Why Youth Groups Matter: A Social Science Research Perspective

Leonard Kageler

 Youth workers, be they paid or volunteer, can be encouraged in the knowledge that what they do matters to God. They see adolescent culture and feel compassion as Jesus did for the crowds. What better description of most adolescents than to see them as “. . . harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36)? Probably one of the best biblical/philosophical perspectives on youth ministry sees it as ministry to adolescent subcultures. Missiologically, then, the youth worker knows she or he is doing God's work. It is kingdom work, as is missions to any subculture around the globe.

 While this kingdom perspective is encouraging, youth workers often labor with signficant self-esteem problems. Yes, the work is important, but among the choices one makes with time and career, working with teenagers is rarely seen as significant to the larger public good in American society. The purpose of this essay is, almost crudely, “Why should people care about what happens in the typical church basement on Wednesday nights?” The answer to that question is appearing with greater frequency in journals of sociological study. Behold, secular social science is discovering that if a young person believes something and is connected to a positive group, he or she will be far more likely to behave well. This inquiry is very much in the spirit of Robert Bellah's appendix “Social Science as a Public Philosophy” in which he recalls an earlier day when all social science was considered moral philosophy and was expected “. . . to speak to the major ethical questions of the society as a whole.”1 Here we will consider a social science research perspective on the issue. We will find that mea-sures of religiosity as a variable set, as well as specific mea-sures of morality, social bonding and attachment are, almost without exception, strongly associated with behavioral outcomes deemed positive and contributory to the public good. This inquiry is not meant merely to satisfy intellectual curiosity. These findings have important implications. (As we shall see, already one modern country, the United Kingdom, has found the religiosity/personal morality research so compelling it has made the support of adolescent religious values and religiosity a national priority.)


 It is logical to begin consideration of a question regarding the societal or civic virtue benefit of church youth group participation with social science measures of religiosity. In this variable set many researchers have included measures of participation in religious education opportunities,2 more generally stated church involvement,3 and more specifically stated church youth group attendance.4 As an example of the latter, Hoge and Patrillo measured participation in church youth programs, which could include any one or more of such activities as Sunday school, “trips,” youth worship services and retreats. These were combined into a measure they called the “Youth Program Participation Index,” and hypothesis testing proceeded using this index in addition to three other indices as independent variables.

 Hoge and Patrillo, however, were not the first researchers to study aspects of adolescent religiosity, and it must be said that initial research on religiosity and behavior proved confusingly counterintuitive. A study conducted by Hirschi and Stark (1969) showed no negative correlation between religious participation, belief in hell and delinquency. The expected “hellfire effect” just didn't show up in the numbers. Word quickly spread (among sociologists) that kids on their way home from Sunday school were as likely to strip your car as were kids on their way home from the pool hall.5 The original findings were corroborated by Burkette and White.6 However, later studies showed just the opposite result.7 Stark later realized that studies done on the West Coast of the U.S. were the ones that showed no hellfire effect, while those done in other parts of the country revealed the expected negative correlation. The West Coast is the least churched area of the country and “these reflections led me to restrict the conventional proposition as follows: Religious individuals will be less likely than those who are not religious to commit delinquent acts, but only in communities where the majority of people are actively religious.”8 It remains to be seen if this proposition will be supported by subsequent research.

 Social science research has not been limited, of course, to exploring the direct and indirect effects of adolescent religiosity on behaviors described as delinquent. Many behaviors which most would see as aspects of “public good” or “civic virtue” have been studied in association with adolescent religiosity.


 Adolescent premarital sex is a frequent precursor to sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS and unwed, welfare-dependent teenage mothers. The costs are financial, emotional and, quite frequently, generational. There is a consistent and statistically significant inverse relationship between adolescent religiosity and premarital sexual experience.

 Thornton studied 1980 data from Detroit which seems clearly to show religiosity directly affecting sexual activity. This was part of a longitudinal study going back to the 1960s and the results led him to conclude: “Young people who attend church frequently and who value religion in their lives have the least permissive attitudes and are less experienced sexually.”9 DiBlasio in a study of 1,600 private school adolescents considered eight theoretical variables and similarly found that religiosity and premarital sex are negatively correlated.10 Plotnick of the University of Washington studied variables associated with teenage pregnancy and found correlations similar to Thornton and DiBlasio.11 In the other corner of the country Langer et. al. studied 2,600 black and Hispanic teenagers in eight Miami high schools and also found this same strong inverse correlation.12

 The Search Institute of Minneapolis conducted a national study of 47,000 youth in grades six through twelve and found consistent differences between those youth who were actively involved in church. The Search Report revealed that while thirty-two percent of non-church-going youth had had sexual intercourse at least once, only twelve percent of their “active in church” peers were similarly experienced sexually.13 These findings were corroborated in the United Kingdom in a national study of 13,000 U.K. youth. Francis found that young people active in church were twice as likely as their peers to agree with the statement, “It is wrong to have sexual intercourse under the legal age of 16.”14 Back on the East Coast of the U.S. in a study exploring the association of pornography with premarital sex among adolescents, Harris et. al. (1995) also found a negative association between “private religiosity” and sexual permissiveness.15

 If one considers less teenage sexual experience and pregnancy as good, one would have to consider religiosity a positive force. Similar conclusions are appropriate when it comes to drugs and alcohol.

 Drugs and Alcohol

 The high social costs of drunk and drugged teenagers are evident almost daily in the popular press. The use of these controlled substances by teenagers is seen as a problem by the federal government, local government and the schools. Since this issue has a high profile, social scientists have engaged in a variety of studies with religiosity as one or more of the independent variables with either direct or indirect effects on alcohol and drug use.

 Burkett studied junior high students in Washington state and found that religious participation was inversely correlated with drug and alcohol use.16 He returned to the subject in 1993 and explored the direct/indirect effects of parental religiosity compared to the religiosity of the teenager. What would be the strongest factor keeping a young person from alcohol abuse? The religiosity of the teenager was most important whereas the religiosity of the parents had only an indirect effect, and a diminishing one at that.17

 Dudley et. al. looked at Seventh Day Adventist young people nationwide and was able to conclude that active church participation was “highly related to abstinence over all categories (of substances).”18 Brownfield and Sorenson surveyed 800 white male high schoolers in Seattle and found that even those who simply could label themselves as Catholic, Protestant or Jewish were significantly less involved in controlled substances than were their peers.19 Benda, Free and Leslau et. al. found similar results in the same year with regard to adolescent religiosity and alcohol use.20

 The Search Report surveyed youth in regard to drugs and reported the following:21

Church activity Marijuana use 1-2 times last year Marijuana use 3+ times last year Cocaine use 1+ times last year
inactive 22 % 12 % 4 %
highly active 5 % 3 % 1 %

As with religiosity and premarital sex, religiosity has a strong negative association with drug and alcohol use in teenagers.

 Other Public Good and Civic Virtue Associations

 In the Search Report are also findings from a national study of 2,300 young people in five “mainline” Protestant churches. These adolescents were selected randomly from the church rolls. Some were essentially inactive, others were very active and the survey findings reveal several differences active religious participation makes among teenagers. For example, highly church-active kids were more involved in school clubs (eighty-three percent to forty-four percent) than their church-inactive peers; their school sports participation was slightly higher (sixty-seven percent to sixty-three percent); school music participation was over double (seventy-five percent to thirty-four percent); and other school activity participation was forty-nine percent compared to thirty percent. Highly religious kids were also much more prone to do more than six hours a week of homework (sixty-nine percent to forty-seven percent).22

 Studies in the U.K. reveal a variety of differences based on high religiosity compared to low. Highly religious young people are more likely to disagree with the statement “I feel I am not worth much as a person” (fifty-six percent to eighteen percent). They have a more positive attitude toward the police (seventy percent to fifty-seven percent) and are slightly more likely to disagree with the statement “There is nothing wrong with shoplifting” (ninety-two percent to eight-two percent).23

 The whole subject of delinquency and antisocial behaviors is certainly one that impacts the public square and the public good. There is a plethora of studies on this important subject; yet, as seen at the outset, the waters are somewhat muddy after Stark's 1996 research. Even without giving any credence to the studies showing an inverse relationship between religiosity and delinquency24 and ignoring the research on delinquency altogether, one could still conclude that, on the whole, high adolescent religiosity contributes well to the public good.

 Youth groups also encourage personal morality, social bonding and attachment. There has been significant research in recent years on these components of civic virtue.

 Personal Morality

 We have reviewed social science research regarding adolescent religiosity and its behavioral outcomes. There are aspects of this research which have measured behavior most people would consider implicit with the notion of personal morality (e.g., sexual behavior, drug usage). Yes, the behavioral outcomes of high religiosity certainly are linked with personal morality. Yet there is another category of social science research which seeks to scale and measure adolescent personal morality itself as an independent variable. Behavior, as with religiosity research, is seen as the dependent variable. What association does this research reveal about personal morality (or lack thereof) and behavior?

 Though there is not a vast literature proving that church youth groups produce morality in young people, we can confidently proceed for several reasons. First, we know that from the studies cited above, religiosity, which implies personal morality, makes a difference in behavior. Second, church youth groups teach and model personal morality. Youth groups also offer a peer support and accountability structure for personal morality. Third, the fostering of personal morality is an explicitly stated goal of many denominational youth ministries. Hoge et. al. studied this in relation to the Southern Baptist, Church of God, Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian Church U.S. denominations.25

 To introduce this social science literature on personal morality and the adolescent, we will first consider the emerging theme of personal morality (though not specifically about adolescents) in what may be called crime discourse in the U.S.

 The question of why people obey or do not obey the law has been a fertile field for social commentators and sociologists for many years. Theories and “independent variables” have proliferated like selections at a buffet restaurant. In the summer of 1995 a controversial conference at the University of Maryland was held that explored the potential genetic etiology of crime and criminal behavior. More widely recognized variables have included the impact of poverty, lack of education, unemployment and deterrence. And what do we do with criminals once we catch them? We rehabilitate them; or at least presumably we try. Crime is considered an outcome of the variable set that could be labeled “societal dysfunction.” The logical solution to crime that is perceived to stem from societal dysfunction would, of course, include programs that attack poverty, unemployment and educational underachievement. This “cause of crime” paradigm has recently received a thorough shaking.

 In March of 1995 “Moral Credibility and Crime” appeared in Atlantic Monthly by Paul Robinson, professor at Northwestern University School of Law and co-author of Justice, Liability, and Blame.26 Among many other studies he cites a work by social psychologist Tom Tyler entitled Why People Obey the Law, which, as we shall soon see, figures prominently in his thesis.27

 Robinson begins with the sobering words, “We are in a panic over crime.”28 A variety of methods are briefly surveyed documenting society's response to crime and trying to control/reduce criminal behavior. Among those responses include the recent “three strikes and you're out” proposals and a veritable boom in the prison-building industry. He observes that the threat of punishment, when viewed as an independent variable for the dependent variable of criminal behavior, seems to be amazingly insignificant.

 Robinson then introduces what for some may be a shocking notion: Personal morality and moral credibility are the most significant independent variables affecting criminal behavior. He cites a string of researchers and studies that have demonstrated this point, among them Robert Meier and Grasmick/Green.29 According to Meier, Green and others, social disapproval and personal morality are key determinants as to why people choose to obey the law. It is at this point Robinson introduces Tyler's book and its salient conclusion: “The most important incremental contribution is made by personal morality.” 30

 This is no small claim, and if Tyler's findings continue to be corroborated by other researchers one must inevitably see groups or programs that foster personal morality as exceedingly important to society. In the U.K. fifteen years of research on this issue resulted in a government mandate that there will be one hour of Christian worship or Christian education in every school every day (Education Reform Acts of 1988 and 1992).31 Political leaders there, it seems, have concluded that it's less expensive to support religion in schools than it is to build prisons.

 With this backdrop, then, what in fact does the current body of literature related to adolescents and personal morality reveal?

 That literature, it must be acknowledged, is not extensive. Some of it is clearly in the genre of the religiosity research discourse discussed at the outset. For example, Ryan (1989) surveyed public high school sex education curricula and found them devoid of content related to personal morality. He sees this as a “missing key” and as a result of his efforts a morality based sex education curriculum is being piloted in Massachusetts and Maine.32 Lakey, in a thorough review of empirical research, found extensive (and expected) inverse association between personal morality and the likelihood of becoming an adolescent criminal male sex offender.33

 A different and very interesting direction has been taken by other researchers. In Hong Kong, Hing Keung Ma (1989) first tested for moral judgment using scales recognizable to fans of Kohlberg in the Moral Development Test. He found these highly correlated with “moral orientation” (measured in the Defining Issues Test) and then found these two variable sets highly correlated with both acts of altruism and law-abiding behavior.34 Ma's work is a good example of a researcher trying to measure and quantify morality. His use of Kohlberg's stages and Maslow's hierarchy gives the appearance of being effective. He gave his Moral Development and Defining Issues Tests to youth in Hong Kong, Israel and England. His results are similar to those of Added in Israel, who also measured moral judgment in Kolbergian terms and found a consistent and high inverse correlation between moral judgment and delinquent behavior.35 Back in the U.S., an early study used a thirty-five-item Likert scale questionnaire which included measures of moral orientation. This proved positively associated with school achievement.36

 The above studies would essentially support the perspective of Robinson and Tyler (previously cited) and their claim of the personal morality (or lack of)/criminal behavior link. High morality, as with religiosity, correlates strongly with behaviors in adolescents most would consider contributory to the public good. As it was with religiosity and morality, so it is with measures of social bonding and attachment.

 Social Bonding and Attachment

  A youth group is a youth group, and that group provides an amazing array of groups to take part in. It will be helpful to remember that in our discussion of personal morality “peer disapproval” was seen, along with morality, as a key in Robinson and Tyler's quest for what causes people to behave in a way that is construed positively by society, not criminally. Peer disapproval is, I believe, another way to express the concept of Durkheim's “attachment to groups” or the notion of the social bond. Attachment and social bonding has proven to be a huge and fertile field for sociologists. Studies use a variety of sociological theory perspectives when operationalizing specific research, including social control theory and Merton's notion of anomie.37

 It is beyond the scope of this work to provide a detailed analysis of all studies done recently using the theoretical notion of social bond and/or attachment and connecting that to moral behavioral outcomes. The following are representative of this genre in social science research.

 Social bonding is a personal feeling of connectedness to peers, family and/or community. Chery studied junior high school students in one Delaware town and found that the more connected kids felt to the school and its groups, the more socially constructive their behavior.38 Gardner compared the importance of social bonding in rural youth to urban youth as an independent variable of delinquency.39 Bonding was seen as more important among rural youth, but significant among urban youth as well. Shoemaker's research in Taiwan showed fear of law violations as having almost zero impact on delinquency.40 Instead, family, school and general community bonding are successively strong variables when others are controlled as a child matures to young adulthood. An eight-factor model is presented by Wiatrowski showing the components of parental and school attachment with high correlation in deterring delinquency.41 Krohn studied 3,065 young people and showed how social bonding theory was supported for all four of the deviant behavior scales measured. This study found elements of the social bond to be more predictive of less serious forms of delinquency.42 A half decade later Gardner et. al in Virginia used a multivariate analysis including attachment to significant others and commitment to conventional institutions as independent variables. Participation in delinquent behavior was inversely related to attachment to conventional institutions as well as the conventionality of the significant others.43 That same year Akers and Cochran tested social bonding theory and anomie (strain) theory. Their research with 3,000 adolescents found a strong negative correlation between adolescent drug use and social bonding.44 Measures of anomie revealed the same directional correlation, but not as strong as bonding. If social bonding takes place in church youth groups, this research would certainly lead one to believe the outcomes will contribute to behaviors deemed positive by society. Other researches focus on various measures of social attachment.

 For example, Smith et al. studied 1,000 junior high students in Rochester, New York and found that attachment to parents, school and teachers was a significant determinant of “at risk” behavior.45 The greater the attachment, the less delinquency and drug use. These findings support a 1992 study in Ohio which also tested the association of attachment to school and teachers with delinquent behaviors.46 A decade ago a study was specifically designed to test Travis Hirschi's social control theory. In his study, as above, attachment to school, family and teachers was found to be inversely associated with delinquency. Mather, however, noted some male/female differences. Attachment to family was the best predictor for males, and attachment to school was the best predictor of protection from delinquency for females.47

 One might suggest that attachment to church youth groups would be an interesting field of future research. Attachment to family and schools has been studied: how about church youth groups? I suspect such specific research would yield results similar to studies of school attachment. In fact, such research can be said to have already been done. We have seen that some studies of adolescent religiosity include measures of youth group attendance. A young person who attends a youth group regularly can probably also be said to be attached to it. It would be hard to argue otherwise.

 It has not been possible here to present and discuss all social science literature related to adolescent religiosity, personal morality, social bonding and attachment. However, enough has been shown to give some credence to the notion that church youth groups (in so far as they foster religiosity, morality, etc.) result in good for society. In serving God by working with young people the youth worker is also serving society and contributing to the public good. Social science is showing with considerable clarity that youth who believe, are active in their youth groups and feel attached to them are measurably different than their peers and that measurable difference is in a positive direction.


 1 Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 299.

 2 Joseph Erickson, “Adolescent Religious Development and Commitment,” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 31 (1992):131-152. Also Hoge, Dean and Smith, E.I., “Normative and Non-Normative Religious Experience Among High School Youth,” Sociological Analysis 43 (1982):69-82.

 3 Kristin Moore and Dana Glei, “Taking the Plunge: An Examination of Positive Youth Development,” Journal of Adolescent Research 10 (1995):15-40.

 4 Peter Benson, Youth in Protestant Churches (Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute, 1993).

 5 Rodney Stark, “Religion as Context: Hellfire and Delinquency One More Time,” Sociology of Religion 57 (1996):163-173.

 6 Steven Burkett and Mervin White, “Hellfire and Delinquency: Another Look,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 13 (1974):455-462.

 7 P.G. Higgins, and G.L. Albrecht, “Hellfire and Delinquency Revisited,” Social Forces 55 (1977):952-958.

 8 Stark, 163-173.

 9 Arland Thornton and Donald Camburn, “Religious Participation and Adolescent Sexual Behavior and Attitudes,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51 (1989):641-653.

 10 Frederick DiBlasio and Brent Benda, “Adolescent Sexual Behavior: Multivariate Analysis,” Journal of Adolescent Research 5 (1990):449-466.

 11 Robert Plotnick, “The Effects of Attitudes on Teenage Premarital Pregnancy and Its Resolution,” American Sociological Review 57 (1992):800-811.

 12 Lilly Langer, Rick Zimmerman and Ralph McNeal, “Explaining the Association of Race and Ethnicity with the HIV/AIDS Related Attitudes, Behaviors and Skills of High School Students,” Population Policy Research and Review 11 (1992):233-247.

 13 Benson, 103.

 14 Leslie Francis, Fast Moving Currents in Youth Culture (Oxford: Lynx, 1995), 91.

 15 Mark Harris, Cardell Jacobson and Bruce Chadwick, “Pornography and Premarital Sexual Activity Among LDS Teenagers,” (1995), Department of Sociology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210.

 16 Steven Burkett, “Religiosity, Beliefs, Normative Standards and Adolescent Drinking,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 41 (1980):662-671.

 17 Steven Burkett, “Religiosity, Beliefs, Normative Standards and Adolescent Drinking,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 54 (1993):425-445.

 18 Roger Dudley, Patricia Mutch and Robert Cruise, “Religious Factors and Drug Usage Among Seventh Day Adventist Youth in North America,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26 (1987):218-233.

 19 David Brownfield and Ann Marie Sorenson, “Religion and Drug Use Among Adolescents: A Social Support Conceptualization and Interpretation,” Deviant Behavior 12 (1991):259-276.

 20 Benda is representative. Brent Benda, “Testing Competing Theoretical Concepts: Adolescent Alcohol Consumption,” Deviant Behavior 15 (1994):375-396.

 21 Benson, 103.

 22 Ibid., 95.

 23 Francis, 48, 70, 101.

 24 e.g. Kirk Elifson, David Peterson and C. Hadway, “Religiosity and Delinquency: A Contextual Analysis,” Criminology 21 (1983):505-527.

 25 Dean Hoge and E. Smith, “Normative and Non-Normative Religious Experience Among High School Youth,” Sociological Analysis 43 (1982):69-82.

 26 Paul Robinson, “Moral Credibility and Crime,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1995).

 27 Ibid.

 28 Ibid., 72.

 29 Ibid., 74.

 30 Ibid., 75.

 31 Francis, 12.

 32Kevin Ryan, “Sex, Morals and Schools,” Theory into Practice 28 (1989):217-220.

 33 Joyce Lakey, “The Profile and Treatment of Male Adolescent Sex Offenders,” Adolescence 29 (1994):755-761.

 34 Hing Keung Ma, “Moral Orientation and Moral Judgement in Adolescents in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and England,” Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology 20 (1989):152-177.

 35 Moshe Addad and Avraham Leslau, “Immoral Judgement, Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Criminal Behavior,” International Journal of Offender Therapy 34 (1990):1-13.

 36 Lorraine Kobett, “Relationship Between Home, Background, School Achievement and Adolescent Values,” Education 100 (1979):158-164.

 37 See Travis Hirschi, Causes of Delinquency (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) and Merton, Robert, “Anomie,” American Sociological Review (October 1938):672-682.

 38 Andrew Chery, “The Socialization Instinct: Individual, Family and Social Bonds,” Journal of Applied Social Sciences, 17 (1993):125-139.

 39 LeGrande Gardner and Donald Shoemaker, “Social Bonding and Delinquency: A Comparative Analysis,” Sociological Quarterly 30 (1989): 481-499.

 40 Donald Shoemaker and Robert Gardner, “Social Bonding, Age and Delinquency: Further Evidence,” Journal of Sociology 19 (1988, Taiwan):195-211.

 41 Michael Wiatrowski and Kristine Anderson, “The Dimensionality of the Social Bond,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 3 (1987):65-81.

 42 Marvin Krohn, “Social Control and Delinquent Behavior: An Examination of the Elements of the Social Bond,” Sociological Quarterly 21 (1980):529-543.

 43 LeGrande Gardner and Donald Shoemaker, “Social Bonding and Delinquency: A Multivariate Analysis,” an ASP Association Paper, Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, Louisiana 70402.

 44 Ronald Akers and John Cochran, “Adolescent Marijuana Use: A Test of Three Theories of Deviant Behavior,” Deviant Behavior 6 (1985):323-346.

 45 Carolyn Smith, et al., “Resilient Youth: Identifying Factors that Prevent High-Risk Youth from Engaging in Delinquency and Drug Use,” Current Perspectives on Aging and the Life Cycle 4 (1995):217-247.

 46 Stephen Carnkovich and Peggy Giordano, “School Bonding, Race, and Delinquency,” Criminology 30 (1992):261-291.

 47 Minu Mather and Richard Dodder, “Delinquency and the Attachment Bond in Hirschi's Control Theory,” Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology 13 (1985):99-103.

Editorial: The Anatomy of Compromise


The Social Gospel vs Personal Salvation: A Late Nineteenth-Centuray Case Study- Walter Rauschenbusch and A.B. Simpson, Daniel J. Evearitt

The Seal of the Holy Spirit and the Eternal Security of the Believer, Eldon Woodcock

The Restoration of the Doctrine of Binding and Loosing, Paul L. King

Why Youth Groups Matter: A Social Science Research Perspective, Leonard Kageler

Reaching the World through the City, George Reitz

The Religious Celebrity Syndrome: A Contemporary Application of First Corinthians 3:1-9, Richard Brown

Christ and the Spirit: Fleshing Out the Vision of A.B. Simpson's Imitation of Christ, Craig J. Slane

Glossolalia and the Ruark Procedure: Distinguishing between True and False Utterances, K. Neill Foster

About the Authors

Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor

Home > 1997

©2006 by K. Neill Foster