Nov 16, 2009

From the Archives

New Research Explores the Long-Term Effect of Spiritual Activity among Children and Teens

A recent study conducted by the Barna Group provides new insights into this age-old question. The survey asked adults to think back on their upbringing and to describe the frequency of their involvement in Sunday school or religious training. The Barna researchers then compared those reported early-life behaviors with the respondents’ current levels of faith activity and faith durability.

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Kids and Teens Have Spirit

One of the remarkable facts about the current U.S. adult population is the breadth of people’s exposure to spiritual training as children and teenagers. More than eight out of every 10 adults remembers consistently attending Sunday school or some other religious training before the age of 12. Those who recall being involved typically said they were engaged every week. In fact, seven out of 10 adults (69%) said they attended religious programs weekly.

Adults recall their church involvement as teenagers as less frequent than their participation as children. Still, about seven out of 10 Americans recall going to Sunday school or other religious programs for teens at least once a month. And half (50%) indicated they had gone to such teen programs at least once a week, on average, when growing up.

Among the most active as children were Catholics (86%), upscale adults (78%), Midwesterners (76%), notional Christians (75%), college graduates (75%), women (73%), political conservatives (73%), and those ages 65-plus (73%). The least likely population segments to have attended Sunday school or other religious programming as children were atheists and agnostics (35%), people associated with faiths other than Christianity (52%), Asians (53%), unchurched adults (56%), 18- to 25-year-olds (59%), never-married adults (60%), Hispanics (61%), and residents of the West (63%).

The types of Americans most likely to recall religious participation as teenagers were evangelicals (61%), those ages 65-plus (60%), born again Christians (58%), Catholics (58%), women (56%), political conservatives (56%), residents of the Midwest (56%), married adults (55%), and Protestants (54%). On the other hand, atheists and agnostics (19%), members of other faith groups (30%), unchurched adults (31%), never-married individuals (33%), economically downscale adults (40%), and men (44%) were the least likely to have frequently attended Sunday school or other religious programs during their teen years.

Faith Journeys

How do childhood and teen engagement connect to adult spirituality? The research examined four elements of adult religious commitment: attending church, having an active faith (defined as reading the Bible, praying, and attending church in the last week), being unchurched, and switching from childhood faith.

When it comes to church engagement, those who attended Sunday school or other religious programs as children or as teens were much more likely than those without such experiences to attend church and to have an active faith as adults. For instance, among those who frequently attended such programs as a child, 50% said they attended a worship service in the last week, which is slightly higher than the national average and well ahead of those who rarely or never attended children’s programs. Among those who frequently attended religious programs as teenagers, 58% said they had attended a worship service in the last week. In comparison, less frequent participation as a teenager correlated with less frequent adult participation.

Measures of disassociation – being unchurched and changing from childhood faith – were also correlated with activity before age 18. The highest proportion of unchurched adults was found among those who had never attended as children or teenagers. Weekly activity as a child and weekly or monthly activity as a teen were connected with the lowest levels of disconnection from church attendance.

Similarly, a person’s likelihood to switch faith views at some point was also correlated to their early-life spiritual experiences. The survey asked if people had the same faith perspectives today as when they were a child or whether they had ever significantly changed their faith views. The study indicates that individuals who recalled frequent religious attendance as a child were less likely to have changed central faith views than were those who attended less often. For example, among those who frequently attended religious programs as a child, 22% had significantly changed their faith views from their childhood faith. Among those who went to teen religious programs every week, 21% changed their core faith views. Although those proportions are significant, they are substantially lower than the percentage of people who had attended such programs less often.


David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, made several observations about the research. “It is important to clarify what this research does and does not indicate. First, correlation does not imply causation.  This means that the research does not prove that spiritual activity as a young person causes spiritual engagement as an adult. In fact, the research confirms the pattern that many students who are active early in life disengage from their faith as they get older.  And people’s recollections of childhood activities are only one limited way of understanding faith durability.

“However, the study shows that most American adults recall frequent faith activity when they were growing up. Moreover, it provides clarity that the odds of one sticking with faith over a lifetime are enhanced in a positive direction by spiritual activity under the age of 18. And it raises the intriguing possibility that being involved at least a few times a month is correlated with nearly the same sticking power as weekly involvement – especially among teenagers.”

The president of Barna Group pointed out that the firm is conducting more research into the sustainability of faith and why many young Christians change from their childhood faith. Those interested in following the progress on this project can sign up (see Barna Update Subscribe on the homepage of our site) to receive occasional updates via the Barna Update e-newsletter.

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About the Research

This report is based upon its annual tracking study conducted via telephone by the Barna Group among representative a random sample of US adults (known as the OmniPollSM). The study was conducted in July 2009 and included a nationwide, random sample of 1,000 adults. The range of sampling error associated with the sample is between ±1.4 and ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. These allowances do not include other types of error (known as non-sampling error) that can occur in surveys, such as errors arising from question wording, question sequencing, and the inaccurate recording of responses.  Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

The term “evangelical” is applied to born again Christians who also meet seven additional criteria. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life; believing they have a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with non-Christians; believing in the existence of Satan; believing that eternal salvation is gained through God’s grace alone, not through our efforts; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life while on earth; believing the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and choosing an orthodox definition of God. The “evangelical” definition has no relationship to church attendance, membership, or denominational affiliation, and respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

Upscale adults are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and have graduated from a four-year college. Downscale adults are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college.

This report was based on research analysis done by David Kinnaman on behalf of the Sunday school curriculum publisher, Gospel Light (

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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