Open the Doors and See All the -- Teenagers?

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

Over the last 25 years, Gallup data have consistently shown that American teens report attending religious services on a weekly basis at a somewhat higher rate than adults do. This year is no exception: in a recent Gallup Youth Survey*, 43% of teens (aged 13 to 17) reported that they attended church or synagogue in the past seven days. By way of comparison, 38% of adults who reported the same thing in a recent Gallup Poll of Americans aged 18 and older. (Please note that the youth poll was conducted over the Internet and the adult poll by telephone, which may amplify or reduce the actual difference between adults and teens.)

The relationship between age and religious service attendance is somewhat complex. While Gallup data consistently show teens attending church or synagogue at higher levels than adults, religious service attendance among 18- to 29-year-olds tends to be much lower than among older adults and teens. It is unclear if this is age-related (perhaps younger adults who no longer live with their parents and do not have a family of their own are less likely to attend a religious service), or if it is generation-related (older Americans grew up in a time when going to church or synagogue was much more widespread than it is today, and continue that tradition).

While teens are more likely than adults to frequently attend religious services, participation in youth fellowship groups and religious instruction classes may account for some of this disparity.

Characteristics of Pious Teens

What defines the 43% of American teens who regularly go to church or synagogue? There is little variation in attendance based on age, but there appear to be relationships between other demographic factors and regular attendance. Girls, for example, are slightly more likely than boys to report attending church or synagogue in the last seven days, by a 46% to 40% margin.

Additionally, more teens whose parents both went to college say they have attended religious services in the last seven days (49%) than teens with only one or no college-educated parent (40%). The data also suggest that teens who describe their academic standing as "below average" are less likely to have attended church or synagogue in the past seven days than teens of higher class standings.

Regional and Political Differences

Regional differences also surface with regard to religiosity. Previous Gallup surveys of adults have revealed that residents of the South and Midwest have higher levels of overall religiosity than those in the Northeast and West (see "Religiosity Compass Points South" in Related Items). The same finding holds true for teens: 49% of teens living in the South and Midwest reported attending religious services within the last week, while just 33% of teens in the Northeast and the West did so.

There are remarkable differences in teen attendance according to political affiliation. Fifty-seven percent of teens who plan to vote Republican when they are old enough to vote say they attended services in the last week, compared to 35% of future Democrats and 37% of future independents.

Positive Influences Abound

Past Gallup Youth Surveys have demonstrated positive relationships between worship attendance among teens and socially desirable traits such as avoidance of risk behaviors. That association continues in 2003. Among teens who attend church or synagogue, 24% say they use alcohol and 6% say they have smoked. The percentages are higher among those who do not attend, 34% and 9%, respectively.

On another positive note, 41% of teens who attended a religious service in the last seven days report being involved in charity or social services activities, compared with 25% who did not attend. Naturally, since a great deal of our nation's volunteer work is generated by religious outreach programs, it's logical that teens who are involved with a church or synagogue have, perhaps, more opportunities to engage in such efforts.

Bottom Line

Regular attendance at religious services is heavily influenced by parents, but teens make their own decisions about many activities, and religiosity is no exception. Laura, a high school senior from New Jersey, says that although her entire family goes to church every Sunday, she would go even if they didn't attend. "It's very fulfilling -- and besides that, everyone at home is so busy all the time, it's a place to go that is less complicated where I have time to think and reflect," she said.

Church or synagogue attendance among 18- to 29-year-olds tends to be much lower than among teens, which may indicate that once children leave home, they are less likely to attend. Not all teens plan to be a part of this trend, though. When asked if she plans to go to church on a regular basis when she goes to college, Laura said she thinks it will be a wonderful way to meet like-minded teens far from home.

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 1,200 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Jan. 23-Feb. 10, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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