Spiritual Transformation and Virtue Development in Adolescents in Young Life

Project Lead: Dr. Sarah Schnitker
Doctoral Student Researchers: TJ Felke, Rebecca Burnside

Does experiencing a religious conversion / spiritual transformation lead to a change in a person’s meaning system, as measured by spiritual strivings? Would experiencing a spiritual transformation predict an increase in virtues?

A common narrative in the Christian faith suggests that conversion involves transformation of the person, emphasizing growth in virtue.  This narrative is commonly found in anecdotes about individual conversion and transformation, and is reinforced theologically in biblical passages like Galatians 5:22-23 and Matthew 7:15-27.  Psychologically, research in the area of psychology of religion has found that adolescence is time highly associated with conversion (Starbuck, 1897; Paloutzian, 1999).  Additionally, James (1902) conceptualized religious conversion as involving a movement from self-disintegration to wholeness, implying that religious conversion should lead to a more integrated sense of self, including one’s goals and strivings.

Some more recent research has looked at this question and found that higher levels of spiritual strivings were found to be associated with higher levels of well-being (Emmons, Cheung, & Tehrani, 1998).  Other studies have found that individuals report higer levels of purpose, competency, adequacy, and self-esteem (Zinnbauer and Pargament, 1998; Paloutzian, 1981).  However, there is currently little research that looks at the effect of conversion on virtue development, and no research that prospectively measures virtue before conversion.

In addition, research has indicated that religious conversion leads to positive changes in some characteristics, like self-esteem and sense of self (Zinnbauer & Pargament, 2000). Furthermore, conversion plays a role in changing “goals, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors” (Paloutzian, Richardson & Rambo, 1999). However, little research has been conducted on the impact of conversion with longitudinal methodology. Therefore this study will investigate the possibility that the effects of conversion might be measurable over time in the lives of adolescents.

Our research questions are as follows:

  • First, does experiencing a religious conversion/spiritual transformation lead to a change in a person’s meaning system, as measured through their spiritual strivings?  This would fit in with some of the previous work with strivings that has already been mentioned.
  • Second, would experiencing a spiritual transformation predict an increase in virtues?  Leffel (2012) hypothesized that one function of religion is social, leading to the promotion of pro-social behaviors and the development of the self in pro-social ways.
  • Third, does the hypothesized increase in spiritual strivings following conversion mediate any of the effect of conversion on virtue development.  Here, the idea would be that an increase in spiritual strivings leads to increased motivation to seek out opportunities to grow in the pro-social domains predicted by Leffel (2012).
  • Fourth, do other variables such as friends involved in Young Life, or variable related to the relationship the adolescent has with their primary Young Life leader, moderate the effect of conversion on virtue development.  Previous research in a variety of areas has highlighted the importance of the social and institutional context in effecting both the possibility of conversion as well as in moderating the effects of conversion as well.