Spiritual Transformation and Virtue Development in Adolescents in Young Life


Project Dates



Research Team
  • Robert Emmons, Principal Investigator (University of California, Davis)
  • Justin L. Barrett, Principal Investigator
  • Sarah Schnitker, Co-Investigator
  • Thomas J. Felke, Student Researcher


Project Overview

In this project, we examined character development across time of adolescent attending Young Life religious summer camps. 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 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 higher 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 investigated the possibility that the effects of conversion might be measurable over time in the lives of adolescents.

Our research questions are as follows:

  1. Does experiencing a religious conversion/spiritual transformation lead to a change in a person’s meaning system, as measured through their spiritual strivings?
  2. Would experiencing a spiritual transformation predict an increase in virtues?
  3. Does the hypothesized increase in spiritual strivings following conversion mediate any of the effect of conversion on virtue development?

Do other variables such as friends involved in Young Life, or variables related to the relationship the adolescent has with their primary Young Life leader, moderate the effect of conversion on virtue development?


Related Publications

Our findings are presented in the following publications:

  • Schnitker, S. A., Felke, T. J., Barrett, J. L., & Emmons, R. A. (2014). Longitudinal study of religious and spiritual transformation in adolescents attending Young Life summer camp: Assessing the epistemic, intrapsychic, and moral sociability functions of conversion. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(2),83-93. doi: 10.1037/a0035359
  • Schnitker, S. A., Felke, T. J., Barrett, J. L., & Emmons, R. A. (2014). Virtue development following spiritual transformation in adolescents attending evangelistic summer camp. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 33(1), 22-35. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-20941-003
  • Schnitker, S. A., Porter, T., Emmons, R. A., & Barrett, J. L. (2012). Attachment predicts adolescent conversions at Young Life religious summer camps. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22, 198-215. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2012.670024
  • Barrett, J. L., Porter, T., Emmons, R. A., & Schnitker, S. A. (2009). Different styles reach different kids: An empirical enquiry into Young Life camping outreach programs in the USA and Europe. Journal of Youth and Theology, 8, 10-27. doi:10.1163/24055093-90000002


Funded By

This project was made possible through a generous grant by the John Templeton Foundation.