If parents and youth leaders want a proven way to deepen the faith development of teens, the latest research by Baylor University School of Social Work professors provides one - involvement in a meaningful community ministry alongside adults.
"The connection of community service with faith maturity and engagement in faith practices, such as prayer and Bible study, is powerful, according to our findings," said Michael E. Sherr, assistant professor in Baylor's School of Social Work and co-investigator on "The Role of Service in Faith Development of Adolescents," a research project made possible by Lilly Endowment Inc. "In fact, involvement in community service is far more significant to the faith development of teens than involvement in worship."
This, however, doesn't mean parents drop off the teens to let them stuff envelopes at a nonprofit for an hour. While such service may be worthwhile, the researchers say young people need to work in authentic service that meets real human needs and have a chance to reflect on these experiences with adults in order to experience a deepening faith.
Sherr's co-researchers include Baylor School of Social Work colleagues Diana R. Garland, professor and dean, and Dennis R. Meyers, professor and associate dean, and Terry A. Wolfer, associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of South Carolina. The study examined how community service is related to the faith maturity and faith practices of adolescents in congregations.
For the study, 631 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18 from 35 congregations in six different states completed surveys that included demographic information, their involvement in community service, a brief version of the Faith Maturity Scale and the Christian Faith Practices Scale. Results indicated a significant and independent connection between community service, faith maturity and faith practices.
"These findings suggest that those who want to help young people develop a rigorous, meaningful faith life should involve them in meaningful service," Garland said.
Furthermore, the findings confirm that the significant increases in faith outcomes exist independent of the effects of gender, ethnicity, frequency of participation in worship/activities in their congregations and how long they have attended their current congregations.
"In other words, the findings show that any young person can experience significant faith development through authentic service to real needs whether he or she attends Sunday School or worship regularly, and whether the young person is a visitor of a congregation or a member since birth," Garland said.
Community ministry to engage youth is not the method of choice of most national congregations, however. Based on data from the 2002-03 National Study of Youth and Religion, C. R. Smith and M. L. Denton noted that only 30 percent of adolescents have ever been involved by their congregation in a missions team or service project. That is compared to 50 percent of U.S. teenagers who have been to a youth retreat or conference.
"This should be a compelling argument for congregational leaders to be intentional about involving parents and youth together in community ministry programs," Garland said. "The opportunities to help our youth grow in their faith literally are as close as the neighborhoods outside the church's door. Young people need to be partners in ministry, not solely the object of ministry. This is an important and empowering distinction for developing new generations of spiritual leaders for today as well as tomorrow."
For more information about the study, contact Sherr at (254) 710-4483 or any of the researchers at the following e-mail addresses: Michael_Sherr@baylor