Indicators of Commitment to the Church: A Longitudinal Study of Church-Affiliated Youth

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

According to Wieting (1975), "A recurrent focus of social philosophy since Plato's Republic has been the threat posed by the possibility that the young might not adopt the essential wisdom and values of that society. . . . If a society is to continue its existence beyond one generation, the members must transmit what they consider to be necessary knowledge and values. The continuity of a social system by definition requires transmission between generations." Applying this to institutional religion, churches and other religious communities must be vitally concerned with retaining the children from member families--in other words, preventing youth dropout is a major consideration for any religious group that desires a future.

In a major quantitative, ecumenical study of church disengagement and reentry, based on the 1978 Gallup survey of unchurched Americans, Roozen (1980) estimated that about 46% of Americans drop out of church participation at some time in their lives, with the peak occurring during the teenage years. Probable causes for the increase at this stage were lessening of parental influence as peer pressure and the emancipation process increased, plus the feeling that the church had little to offer that was relevant or interesting.

Yet many teenagers remain committed to their childhood religion. In a study of 3,000 evangelical teenagers, Zuck and Getz (1968) found that religious values were of significance to 88% of them. Four out of five attended church every week, two out of three prayed daily, and six out of ten professed belief in key evangelical doctrines. What factors, then, predict retention or dropout?

Dudley and Laurent (1989) found that among Wesleyan, United Methodist, and American Baptist young people, alienation from the church was best predicted by unpleasant experiences with the church, lack of involvement, uninteresting sermons, deficient devotional life, and religious restrictions on lifestyle. Among Catholics, Southern Baptists, and Methodists, Hoge and Petrillo (1978) found that church attendance and participation were most influenced by the attendance of parents, peer pressure, type of youth leader, and quality of religious education.

In a study of over 33,000 college graduates, Caplovitz and Sherrow (1977) reported that disaffiliation was related to rebellion against the status quo, secularization, and achievement orientation. Dudley (1978) found that alienation from religion among a group of 400 Seventh-day Adventists in parochial schools was highly correlated with perceptions of the quality of their relationships with religious authority figures.

The present paper is an attempt to refine our understanding of those factors which influence church retention or dropout by analyzing data from two years of a longitudinal study of Seventh-day Adventist teenagers.

METHOD

In 1987, the Seventh-day Adventist church in the United States and Canada began a ten-year study of youth retention and dropout. The aim of the project was to select a group of middle adolescents who were already members of the church and to survey them each year for ten years in order to determine the factors that were related to staying or leaving.

The first step was to pick 695 churches by a stratified random sampling method so that they were geographically representative of all Adventist churches in North America. The clerks of these churches were then requested to send the names and addresses of all members who were 15 or 16 years of age. Clerks of 659 churches responded (95%), and a six-page questionnaire was mailed to each teenager. Usable instruments were received from 1,523 (64% response rate), and each year follow-up surveys have been mailed. The youth are distributed across the United States and Canada, roughly in the same proportion as the geographic distribution of the adult membership.

Detailed findings for the first three years have been reported elsewhere (Dudley & Kangas, 1990; Dudley, 1991). …