/ Effects of Faith & Church Involvement on African American Female Adolescents


Understanding positive youth development is useful to program and policy developers. This article focuses on how African American females utilize a viable cultural institution, the Black church. Discussion includes the benefits of church participation for African American females in Michigan and how practitioners can collaborate with the Black church to address the prosocial developmental needs of this population.

Key Words: African American teens, African American adolescent girls, African American culture, religion, church

    1. Olivia Williams is Assistant Professor, School of Education and Human Services, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, 48309. E-mail: owilliam@oakland.edureturn to text

    Many studies of African American adolescent females have focused on teenage promiscuity, pregnancy, or substance abuse. Of late, studies in the area of gang participation and drug use among this population have increased. Extensive research has been conducted on antisocial behavior within this and other populations (Elliott & Gresham, 1993; Jessor, Donovan, & Costa, 1991). Although, these topics are of interest both socially and culturally, they represent only a fraction of the African American adolescent female population. This type of showcasing has served only to reinforce stereotypes of African Americans and of African American females in particular.

    Accurate information is crucial to planning programs for youth. At every level of development, whether it is because of financial, programmatic, or human deficits, there is a tremendous void in studies of the strengths of African American adolescent females. Only when asset-based studies are conducted on diverse youths can communities expect to be prepared to meet their needs. It is critical for youths that community institutions be prepared to welcome the diverse needs of these adolescents. Recognizing strengths and knowing how communities can support them will enhance practice and programmatic outcomes (Ianni, 1996; Stevenson, 1998).

    The concept of community assets is commonly used in human and community development studies. Even though asset development has been receiving much attention, African American youths, and females in particular, usually have not been the focus of this type of research. Overall, community assets for African American adolescent females can vary in strengths, types, and combinations. Therefore, this study examined the presence of a selected community asset, the church, in the life of African American adolescent females.

    Review of Literature

    Adolescent Moral Development

    Most theorists agree that adolescence is a critical time when youth look for evidence of a moral and just society and practice engaging in activities that hold society accountable for the standards imposed on them. The church may provide a unique context for youth to engage in social experiences that can teach values and encourage them to make moral decisions. Through programs and activities such as church school, Bible studies, youth programs, choirs, dramatics, and spiritual dancing, churches may provide multiple avenues of opportunities for teens to find their voice and develop a moral compass for adulthood.

    Theories of adolescent moral development describe the development of character, ethics, and moral reasoning from premoral to conventional to principled morality (e.g., Kohlberg, 1970). Each level is influenced both by social, emotional, and intellectual development and by the demands of situational contexts on behavior. Therefore, age is not synonymous with a level or stage. For example, Robert Coles, in his book, How to Raise a Moral Child: The Moral Intelligence of Children presented stories, situations, and dilemmas that children analyzed and to which they assigned moral solutions. The author used the children's choices to explain moral intelligence. He believes that children can learn to be moral. The church is an opportune place to develop this skill.

    Faith, Spirituality, and Religion

    Faith, spirituality, and religion differ on many levels. Faith is described as a belief in something beyond ones self. It is not bound to spiritual understandings but can be applied to any aspect of life. Spirituality has a less concrete expression; it is directly related to a relationship with God and self. Religion, or being a part of a faith community, can offer support among people with similar faith experiences. Attending church and relying on faith have long been mainstays in the African American community (Mattis, 2000). Both faith and the church have been traditional forms of social and familial involvement for African Americans (Hamilton, 1982; Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990; Tate & Brown, 1991).

    Research findings have indicated that formal religion (i.e., the Black church) is a primary contributor to values that create supportive and responsive family relationships (Brody, Stoneman, Flor, & McCrary, 1994). According to Brody et al., this support system is based in the formal religious structure that helps African American families cope with life and social stressors, such as economic and racial inequalities. Many churches provide for basic needs, such as, food, shelter, and clothing. Additionally, church leaders have advocated for groups when civil and human rights were violated.

    Mattis (2000) explored the difference between spirituality and religiosity, seeking to distinguish mainstream definitions of spirituality and religiosity from specific definitions among African American women. According to Mattis, spirituality involves a personal commitment to a set of values based on the existence of a higher being, whereas religiosity is more simply adherence to some set of spiritual values based on second-hand knowledge. In other words, the distinction is between making a conscious decision to live according to selected values and doing what one has been taught, regardless of one's own personal beliefs. Considering the distinct roles of spirituality and religiosity, the overall findings suggested that faith participation should be measured in specific contexts, such as during stressful times (e.g., reliance on prayer when feeling troubled).

    Religious Experiences in Adolescence

    Brody et al. (1994) reported that the involvement of African American youths in organized religion counters, to some degree, the environmental affronts to their self-esteem and reinforces their sense of personal efficacy. Lincoln and Mamiya (1990) also suggested that religion and spirituality are important venues for African American adolescent females who are seeking a more relevant comprehension of their spiritual identity. These authors believe that there is an increasing acknowledgment of the importance of integrating religion and spirituality in every aspect of the lives of African Americans, especially females. Thus, religious experience or faith participation is seen as critical in helping African American adolescent females develop their ethnic identity and ensuing their feelings of self-efficacy (Brody et al., 1994; Hackett & Byars, 1996; Spencer, Dupree, Swanson, & Cunningham, 1996). In fact, a common ritual in many ethnic churches is a rites of passage custom that insures an indoctrination of cultural, spiritual, and humanity expectations.

    Benefits of Church Involvement

    Markstrom (1999) concluded that European Americans who attended church services scored higher in the categories "will," "hope," and "care" than did other ethnic groups. Her data also indicated that African Americans who attended church services scored significantly higher in the area of ethnic identity than did any other ethnic group. This research suggests that African Americans may obtain unique benefits from faith participation and that one of those benefits, ethnic identity, is important in the development of healthy self-esteem and self-efficacy (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990).

    Brega and Coleman (1999) also found that church involvement produced African American youths who were less likely to feel subjective stigmatization as a result of their race and ethnicity. Moreover, those youths who willingly chose to attend church were more destigmatized than those who had negative attitudes toward church. This finding seems plausible when one considers that church participation historically has contributed significantly to the development and maintenance of African Americans' culture and traditions.

    In addition, churches and other religious institutions have a history of rites of passage. Programs evaluations from faith-based institutions reported such benefits as more cohesive peer relationships, increased cooperation between the school and neighbors, and better teacher-student relationships. Community centers practicing rites of passage programs tout success in transmitting history, heritage, and cultural pride to youths and teens (Kessler, 1998). In their efforts to teach youth values, morals, and human ethics. such programs help students to experience secondary benefits of community pride, and increased prosocial ambitions. Overall, church participation has always and still does play an important role as a community asset in the life of African Americans, including adolescent females and still affects such outcomes as academic success, civic involvement and self esteem (Williams, 2000).

    Purpose of the Study

    The article reports results of a study that examined the influences of community assets on the moral development of African American adolescent females (Williams, 2000). Based on a larger study (Perkins 1995) that identified several community assets, the specific purpose of this study was to examine the effect of faith involvement of African American adolescent females from Michigan. In this article, however, only the involvement of African American adolescent females in church activities and church services, as well as the importance of religion to them, is discussed.

    Educators, social workers, counselors, youth workers, and church leaders may benefit from this article by gaining an understanding of how a vital community asset—the Black church—contributes to adolescents' attitudes and behaviors. The article suggests ways that practitioners can use to provide services and develop communities that enhance teens' moral development.



    Adolescent girls (N = 2,136), who ranged in age from 12 through 17 (Mean age = 14), were from both rural (9.7%) and urban areas (87.6%) in Michigan. Forty-five percent lived with two parents, and all were African American.


    Faith participation was defined as one's belief or behavior that represents his or her faith (Brown, Tate, & Theoharris, 1990). The young women in the sample were asked questions about their affiliation with the church. The questions were obtained from the Search Institute's Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behavior Questionnaire (ABQ), a 152-item questionnaire. Descriptive statistics were applied to the responses of three questions from the ABQ and a five- or four-point Likert scale was applied:

    1. During an average week, how many hours do you attend services, groups, or programs at a church or synagogue?
    2. How often do you attend religious service at a church or synagogue?
    3. How important is religion in your life?

    Results and Discussion

    Religion, faith and spirituality are conventional family values for many African Americans. It is not uncommon to observe African American athletes, movie stars, or other public personalities openly acknowledge their faith in God or church affiliation. Even African American teens consider it socially acceptable to attest to their religious association. The results in this study proved no different. When asked how important religion is to their life, 89.2% of the sample reported that religion was very important. In fact, 90% of the most represented age group in the sample, the 14-year-old teens, also responded that religion was very important.

    Worship service is a popular activity in most African American churches. It is most often the activity in which most adults participate. Although many traditional church services include youths in the service, youth attendance is not always predictable. However, in this study, 860 teen girls out of 2014 attended church services at least once per week and over half attended at least one time per month. In addition, 83% of the sample admitted to attending a church service at some time.

    Not surprisingly, over half of the teens in this sample admitted to spending between 1 and 11 or more hours participating in church programs. Out of 2,127 teens, 656 admitted to participating in a church program at least 3 hours or more per week. It is reasonable to expect a positive influence of church participation for these adolescent teen girls. If they spend this much time in church activities then it is logical to believe that there is less time for them to engage in risky activities.


    The role that Black churches played in the early 20th century was multifaceted. They served as a harbor that temporarily shielded African Americans from the harsh realities of a nation filled with bigotry and mistreatment. They provided a place where people who were otherwise oppressed could find a voice and dignity among their own. The Black church was a shelter that gave a sense of belonging, security, and power to its members. Today, the Black church has taken on additional outreach responsibilities, especially for its youth. Tutoring, conferences, rites of passages, essay and rhetorical contests, concerts, Black college tours, childcare, health education, and employment preparation are just a few of the Black churches' outreach programs.

    The church, community, and family work in harmony to provide a solid moral foundation for African American teen girls. Kohlberg (1970), in describing his theory of moral development, stated that adolescents need to have specific intellectual and social experiences in order to advance to succeeding levels and stages of moral reasoning. He pointed out varying degrees and levels of principled thinking within each of the stages that inspired youth toward moral behavior. Further, he claimed that the social experiences of adolescents can serve as an enhancement toward a higher level of moral behavior.

    The church can act as a stage on which to practice moral behavior. Historically, Black churches have provided various experiences that support families, economically, spiritually, socially, and culturally, through customs unmatched by other social institutions. One such custom is the rites of passages ceremony. Although they are also conducted in other community institutions, religious institutions grant uniquely distinct experiences. They highlight a shared family ritual commonly accepted in the Black community. Other experiences, such as leadership roles, ushering, reciting, singing in the choir, reading announcements, and learning church protocol may also serve as conduits of moral thinking for youth.

    In this study, African American teen girls reported spending multiple hours in various church programs. Although they did not specify the activities, some programs commonly found in Black churches are choir, junior church, or youth discussion groups. Understanding that youth are spending a large amount of their time in church programs tells us that they are exposed to modeled behavior and diverse opportunities for moral development. Therefore, the youth's responses in this survey may point us toward better programming and intervention for African American teen girls.


    What does this all mean to practitioners, teachers and parents? Working with youth from any culture can present challenges to practitioners. Sorting out individual, developmental, and cultural needs can sometimes prove to be an ordeal. Community resources, such as the church, often are a viable resource in building relationships with teens and their families. By developing partnerships with the church, practitioners and teachers can build trust between themselves and the youth, learn more about youth and ethnic culture, and utilize additional resources provided by the church to address the needs of their clients.

    Teachers and other practitioners can also implement some of the strategies utilized by the church leaders in their classrooms while working with youth. Building trust, lending encouragement, and providing opportunities to build esteem are a few techniques available to any adult leader interested in positive youth outcomes. What's more, parents, youth leaders, and other adult role models can organize faith groups in communities or church that build on the faith foundation gained in more religiously formalize settings. Other institutions truly interested in helping African American teens to develop prosocial values can both help and get help from Black churches.

    The church has a "village opportunity" to provide positive experiences for youths. Churches in the African American community traditionally have served as places of worship and education, worship and civic development, worship and political participation, and worship and community mobilization. Churches with predominantly African American membership should continue to provide a variety of outreach programs that focus on the needs of youth. Encouraging youth to participate in church programs does not appear to compromise the churches primary mission of enhancing the faith of its members. Many participants in this study recounted that their faith has had a positive effect on their lives. African American adolescent girls who believe and have faith may have higher degrees of self-efficacy and hope for the future.


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