Researcher Jan Åge Sigvartsen talks about a major research project at Andrews University, and plans to expand the survey to Adventist young people around the world.
Question: You are one of the researchers on the study Beyond Beliefs, examining the way Adventist millennials see the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Adventist church. How many young people have you surveyed? How have you identified your interviewees?
Answer: The Beyond Beliefs study is a major qualitative and quantitative research project that is investigating what Millennial young adults, aged 18 – 32, really think of the 28 beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Overall, 679 participants have already participated in this study, and we are now in the process of expanding the project globally.
In brief, the study consisted of three phases. The first was an initial data mining component where 37 participants provided a 150+ word response to every single one of the 28 Beliefs. This generated over 900 responses. Participants were asked if they liked/disliked the belief, if it was relevant or irrelevant, and if it was important/unimportant to Millennial young adults. From this we identified a wealth of information, much of which was completely new: where Adventism was succeeding with young adults and where things could be done differently. We have published these findings in a 452-page book which includes all these participants’ responses. We wanted our research to be totally transparent. These initial 37 participants were also asked to rewrite every fundamental belief in their own words for young adults. They were also asked to select one fundamental belief and write a commentary for it. So just that initial phase generated about 2,000 pages of data for us to explore.
To be sure of our findings we replicated this process with another 113 participants, but didn’t uncover any new issues or themes. Initial qualitative data saturation manifested at 15-18 participants, so using 37 participants was many more than we needed to do this study. An overall total of 150 participants is definitely overkill, but we wanted to be absolutely sure we hadn’t missed any themes or issues. It is interesting that some people believe only studies with thousands and thousands of people are reliable or valid. This is usually because they are unaware of a research concept called data saturation.
Using the information from the initial phase, we created a 90-question survey, which explored these topics in more detail and in phase two, this survey was administered to the remaining 642 participants over several semesters at Andrews University. Phase three of the Beyond Beliefs study will be the global study.
This project has, so far, generated over 5,000 pages of qualitative data, and an extensive quantitative dataset, which combined, makes the Beyond Beliefs study one of the largest and most comprehensive datasets related to Adventist Millennial young adults. My sagging bookshelf is a testament to this.
Question: If all of your interviewees are students at Andrews University, do you feel your research is comprehensive? What about Adventists studying at non-Adventist institutions?
Answer: I am very glad you asked this question. A third of our 679 participant sample did not attend any Adventist schooling before attending an Adventist University, so we feel those who have studied outside of the Adventist education system give us greater representation. We can compare their responses with those who attended only Adventist schools, and those who have some Adventist schooling.
We also asked about conservative and liberal ideologies in our study and why participants came to Andrews. This was to get a better understanding of the sample group. Our findings found that conservative and liberal ideology was not a determining factor for choosing Andrews. In fact, based on our findings, these may be extremely inadequate terms to use for this generation of Seventh-day Adventists as only 15% identified as liberal, and only 10% identified as conservative.
This lack of ideological bent makes Andrews a very good place to do data collection on Seventh-day Adventist Millennial young adults. Add to this the facts that Andrews was the second-most culturally diverse university in the US in the period when we undertook data collection and that a third of our sample was born outside of the United States, I feel we have gotten it as representative as possible within the very limited budget that we had for this study. Getting a group of Adventist Millennial young adults together for a 15 week participation commitment is a pretty hard thing to do. Having said this, however, we are in the process of replicating the study in 10 divisions of the world church across the globe over the next few years.
Question: What are the major findings of your study so far? What has surprised you about the way young adults see the 28 fundamental beliefs?
Answer: This is an enormous study, so I am unable to articulate all of the major findings. That is why we have published a 452-page report. There are plans for an additional two major reports of a similar size that will cover some of the other topics explored.
To boil it down though, we found that Millennial young adults generally like the 28 beliefs of Adventism; however, what they don’t like is when they feel the beliefs have not been implemented well, or are misused to control or judge others. They also do not like how some beliefs have been explained. This is why we are nearing completion of a free, online 28 fundamental beliefs commentary using the data and responses from the Beyond Beliefs study, that has been largely written by young adults, for young adults. Giving young adults a real voice was paramount in this research.
There are two other findings I would like to share. One was that many participants expressed regret for being baptized early (66% of those who were baptized before age 14). It has been a standard practice to baptize Adventist children, tweens, and teens as young as possible because previous research had found a correlation between early baptism and retention. Unfortunately, what previous researchers failed to recognize was just because you have a correlation, it does not mean one caused the other. In statistical reasoning, correlations are not evidence of causation. By that reasoning, denominations who practice infant baptism should have really high retention rates or very active members. And yet this isn’t the case. The drop off in baptisms after age 15 may not be due to a lack of interest in baptism either. Previous research did not take into consideration that the number of young Adventists is finite, and if you baptize most of them early, you are eventually going to get a dramatic drop off in the number of baptisms, simply because there are just not that many left to baptize. (For more details about early baptism see a free special report on our website at www.beyond-beliefs.com/publications.)
The early baptism movement has resulted in an emphasis on baptism, rather than educating young people about the 28 beliefs of the church they officially join when they are baptized. We found that most Millennial young adults in our sample had a very limited knowledge of the 28 beliefs, despite over 90% being baptized. However, undertaking a specially designed General Education class that utilizes personal journaling and interactive group discussion classes in a non-didactic and non-polemic environment, dramatically improved this knowledge base over 15 weeks. A separate large sample within phase two of our study attended a weekly chapel service program only, and that program systematically addressed each of the 28 beliefs over the same period of time as the Beyond Beliefs study. Surprisingly, the chapel program produced nearly no change in young adults’ knowledge base of the 28 beliefs. This suggests that traditional preaching methods, even by the crème de la crème of youth pastors/evangelists, may not be that effective for this age group. Again, see our website for a small free report on the questionable efficacy of youth pastors and their low levels of reported spiritual influence on Millennial young adults.
Question: Do all of the questions deal only with the 28 fundamental beliefs? Do they cover general perceptions and feelings about the organized church?
Answer: The qualitative phase one component of the study focused on the 28 fundamental beliefs of Adventism, while the quantitative phase two component also included questions relating to over 90 different sociocultural, behavioral and religious topics. These topics were selected because the Millennial young adults mentioned something about them in their qualitative responses and we felt they warranted further investigation to quantify the scope of these issues. I can’t list all the 90 topics in this forum, however they included tithing, hell, homosexuality, gender roles, what they liked and did not like about the church, church attendance, ownership and a voice within Adventism, attitudes towards Ellen White, factors influencing spirituality, nepotism in church hiring practices, inequality (racial, sexual, socioeconomic) in church hiring practices, creation, ordination of women, who influences them the most spiritually, and many, many more.
This process had the added bonus of allowing us to often use the Millennial young adults’ own words to ask these 90 questions, resulting in a more authentic voice that Millennials could respond to. Too often those who make these surveys are too distant from the target group in age, and in subculture, so the language they use is not often the language Millennials would use and understand. Also, previous research often focused on questions the researchers wanted answers to. It didn’t consult with Millennial young adults before data collection to identify if these issues were even applicable to this target group. And in the studies that did, their consultation was often in a group discussion format, which does not allow for anonymity in responses and is an extremely questionable practice under the human research regulations of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Our entire study was reviewed and overseen by an IRB registered with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to ensure legislated protections were given to our human research subjects.
Question: Can you clarify any further about how people were selected for your study? Was it just all the students in your class at Andrews? Was it an assignment and/or graded? Could they opt in/opt out?
Answer: As for our data collection methodology and sample, this is all discussed in significant detail in our publications, but to give you a brief overview, the Beyond Beliefs study had Institutional Review Board approval and had to abide by all the regulations stipulated by the US government’s Office for Human Research Protections. These regulations require that all participation is voluntary and anyone can opt out at any point during data collection. The participants did not receive any academic credit for participating, nor were they penalized for not participating. All persons attending a data collection class received a chocolate or a health bar regardless of their participation as a token of our thanks for letting us access the class.
All the students in RELT225 Doctrines of Adventist Faith during the data collection period (four semesters – Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, and Fall 2014) were invited to participate in both the qualitative and quantitative components of the study. All students in Religion General Education classes during the quantitative data collection period (Fall 2013 and Spring 2014), were also invited to participate in the quantitative survey component that consisted of two separate surveys taken 14 weeks apart. This was approximately a third of the undergraduate population at Andrews University. Not everyone participated; however, most did because the research was of interest to them and they saw an opportunity to have a real voice, both in their church and in inference/outcomes that resulted from this study. While a convenience sample, the fact still remains that all participants were Millennial young adults, and as such, they are members of the research target group and their responses are all valuable. It should be noted that in the qualitative component, the participants were asked to sign a consent statement giving the researchers permission to use a journal they kept in the class about each fundamental. As stated in the syllabus, this journal was a pass/fail assessment, based on whether or not they handed it in – not its content. Again, they received no academic credit for allowing this access nor were they penalized for declining access. Practically all the students consented because this research was important to them. This is a transparent study so all responses are publicly available in our publications. These responses testify that students were not writing what they thought the researchers wanted to hear – quite the contrary in some cases.
Question: What prompted you to undertake this study?
Answer: My wife and co-researcher Leanne, is a behavioral scientist who specializes in youth and young adults. She has undertaken a number of large research projects exploring young adult issues, and religious populations, particularly in the area of sexism. The study was her idea. She is really committed to giving young adults their own voice. The study was timely too because retention in some regions is an ongoing issue, despite previous research and strategies to arrest it.
I teach the Doctrines of Adventist Faith class at Andrews as an Adjunct Professor to up to 50 students each semester. I was interested in research that would inform that class, make it better, and develop efficacious tools that would make it easier for others to teach that class too. On a more personal note, I am graduating from my PhD this year, so I was looking for a major research project outside of my dissertation topic to improve my prospects for obtaining a tenure track position at a university. Publish or perish.
Question: Your results so far are available in a booklet through Amazon. Why did you decide to make the material available this way?
Answer: Wow, a 452-page report is a booklet?? When Leanne first received her copy of this 452-page book, her initial comment was, “You could bludgeon a whale with that thing.” (Not that she would. She is the type of person who plants dozens of trees each year – 12 extra last year because she calculated that was what she needed to do to make the entire Beyond Beliefs study carbon neutral.) There are a number of electronic, free short reports on our website, and this is what we point people to at conferences to save paper.
We also broke the 452-page report down to a 242-page report that omitted the participant responses. We also broke it up into belief category segments so if a person had an interest in just one category, they could obtain that without having to purchase the entire report.
As for why we went with Amazon, we wanted global distribution with a print-on-demand function. Amazon provides this. By going with Amazon and Kindle, we were also picked up by Barnes & Noble and a number of other booksellers. We have just signed a contract with Logos which allows us to reach out to their 2.5 million users. Our publication has also been written with a non-Adventist reader in mind, since many of our beliefs are shared by other denominations, and this research may be valuable to them too.
Question: How have the results so far been received by the Adventist church?
Answer: The North American Division provided some funding for the first phase of this study. The General Conference has also shown an interest in replicating this study in 10 Divisions throughout the world. This summer, we have been invited to present the key findings at the Pastors Convention in Austin, Texas. In addition to this, we have presented a number of scholarly papers at various symposiums, both Adventist and non-Adventist, and the response has been very positive. Parents and grandparents, especially, are very interested in getting an insight into what their kids and grandkids are thinking too. We are passionate about what we are doing, we are dedicated to professionalism, and we want to genuinely give Millennial young adults an authentic voice that will be heard. People have responded very favorably to this.
Question: What are your hopes for how the information will be used?
Answer: We have submitted our findings in a special report to the Office of Strategic Planning for the North American Division. Paul Brantley and Meredith Carter have been very supportive of this project and Paul Petersen our co-researcher and chair of the Religion and Biblical Languages Department at Andrews University has consulted with a number of church leaders regarding our data. It is very rewarding to have interest from David Trim at the General Conference for replicating this study globally.
The beauty of our research was that there were specific goals we wanted to meet beyond data collection and reporting. This included a textbook and curriculum for teaching the 28 fundamental beliefs as a General Education class through distance education and at non-Adventist universities. This material could also be modified and used at a high school level too, and by ministers. Additionally, we wanted to produce a free, online 28 beliefs commentary for young adults.
We don’t want to keep this data to ourselves either. We found so much that needs further investigation and we can’t do it all. We want to make it available for free to unsponsored young researchers who can use it for their own research purposes and expand on it as well.
Question: How supportive has Andrews been of your research? How has your research been funded?
Answer: Leanne, Paul Petersen, and myself have all donated our expertise and time for the past two years to do this study, since we felt this was important research. That saved us a significant amount of money. Also, between the three of us we have all the skills needed to do this project, so we didn’t need any administrative staff, research assistants, or external survey development/statistical interpretation personnel. Again, a huge saving.
ClergyEd.com, which Leanne and I fund ourselves, provided the majority of our funding and we received a small grant from the North American Division – but that was mainly for us to write them a short report of our findings. Really a shoe-string budget for a study of this enormity. Sales of our publications also provides a little funding which will help us continue this research and the subsequent research of unsponsored young researchers.
We are working with the Religion and Biblical Languages Department in a collaborative relationship only. The study and instruments were developed by Leanne, who is not an Andrews University employee, and she retains ownership of all the intellectual property and resulting reports. We did it this way to minimize any conflict of interest for Andrews. Additionally, we have not received any research funding from Andrews, and we believe this is a good thing.
We have, however, received a lot of support from the Religion and Biblical Languages Department and from Don May, the Director of General Education. Mordekai Ongo, Sarah Burton, and Sarah Kimakwa from the Office of Research and Creative Scholarship were also very supportive and helpful. Stanley Patterson who is Chair of the Christian Ministries Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and his colleague Joseph Kidder have also given us a lot of opportunities to talk about our research. We were invited to present at the Andrews University Faculty Institute where our seminar had the highest number of attendees. The President of Andrews, Niels-Erik Andreasen has also enjoyed talking to us about our findings. There are more people who have shown support, but I’d be here all day if I mentioned them all.
Question: Have similar studies been done before?
Answer: It is very difficult to change the official beliefs or the wording of the official beliefs of a denomination, and given the responses a young adult may give, it becomes understandable why research of this nature is not readily available. We asked open-ended questions in the qualitative component which gave participants a lot of freedom to express what they really felt rather than being limited to a set number of options that were designed by an older researcher that may/may not use language or even be investigating a topic that is relevant to a Millennial young adult. In our review of peer-reviewed published literature, no one has gone systematically and empirically through all the beliefs of a denomination with the intent of developing additional salient research surveys from those responses. This is probably why there has been some interest in our research outside of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Question: What do you think of the Valuegenesis study and results? I believe that study targeted high school age students, whereas you are targeting college age. Briefly, how would you compare/differentiate the studies?
Answer: Valuegenesis was initially created to research Generation X and provide solutions to keep them in the church and inform future programming to ensure the next generation would be retained too. However, Generation X still had an extremely high attrition rate and the next generation, the Millennials, had an even higher attrition rate in western countries.
So even though Valuegenesis implemented statistical analysis, and was carried out on thousands of people, the information gleaned was still inefficacious in arresting the attrition rate of young adults from Adventism. Many researchers wouldn’t recommend replicating Valuegenesis again, given this inefficacy of providing viable solutions.
Beyond Beliefs is not in competition with Valuegenesis — rather, it is implementing an entirely new approach to doing research on young adults, one where the young adults themselves, have a very strong voice in its methodology development and results inference.
Other researchers have responded favorably to this new approach and are wanting to join us in this project. Thus, many diverse researchers now have the opportunity to contribute to the pool of knowledge about young adults, and this allows us to replicate the study at a number of Adventist universities globally.
Question: What is your background and how does it qualify you to do this study? What about the other researchers?
Answer: I developed the curriculum on which the study is based and which served as the catalyst for collecting our initial qualitative responses. I have also taught the Doctrines of Adventist Faith class for the past few years in the Religion and Biblical Languages Department at Andrews. I am an exegete (the research methodology used by Biblical Scholarship) by training, and thus have a very strong research focus. I developed www.ExegesisPaper.com, which teaches students how to do scholarly exegesis – for free. It is the most visited Exegesis paper writing site on the internet and currently has over 20,000 unique users each year from over 142 countries.
Leanne, as previously stated, has developed and project managed a number of large empirical studies and has published another book recently called Religious Verbal Fluidity, which was based on an amazing study she did in Australia and New Zealand where she collected the responses of 142 Christians regarding some very controversial topics. Her PhD is quantitatively investigating sexism toward both men and women in an Adventist population in Australia and New Zealand.
Paul Petersen is a respected scholar not only in US circles, but also Europe, and the South Pacific. He is also the Chair of the Department we are working with at Andrews, so he has been instrumental in safeguarding the study and ensuring our academic freedom. He is currently working on our textbook for teaching the 28 Beliefs of Adventism which was trialled last semester and hopefully will be released soon.
Jan Åge Sigvartsen holds a BA (Theology) from Newbold College in England, an MA (Religion) from Andrews University and is now completing his PhD (Religion), also from Andrews.
Read Scott Moncrieff’s account of a recent panel discussion on millennials at Andrews University here.