Journey: the role of faith organizations in youth behavior

How can faith organizations make the saving of the youth a part of their vision and mission?

Gary Hopkins, Dr.PH., is an associate director for the Institute for Prevention of Addictions, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Duane McBride, Ph.D., is the chair of the behavioral sciences department, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States

Ella Simmons, Ed.D., is a vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Joyce Hopp, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, School of Public Health, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States

Peter Landless, M.Med., is associate director for health ministries of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

The adolescent years can no longer be categorized as “the age of romance.” Today, youth live in a zone of unprecedented warfare— physically, mentally, and spiritually. From drugs to high-risk sexual behavior to the emergence of the vilest porn at the click of a mouse, youth are constantly under attack. Temptation of the worst kind opens wide its doors to entice the young and trap whom it will. Community agencies, social organizations, and governmental authorities scramble to find resources to save the youth from what may be labeled as the worst threat to their physical, moral, and spiritual well-being. Financial resources are not always easy to come by; human resources and support systems are insufficient to tackle the problems.

In the face of such despair and hopelessness, one question needs to be raised most urgently. What can faith organizations do to stem the rot and win the battle against the most notorious attacks against our youth that history has ever known? How can faith organizations make the saving of the youth a part of their vision and mission?

We suggest eight elements that may contribute to a workable preventative strategy in which faith organizations can get involved.

Element 1: information

Traditionally, faith organizations have relied on message dissemination (preaching, teaching) as a principal method of indoctrinating church attendees into a particular belief system. People assume that once individuals are armed with information from sermons or the study of doctrine, they will be transformed by the “Word” and move into a closer and more spiritual relationship with God and thus be less likely to engage in health-damaging behaviors.

This belief that preaching influences behavior has moved churches or faith organizations to design community-based efforts targeted at preventing high-risk behaviors among youth. Such information-based prevention efforts are driven by the assumption that once young people know the specific dangers involved in drugs or sex, they are less likely to indulge in behavior risks of drugs or sex. However, little scientific evidence exists to suggest that information alone is a successful strategy in preventing high-risk behaviors among adolescents.1

Element 2: self-esteem

One of the most significant developmental tasks facing youth, particularly adolescents, revolves around their identity and self-worth. Research has demonstrated the protective effect of self-esteem in regard to prevention or reduction of high-risk behaviors.2 By self-esteem, we do not advocate a meaningless egocentric praise, but a self-recognition that youth have the highest value to God and His church, and that they have important talents that make them significant contributors to society.

But how do we instill in our children this concept of genuine, positive self-esteem? One way would be to provide unconditional positive acceptance while encouraging an accurate appreciation of their special abilities and worth.3 To do this, we need to focus on showing our love and regard for them, reflecting God’s love, rather than merely judging them based on their behaviors. This involves loved ones spending quality time with the youth fairly often—not smothering them with undeserved adulation, but taking a few minutes a day, several times each week to talk, listen, and share about what seems most important to them. Young people should see our spending time with them, not as a mechanical routine, but rather as a genuine expression on our part of interest in their welfare. Showering kids with gifts in no way communicates to them that they are valued; rather, it shows them that “things” are a replacement for our time and attention. The quality, as well as the quantity, of time we spend with them is extremely important. Young people need to know that we care about them and about what they are doing.

Genuine self-esteem can be an asset in preventing high-risk behaviors. However, self-esteem cannot be considered as the all-in-all in developing a proper and effective strategy for preventing risky behaviors. It’s only a part.

Elements 3 and 4: resilience and “caring others”

Research over the past decade has shown that resilience plays an important part in overcoming a high-risk environment. Resilience can be described as the capacity to maintain competent functioning in spite of adversity or life stressors. Resiliency appears to develop over time as a result of environmental support. Resilient individuals are those who, despite severe hardships and the presence of factors that place them at risk for a variety of ills, develop skills that enable them to succeed in life.4 Researchers explain resilience in terms of hardiness and suggest that resilient individuals have a strong commitment to self and others and are willing to take action to deal with problems. They also have a positive attitude toward their social environment, hold a strong sense of purpose, and develop the internal strength that enables them to see life’s obstacles as challenges that can be overcome.5 Research findings that youth can overcome a high-risk environment have inspired hope among researchers and educators alike.

What fosters resilience among young people? Research shows one important factor: the presence of valuable, sincere, and enduring relationships with successful adults in the youth’s environment. Supportive older adults, or mentors, ranging from teachers to clergy or youth leaders, contribute significantly to resilience among youth.6 Brooks states that “resilient youngsters all had at least one person in their lives that accepted them unconditionally, regardless of temperamental idiosyncrasies, physical attractiveness, or intelligence.”7 While parents hold the most potential to influence their children, grandparents can also have a powerful, positive influence.8 Others described as key persons are teachers, adult mentors, and parents of friends.

Element 5: after-school activities

After-school hours while parents are still at work is the time when youth are at highest risk for engaging in risky behaviors. Hanging out with other youth and participating in unsupervised social activities are positively associated with delinquency.9 Youth who spend time in unsupervised settings are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs.10 Studies show that often the largest proportion of drug use, sexual activity, and delinquency among youth occurs between 3:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M.11

Research also shows substance use to be lower among students engaged in after-school activities under adult supervision.12 Students who spent no time in extracurricular activities (after-school programs such as sports, clubs, or music) were 49 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs and 35 percent more likely to have smoked than students who spent one to four hours per week in nonrisky extracurricular activities.13 Thus, finding ways to engage children during the after-school hours in adult-supervised activities should be a key part of any successful prevention effort.

Members of faith communities can be a significant resource in providing after-school activities for youth and keeping them engaged in positive, meaningful pursuits during the hours between the end of the school day and the arrival of their parents at home. This might include involving youth in existing programs and sponsoring social activities at church and other suitable venues with the supervision and involvement of adults.

While we recognize the positive role of caring adults in the lives of at-risk youth, we must also note that faith communities have had tragic experiences with sexual exploitation of vulnerable youth. It is necessary, therefore, to conduct background checks for sexual crimes or criminal histories of adults who are considered for interaction with young people.

Elements 6 and 7: service learning and service activities

Research has also shown that service-learning programs among youth are effective in reducing adolescent pregnancy and childbearing.14 The definition of service learning includes school-required service activities, such as voluntary community service (working as a teacher’s aide, working in retirement homes or nursing homes, helping out in day-care centers, or helping fix up parks or recreation areas), with structured time for preparation and reflection before, during, and after service.15 These activities are often accompanied by specifics in class curriculum that include a philosophical base for community involvement and service activity.


Faith community members should take the lead in identifying places and activities to involve youth in service activities. Physicians and business owners might consider inviting youth to their offices or clinics to answer phones and greet patients or clients. Stores might help young people engage in activities that include supervised customer-related activities. Within the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen White strongly emphasized the value of service for others. She says, “The spirit of unselfish labor for others gives depth, stability, and Christ-like loveliness to the character, and brings peace and happiness to its possessor. The aspirations are elevated. . . . Those who thus exercise the Christian graces will grow and will become strong to work for God. They will have clear spiritual perceptions, a steady, growing faith, and an increased power in prayer.”16

Element 8: parent communication

Parent-child communication has been shown to be an important element in strategies to prevent high-risk behaviors in youth. Research has demonstrated that when parents talk to their kids about sex and drugs, a positive impact results. Good parent-child relationship has a positive impact on effective communication, and this, in turn, minimizes at-risk behaviors among children.17

Positive parent-child relationship is associated with lower incidences of risky behaviors, including those related to HIV infection.18 Positive family communication is also associated with lower rates of sexual intercourse among young people.19 Young people who are close to their parents are less likely to indulge in premarital sex than those who are not as close.20

Parent-child communication matters and continues as an important element in preventing high-risk behaviors among youth. While research on the effectiveness of nonfamily adult-youth communication is lacking, we can imply from the research on resilience that nonfamily adult communication has the potential for effective prevention of highrisk behavior.


A review of research on the prevention of high-risk behaviors among adolescents shows clearly that faith communities can have a positive effect on youth behaviors. Prevention strategies can be provided with little financial cost if members of the faith community work to provide and strengthen each of the elements discussed above. No one element can solve the problems, but a combination of many or all can certainly provide an effective strategy.

A close look at each of the elements reveals that our responsibility in providing these elements matches our need to reflect the character of Christ. He was a Helper and a Healer, and He engaged with people in a very positive way. By reflecting His character, we can provide youth with a sense of self-esteem, engage them in after-school activities, communicate with them in loving ways, and involve them in activities that serve others. When a faith community gets so involved in the life of its youth, we can indeed stem the rot and win the battle that our young people face today.

1 J. Lilja, S. Larsson, B. U. Wilhelmsen, et al., “Perspectives on Preventing Adolescent Substance Use and Misuse,” Substance Use Misuse 38 (August 2003): 1491–530. T. G. Rundall and W. H. Bruvold, “A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Smoking and Alcohol Use Prevention Programs,” Health Education Quarterly 15 (Fall 1988): 317–34.

2 L. F. Salazar, R. A. Crosby, R. J. DiClemente, et al., “Self-Esteem and Theoretical Mediators of Safer Sex Among African American Female Adolescents:Implications for Sexual Risk Reduction Interventions,” Health Education Behavior 32 (June 2005): 413–27.

3 R. F. Baumeister, J. D. Campbell, J. I. Krueger, et al., “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4 (2003): 1–44.

4 E. E. Werner, “Resilience in Development,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 4 (June 1995): 81–5.

5 T. P. Herbert, “Portraits of Resilience: The Urban Life Experience of Gifted Latino Young Men,” Roeper Review 19 (December 1998): 82–91.

6 R. Brooks, “Children at Risk: Fostering Resilience and Hope,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 64 (October 1994): 545–53.

7 Ibid., 546.

8 E. E. Werner and J. L. Johnson, “The Role of Caring Adults in the Lives of Children of Alcoholics,” Substance Use Misuse 39 (April 2004): 699–720.

9 R. Agnew and D. M. Petersen, “Leisure and Delinquency,” Social Problems 36 (1989): 332–50.

10 C. J. VanderWaal, L. M. Powell, Y. M. Terry-McElrath, et al., “Community and School Drug Prevention Strategy Prevalence: Differential Effects by Setting and Substance,” The Journal of Primary Prevention, Springer, 26 (July 2005): 299–320. L. L. Caldwell and N. Darling, “Leisure Context, Parental Control and Resistance to Peer Pressure as Predictors of Adolescent Partying and Substance Use: An Ecological Perspective,” Journal of Leisure Research 31 (1st quarter 1999): 57–77.

11 United States Department of Education, “Making After-School Hours Work for Kids,” June 1988, (May 2006).

12 VanderWaal, 299–320. J. Jenkins, “The Influence of Peer Affi liation and Student Activities on Adolescent Drug Involvement,” Adolescence 31 (Summer 1996): 297–306.

13 N. Zill, C. W. Nord and L. S. Loomis, “Adolescent Time Use, Risky Behavior and Outcomes: An Analysis of National Data,” September 11, 1995, (May 2006).

14 D. Kirby, “Effective Approaches in Reducing Adolescent Unprotected Sex, Pregnancy and Childbearing,” J Sex Res. 39 (February 2002): 51–7.

15 Ibid.

16 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1956), 80.

17 D. McBride, K. Freier, G. L. Hopkins, et al., “Quality of Parent-Child Relationship and Adolescent HIV Risk Behaviour in St. Maarten,”
AIDS Care 17 (June 2005), Supplement 1:45–54.

18 D. Holtzman and R. Rubinson, “Parent and Peer Communication Effects on AIDS-Related Behavior Among U.S. High School Students,” Family Planning Perspectives 27 (November–December 1995): 235–40.

19 S. F. Newcomer and J. R. Udry, “Parent-Child Communication and Adolescent Sexual Behavior,” Family Planning Perspectives 17 (July–August 1985): 169–74.

20 F. A. DiBlasio and B. B. Benda, “Adolescent Sexual Behavior: Multivariate Analysis of a Social Learning Model,” Journal of Adolescent Research 5 (October 1990): 449–66.

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Gary Hopkins, Dr.PH., is an associate director for the Institute for Prevention of Addictions, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Duane McBride, Ph.D., is the chair of the behavioral sciences department, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States

Ella Simmons, Ed.D., is a vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Joyce Hopp, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, School of Public Health, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States

Peter Landless, M.Med., is associate director for health ministries of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

September 2006

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