A Question for the Ages
After over a decade of study, the Christian Spiritual Research Institute at Pepperdine has discovered how students’ religious attitudes and behaviors evolve over time.
Since the Pepperdine University Christian Spiritual Research Institute first launched
in 2003, Distinguished Professor of Psychology Cindy Miller-Perrin and Great Books
and mathematics professor Don Thompson have been conducting research on Seaver College
undergraduate students to examine how their faith, identity, and sense of vocational
calling develop over time.
For the last 14 years Seaver undergradu- ates have annually taken a survey of 200 questions focusing on their spirituality, life purpose, and life journey. Of the nearly 3,000 students that receive the survey, about 1,200 submit their responses each spring. Students are then given an opportunity to attend a follow-up session to discuss their spiritual journeys with Miller-Perrin and Thompson. During these meetings, students are presented with all of the survey results that the institute has collected over the years, which outlines their peers’ religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, as well as how these aspects of faith evolve over time.
“It’s revealing when students discover that the way they feel matches what many other students feel,”
says Thompson, adding that students typically experience a “honeymoon period” during their freshman year, are disconnected from their life purpose during their sophomore year, and eventually feel settled during their junior and senior years.
During their most difficult year, sophomores typically disregard spiritual practices, according to the institute’s findings. “Undergraduates who come to Pepperdine are there because they are interested in a faith- based education, a school that has a Christian commitment,” he notes. “And yet, it’s interesting to see how when they are in their sophomore year particu- larly, some of them turn their backs on that. They stop going to church. They don’t really stay connected.”
One surprising, related discovery involves students’ faith attitudes (how strongly they believe in God and how important their faith is to them) versus their faith behaviors (how often they pray or attend church). Research shows that faith attitudes stay relatively high or increase over time, whereas faith behaviors decline during the college years.
“College students are very busy, and they have a limited amount of time,” Miller-Perrin explains. “They have a strong sense of faith and are committed, but the commitment often looks different over time. Their application of their faith is still there, but it’s toward more service activities rather than specific religious behaviors.”
Pepperdine’s International Programs also seem to play a substantial role in shaping students’ connection to religion. According to Miller-Perrin, “Students who go abroad show greater increases over time in terms of their faith, their sense of vocational calling, their sense to know what they’re being called to do, and their commitment to service.”
This data inspired the institute to think about the students who do not study abroad, and with support from the Board of Regents, the University launched the Year 2 Malibu program to promote the spiritual develop- ment of those who remain in Malibu their sophomore year. Much like their international peers who travel to cities like Rome and Paris on the weekends, students who participate in Year 2 Malibu travel to local destinations such as San Francisco and Catalina Island for personal and spiritual growth.
As Thompson believes, “ who go overseas have a deepening of their spiritual journey—more so than the ones who don’t go,” making this sophomore service experience “a good attempt at an alternative.”
Miller-Perrin reveals that the research points to a correlation between religion and psychological well-being. “People who have a sense of faith in their life tend to score higher on measures of well-being than those who have a lesser sense of faith. And we know that in large part, the relationship between faith and well-being is the result of the sense of life purpose that faith pro- vides,” she shares. “People who have a sense of life purpose are more likely to have a feeling of life satisfaction.”
As Seaver undergraduate students become alumni, the institute continues its research, hosting dinners and focus groups to build on the research previously generated, and to explore how these same people have maintained or developed their spirituality years after leaving Pepperdine.
According to Miller-Perrin, “When you’re 18, 19, 20, or 21 years old, you may think you know what God is calling you to do, but of course that changes after you graduate and you’ve been out college for many years.”
In addition to its research with students and alumni, the institute also measures the spirituality of new professors through data collected at the University’s new faculty retreats. New faculty members are asked to write an autobiographical essay that depicts significant turning points in their vocational journeys, roadblocks they have encountered, or influential mentors.
“By far, I think most new faculty see that as one of the most significant aspects of the retreat,” says Miller- Perrin. “It’s really interesting and fun to see how people change over time and come to be where they are as faculty members who feel committed and called by God to be here to teach and to serve our students.”
When it comes to the institute’s mission, Miller-Perrin and Thompson agree that the end goal is publishing their findings for a larger audience, and are continually working to analyze, present, and distribute their data. The topic of student spirituality is still growing as a new area of research and, as Thompson puts it, “We’re continuing the story that no one else is telling.”