June 19, 2009 | Lynn Rosendale

Calvin professors DeHaan and Yonker

"We know relatively little about the religious lives of American adolescents,” is a claim made by researchers in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2002.

It’s a statement that Calvin psychology professors Laura DeHaan and Julie Yonker agree with but would like to change.

"Research in this area has not kept up with research in other areas of developmental theory,” said Yonker.  “We know much more about cognitive, social, identity development, but not with respect to faith formation.”

The research duo will contribute to this area of study starting this summer thanks to a grant from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Aided by student researcher Carolyn Affholter, DeHaan and Yonker will review and compile the literature that has already been published on the topic of religious faith in adolescents and young adults, particularly in the last ten years.

"We start by finding what is out there and what has been done,” said DeHaan.  “We need to begin with what we do know.”

Defining “spirituality”

While initial data indicates that not a lot of study has been done, it also suggests that studies of religiosity have been hampered by a lack of clarity. “There are myriad definitions of what faith is,” said Yonker. “It has been defined by church attendance, how often one attends youth group, prayer frequency.  None of those, though, really get at the spirituality of a person.”

Through their research, DeHaan and Yonker hope to develop a clear definition of what identifies a person as religious or spiritual. “I hope that someday we can create a ten-or-so item scale that will include ways to get at how much your religious faith impacts the decisions that you make,” said DeHaan.

"We’re looking for some way of getting at that deeper level,” Yonker added.

Once the current objective of compiling data is reached, they hope to have the opportunity in the future to apply it to a study group of “emerging adults,” defined as individuals in their late teens through mid-to-late 20s.

"Our big goal would be to eventually do a longitudinal study that tracks individuals over time very broadly, from the age of 18 to 25,” said Yonker.

Faith matters

"The little evidence we do have suggests that religious faith does impact adolescent and young adult behavior, said DeHaan.  “In terms of overall well-being and risk-taking, religious belief is associated with many positive outcomes.”

This area of research has obvious implications for a place like Calvin, she said.

"Calvin has a stake in the answers to some of these questions,” she said. “If we can understand how young adults form their faith, the better the work we can do at Calvin.”

Up to this point, a lot of the decisions involving faith formation in students have been based on the experiential, Yonker explained. “It’s easier to go with the experiential, but it would be more solid if we had the research to back it up.”

Affholter, a junior from Grand Rapids, is happy to be a part of such uncharted research. “I find this pretty interesting,” she said.  In addition to being a social work and psychology major, Affholter is pursuing a minor in youth ministry “This is right up my alley,” she said, of her work in reading and compiling data.

And she’s helping to make a contribution to a field in which she has a vested interest: “I’m thinking about going into something missions based. This experience, though, will help me no matter what I do.”

And the data will help emphasize an area that is gaining more attention: “Psychology is a pretty secular science,” said DeHaan.  “But, psychologists are realizing that we haven’t studied this enough and it might really matter.”

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