The purpose of the NSYR is to research the shape and influence of religion and spirituality in the lives of American youth; to identify effective practices in the religious, moral, and social formation of the lives of youth; to describe the extent and perceived effectiveness of the programs and opportunities that religious communities are offering to their youth; and to foster an informed national discussion about the influence of religion in youth's lives, in order to encourage sustained reflection about and rethinking of our cultural and institutional practices with regard to youth and religion.
Prior to the formal start of this project, the research team spent one year doing preliminary planning research to assess the current state of the research on youth and religion and the needs for future research. This planning work led to a number of conclusions about the current research project:
- Existing research suggests we have every reason to believe that religion is an important influence in the lives of youth in many ways: even scattered and spotty findings to date suggest that there is a great deal more "out there" to be learned about youth and religion.
- At the same time, many observers in youth ministry and elsewhere say that American society broadly and many religious communities specifically neglect and misunderstand our youth, and that there is the need for solid information and analysis that will help religious communities and other institutions confront the need to make changes in dealing with youth.
- There is a need for a new study of youth and religion: previous studies on youth either examine religion superficially, use poor religion measures, employ problematic sampling methods, and/or are quite dated.
- A new, high quality study on American youth and religion could accomplish many objectives of real value to many different groups and organizations.
- The best research design for such a study would mix quantitative and qualitative methods: combine a national survey to provide a big-picture description and reliable statistical findings, with in-depth personal interviews to tap into complex, subjective motives, meanings, emotions, qualifications, etc.
In addition to these conclusions, our study planning work has helped to clarify some additional purposes for this project, including:
- To provide a first ever, detailed, baseline, nationally-representative, descriptive mapping of the religious and spiritual practices, beliefs, experiences, histories, concerns, and involvements of American youth;
- To develop much further and in greater detail what we know analytically about the influence of religion in the lives of youth;
- To inform parents and mentors of youth about how and why religion affects youth;
- To put youth more centrally on the "radar screen" of congregations, ministers, seminaries, denominations, and other religious organizations, and to increase their awareness not only that religion matters in the lives of youth, but also that youth matter in the life of their religious communities;
- To highlight for non-religious people and institutions that shape the lives of youth -- foundations, social service agencies, community organizations, policy makers, youth advocates, the media, etc. -- the importance of religion and spirituality in influencing youth, and to provide solid grounds for them to grapple seriously with the implications of the fact that religion does matter in the lives of youth;
- To provide an opportunity to investigate and to think more critically about the actual value that American culture and society broadly place on truly caring for and about American youth, and whether there are gaps between our culture's kid-loving self concept and our actual cultural and institutional practices.
This project has been able to investigate a great number of questions about youth and religion that are of interest to multiple audiences and constituencies. The following are but some suggestive examples of the kinds of questions the NSYR addresses:
- In what religious practices are different kinds of American youth in fact regularly engaged?
- What factors -- familial, denominational, social -- tend to keep youth involved in religious congregations and faith practices? Are there any particular experiences or processes which are crucial in solidifying the religious identities and commitments of youth?
- What programs and opportunities for youth involvement do different religious organizations offer to youth, how much do youth participate in them, and how do youth experience and evaluate these programs?
- How do the religious interests, concerns, and practices of American youth vary between different races, ages, social classes, ecological settings (rural versus urban), and between boys and girls?
- In what ways does religion influence the extent and quality of family relationships, academic achievements, and community involvements of American youth?