College Students’ Faith Maturity Influenced Most by Peers, Church Attendance, Baylor Study Finds

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Nov. 14, 2022

Study measures influence of peers, programs and professors on students’ faith maturity using data from the Baylor Faith and Character Study

Media Contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-709-5959
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WACO, Texas (Nov. 14, 2022) – While peer influence is the top factor that leads to Baylor University students to attain higher levels of vertical faith maturity and horizontal faith maturity, respectively, attending a local place of worship is a powerful predictor of both measures of faith maturity, according to research from Baylor’s ongoing Faith and Character Study, which tracks the long-term impact of a Baylor education on a person’s faith and character.

The study – “Factors Associated with Vertical and Horizontal Faith Maturity at a Christian University” in the Journal of Research on Christian Higher Education – investigated the influence of peers, programs and professors on students’ faith maturity using data from the Baylor Faith and Character Study, which began in 2018. Each year, surveys on religion and character are administered to new students, seniors and alumni. The current research focused on the Senior Religion Survey administered online to graduating seniors in March 2020 to April 2020.

The latest findings measured faith maturity with survey items distinguishing between vertical faith maturity – which is centered on engagement with God – and horizontal faith maturity – which pertains to the application of faith in service to others.  Survey items measuring vertical faith maturity included “I have a real sense that God is guiding me” and “I am spiritually moved by the beauty of God’s creation.” Sample items measuring horizontal faith maturity included “I give significant portions of my time and money to help other people” and “I care a great deal about reducing poverty in the United States and throughout the world.”

“Our study points out the common and contrasting ways that students can cultivate commitment to God and commitment to others,” said lead author J. J. Burtt, Ph.D., who earned his doctorate in sociology from Baylor in 2022 and now sessional assistant professor at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. “Both of these expressions of faith are important outcomes for Christian colleges and universities.”

Impact of peers on faith maturity

The researchers found that Christian colleges can promote faith maturity most effectively through peer relationships and intentional programs. According to the study, the significant predictors for students’ vertical faith maturity are:

  • discussions with peers about religious/spiritual matters,
  • spending time with people who share one’s religious views,
  • attending a class, workshop or retreat on matters of religion/spirituality,
  • participation in community food or clothing drives and
  • attending a racial/cultural awareness workshop.

The significant findings measuring students’ horizontal faith maturity are:

  • discussions with peers about the purpose and meaning of life,
  • attending a class, workshop or retreat on matters of religion/spirituality,
  • participation in community food or clothing drives,
  • performing other volunteer work and
  • attending a racial/cultural awareness workshop.

The study also found that although faculty can serve as facilitators and role models for students’ faith maturity, peer influence on faith maturity is stronger, matching findings from prior research on religiosity in college. Since contact with professors is largely limited to classes, students spend much more time with their peers – in a myriad of ways – than with professors.

Church attendance powerful predictor

One the most powerful predictors of both the vertical and horizontal faith maturity of students is attending a local place of worship, according to the research.

“In every model, religious service attendance was positive and statistically significant. Seniors who attended religious services more often expressed higher vertical faith maturity and higher horizontal faith maturity, net of other influences,” the researchers wrote. “Like on-campus student organizations, congregations are a context for relationships and service. Students develop bonds with others in a way that deepens their faith and encourages them to act on their faith to serve others.”

“This is important news for parents,” said study co-author Kevin D. Dougherty, professor of sociology in the College of Arts & Sciences at Baylor. “To help your college daughter or son have a vibrant faith, encourage them to find a local place of worship and attend regularly.”

The implications of these findings extend beyond religious universities. At colleges and universities where faith is not an explicit part of curricular and co-curricular programs, the researchers suggest that they can offer classes on meaning and purpose, support the formation of student-led religious organizations, promote acts of community service and offer racial/cultural awareness workshops, all associated with increased faith maturity.

ABOUT THE BAYLOR FAITH AND CHARACTER STUDY

Begun in 2018, Baylor University’s Faith and Character Study is a longitudinal study to track the long-term impact of a Baylor education on a person’s faith and character development from when they arrive at Baylor, when they graduate and a decade after graduation. Findings inform practices at Baylor and other Christian colleges and universities, including understanding today's students, the view of Chapel and working with campus ministries/local churches.

ABOUT THE RESEARCHERS

The multidisciplinary team of Baylor researchers included lead author J. J. Burtt, Ph.D. ’22, sessional assistant professor at Trinity Western University, whose research interests in religion, technology and social psychology; Rory Jones, M.Div. ’18, M.A. ‘21, a doctoral candidate in sociology, who studies spiritual practices; Jonathan Cox, a senior sociology/film and digital media major; Dahron Mize, a 2021 sociology graduate; Kevin D. Dougherty, Ph.D., professor of sociology, whose area of expertise is in religious organizations, including research that examines congregations, denominations and religious colleges; Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., professor of educational foundations, who studies moral education, faith-based higher education, and the relationship between religion and education; and Sarah A. Schnitker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, whose research examines virtue and character development in adolescents and emerging adults.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT THE COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments in the sciences, humanities, fine arts and social sciences, as well as 10 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit baylor.edu/artsandsciences.

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