggle with their faith in college.

All those summer projects, winter retreats, and weekly youth groups lovingly planned by their churches pale in comparison to the challenges they face in major life transitions.

Moved by the stories of kids like Ely, the Fuller Youth Institute decided to take a closer look— not just at what isn't working, but what is working. What helps students develop lasting faith that carries them through the challenges of adulthood? Which faith experiences help them commit to following Jesus beyond their youth ministry and family contexts?

Teenage faith drift is OPTIONAL. It doesn't have to happen. Read on to discover how we conducted our research and what we learned.

Defining Sticky Faith

The goal of this movement is to help teenagers develop Sticky Faith.  By “Sticky Faith” we mean a combination of characteristics, all of which exist in a dynamic tension…

Faith that is both internalized and externalized: a faith that is part of a student’s inner thoughts and emotions, and is also externalized in choices and actions that reflect that faith commitment.  These behaviors include regular attendance in a church/campus group, prayer and Bible reading, service to others, and lower participation in risk behaviors, in particular sex and alcohol (two behaviors we are studying specifically).  In other words, Sticky Faith involves whole-person life integration, at least to some degree.

Faith that is both personal and communal:  a faith that celebrates God’s specific care for each person while always locating faith in the global and local community of the Church.

Faith that is both mature and maturing:  a faith that shows marks of spiritual maturity but is also in process of growth.  We don’t assume a high school senior or college freshman (or a youth worker for that matter) will have a completely “mature” faith.  We are all in process.

Research Overview

The Fuller Youth Insititute’s 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 qualitative interviews with 45 former youth group graduates between two and four years beyond high school graduation.

In 2004, the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), at that time know as the Center for Youth and Family Ministry, initiated a pilot research study called the College Transition Project (CTP) under the guidance of Dr. Cameron Lee from Fuller's School of Psychology, surveying a group of 69 college students who were alumni of a single youth group in the Northwest. The preliminary results suggested a link between a college student’s current spiritual state and the quality of key relationships during the high school years, including the youth group environment itself. As a result, in 2005–2006 FYI launched a broader study, recruiting students involved in church youth groups during the spring of their high school senior year. To participate in the survey, students were required to be 18 years of age or older, part of a church youth group, and intending to attend a college or university upon graduation. Students were recruited through FYI’s nationwide network of youth leader contacts, resulting in a sample of 162 students who were surveyed four times over three years. Thirty of these students participated in subsequent one-hour interviews during their fourth year out of high school.

In 2006-07, with the support of funding from the Lilly Endowment, FYI launched another nationwide longitudinal study of high school seniors connected to church youth groups to examine their experiences at five points: the spring of their senior year in high school, the fall and spring of their first year in college (2007-2008), the spring of their second year in college (2009), and the spring of their third year in college (2010). The primary goal of the study was to determine if there are programmatic and relational characteristics of high school youth ministries and churches that have a demonstrable relationship to how students make the faith adjustment to life beyond high school.

With support from another private foundation, Dr. Cheryl Crawford conducted two-hour qualitative interviews with 15 college students who had been part of a leadership development program at a Christian camp during high school. These interviews were conducted during spring semester of the freshman year of college. She subsequently interviewed the same students the following spring.


The sample for the longitudinal study launched in 2007 consisted of 227 high school seniors drawn from different regions across the United States. More than half (56.3 percent) of the respondents were female while 43.7 percent were male. The sample was predominantly White/Caucasian (78.0 percent). Asian/Asian American students comprised 11.0 percent of the sample, while Hispanic/Latino students accounted for 5.0 percent. African-American and Native American students each accounted for 1.4 percent of the sample. Participants reported a median grade point average of 3.5 to 3.99, with 63 percent of the sample having GPAs above 3.5. Given that 88 percent of seniors who apply to college have a GPA over 3.0, our sample represents a high-achieving group. 2 &nb.sp; The majority of the participants came from larger churches. The median youth group size was 51-100 students, while the median church size was reported to be over 800 members.

Participants were mostly from intact families, with 83.8 percent reporting that they lived with both their father and mother; another 4.1 percent lived with a parent and stepparent. Overall, the parents of the participants were well educated; more than two-thirds (69.7 percent) of the mothers and nearly three-quarters of the fathers (73.0 percent) held at least a college degree. By far the majority of the fathers (88.2 percent) of the participants were employed full-time, while fewer than half of the mothers were (42.5 percent).


From October 2006 to February 2007, members of the research team who had developed networks in four geographical regions of the United States (the Southwest, the Northwest, the Southeast, and the Northeast) identified churches representing size, denominational, socio-economic, and ethnic diversity. For this study, only churches employing full-time youth pastors were recruited. From March to June 2007, the youth ministry staff of each participating church was asked to invite senior students involved in their youth ministries to participate in the study. As with the pilot, students were eligible only if they were 18 years old or over and intended to attend a college upon graduation.

Students who agreed to participate in the study could do so in one of three ways: they could complete a paper-and-pencil version of the survey together (facilitated either by their youth pastor or a member of the FYI research team), they could complete a paper version of the survey individually at a time and place convenient to them, or they could complete an online version of the survey. In addition to the survey, each student was required to complete a consent form assuring confidentiality. Signed consent forms also contained an identification code that was unique to each individual, as well as contact information (i.e., an email address and a physical address) in order to track each student for future waves of data collection. All future data collection was done via online surveys.

Faith Measures

Five measures of faith development were employed by the FYI team (overseen by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Cameron Lee) in order to create a composite picture of both internalized and externalized faith commitments and behaviors. For four of the measures, participants are asked to rate their agreement with each item on a five-point scale, ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree(5). The Intrinsic Religious Motivation scale 3   is comprised of ten items measuring the extent to which an individual’s religiosity is not simply external and behavioral but internalized in terms of one’s values and motivations. Sample items include, “My faith involves all of my life,” and “I try to carry my religion over into all my other dealings in life.” A similar measure, the Narrative Faith Relevance Scale, 4 assesses the extent to which one’s decisions are influenced by the sense of having a relationship to God. Sample items include, “If and when I date someone, it is (or would be) important to me that God be pleased with the relationship,” and “In choosing what college to attend, it was important to me to seek God’s will.” The third measure is the 17-item short form of the Search Institute’s Faith Maturity Scale, 5 including items like “My faith shapes how I think and act each and every day” and “My life is committed to Jesus Christ.” And the fourth is the Religious Support Scale, 6 assessing the extent to which participants feel supported and nurtured by God. Using social support items, the scale incorporates indicators such as “I am valued by God.”

The fifth measure is a measure of religious behavior created for the CTP pilot. Ten items assess the frequency of engagement in a variety of corporate and individual behaviors, including such items as “pray alone,” “read the Bible by yourself,” and “attend a worship service or church-related event with your parents.” Responses are given on a six-point scale, ranging from less than once a month (1) to once a day or more (6).

Youth group Experience Measures

Three sets of items were created from qualitative data from earlier stages of the project in order to assess students’ participation in and attitudes toward their youth group experience. First, students were asked about the frequency of participation in eight items over the past two months or the past year, including activities like retreats, mission trips, and midweek youth group. Second, participants were presented with 22 statements representing why students go to youth group, including, “It’s where my friends are,” and “I learn about God there.” Students were asked to rate how true each statement was for them using a five-point scale ranging from not true at all (1) to completely true (5). Third, students were asked what they would want to see more of less of in their youth group. Thirteen items were presented, such as “one-on-one time with leaders” and “mission trips.” Participants responded on a five-point scale ranging from much less (1) to much more (5).

Other Measures

In addition to these faith and youth ministry measures, other scales and questions were added related to perceived social support, parental support, support within the youth ministry, loneliness, extraversion, social desirability (as a control factor) and risk behaviors (sexual contact, alcohol use, and pornography use). Subsequent waves of data collection have included most of these same measures (particularly faith measures), in addition to scales and questions related to religious behaviors in college, the college spiritual environment, adjustment to college, doubts about faith, parental and other adult contact in college, parental faith discussions, preparation for decision making, and college participation in church and campus ministry.


Discover Sticky Faith Resources

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.