What Helps Kids Grow Spiritually? A Look at the Data

This coming Sunday, we plan to look at catalysts of spiritual growth in kids with hidden disabilities as part of our family ministry series, “Thinking Orange.” In preparation for that discussion, we thought a look at the available research on spiritual development in kids would be in order.

For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll examine data from three different sources:

Search Institute Study of Impact of Christian Education…a 3 ½ year long study examining indicators of faith maturity in 2,365 youth, primarily from mainline denominations (PC-USA, UMC, UCC, ELCA, Disciples of Christ, with Southern Baptists as used as a comparison group. Here’s a link to their report:


Lifeway research project by Clay Reed and Ed Stetzer…interviews of parents of 1,005 young adults between the ages of 20-35 examining parenting practices that contributed to positive spiritual outcomes in young adults. The research is to be published in an upcoming book. Here’s a video of Ed Stetzer presenting the data:

Barna Group: Research summarized in the book Revolutionary Parenting (Tyndale Press, 2007). The Barna Group condensed information from in excess of 1,000 interviews with parents of young adults, comparing parenting and religious practices of parents with grown children characterized as “spiritual champions” to practices in Christian homes in which young adults failed to meet such criteria. Here’s a link to the Barna website describing the book.


In the Search Institute study, the key predictors of “integrated faith” were the frequency of discussions with parents about matters of faith, the frequency of family prayer, devotions and Bible Study exclusive of meal times, the frequency with which parents and children were actively involved in serving others as a family and finally, lifetime involvement in Christian education. Less important factors included lifetime church involvement, religiousness of best friends, experience of a “caring” church, lifetime involvement in serving others and non-church religious activities.

In the Lifeway data, the most important predictor of positive adult spiritual outcome was the time kids spent in prayer. Other significant predictors (in order) included grades in school…better grades were associated with better spiritual outcomes, the child not being “rebellious”, the child having connected with a senior pastor or youth pastor, parents not using time out to discipline child…49% used time out in the group with the most positive spiritual outcomes,  regular service at church while growing up and participation in ministry or service projects as a family.

In the Barna data, (I’d strongly encourage anyone with an interest in this topic to purchase or download the book if you haven’t already) a number of interesting observations were made. The parents of young adults characterized as spiritual champions saw themselves (not the church) as having primary responsibility for faith training of kids. They saw the church’s role as one of reinforcing lessons taught at home. Parents of spiritual champions wanted to be more aware of their child’s church experience, were more likely than typical parents to withdraw their children from church activities if the experience doesn’t meet the parent’s expectations and their satisfaction with children’s/youth ministry was inversely proportional to their expectations of such ministry. Their faith practices were consistent with those described in the Search data and the Lifeway data. The parents of spiritual champions in the Barna data were more likely to come from single-income households in which parents spent significantly more time in conversation with their kids than the norm in U.S. culture and were intentional about helping their kids develop a mature Christian faith. They were also more likely to prioritize their child’s character development as opposed to their achievement.

What did all of these studies have in common, and what would I want to focus on as a parent if I want to increase the likelihood that my kids are going to grow up to be mature Christians, actively engaged in a local church and using their gifts and talents in serving others?

  • I’d want to pray regularly with my kids, and have them see my wife and I praying regularly.
  • I’d want my kids to see my wife and I studying the Bible regularly, and initiate spiritual conversations with them on a regular basis about applying Biblical teachings in day to day life.
  • I’d want to pursue opportunities to serve other people as a family through my church.
  • I’d want to make sure my kids saw my wife and I going to church every week, and encourage them to participate in the ministry offered at church for kids in their age group. I’d also encourage them in forming relationships with pastors or youth leaders outside of our home who will support and reinforce the values we’re trying to foster in our kids.

I’ll refer back to this data on Sunday for our discussion on catalysts to spiritual growth among kids with hidden disabilities.



About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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2 Responses to What Helps Kids Grow Spiritually? A Look at the Data

  1. Good information.

    Another important book is “Essential Church?” by Thom and Sam Rainer – theirs is research with some good answers.

    It backs up a study I heard of years ago. Since that time I have done my own personal (unscientific) study. http://www.kidtrek-sundayplus.org/2010/12/03/child-discipleship-why-it-takes-a-church-to-raise-a-child/

    I will never forget sharing this study with an elderly couple (I don’t remember what prompted the sharing). I was shocked at the response of the woman – she began to cry. She said their oldest child did not walk with the Lord while their other children did. For all these years she had blamed herself but this study was their family. The oldest child never felt connected to the church, no adults ever reached out to him and pulled him in. The other children had close relationships with adults other than mom and dad in the church.

    I believe that parent’s discipling and discipling from the church are equally important. It definitely isn’t either – or.


  2. One last note 🙂 The difference between Stetzer’s study and the Rainers (all So. Baptists) is Stetzer studied it from parents viewpoint – the Rainers’ viewpoint is from the young adults who have walked away from the Lord.


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