This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Can religion help at-risk youth?

What can be done to alleviate youth crime and help at-risk youth in Winnipeg, Man.?

The question arises again after another young person in the care of Child and Family Services was assaulted. Lots of ideas are proffered, but nobody mentions religion — even though studies show being religious can make a difference.

In 2004, I wrote the following about a similar case — a 17-year-old girl was mugged by 10 teenage girls.

The victim’s father spoke for all of us when he said: “I feel sorry for this city. There is a major social problem. I don’t know how it can be solved.”

Fortunately, many people are trying to tackle the issue, focusing on things like poverty, education, employment and family breakdown, among other things.

But one approach that never seems to get mentioned is religion — which is strange since numerous studies show that youth who are religious are less likely to do drugs or commit crimes.

A 1985 study by Harvard economist Richard B. Freeman found that church attendance is a better predictor of who escapes poverty, drug addiction and crime than family income, family structure and other variables.

Christian Smith, who directed a study for the National Study of Youth and Religion put it this way:

“Kids who go to church regularly or who say that religion is important in their lives are much less likely to be involved in various forms of substance abuse, get into trouble, commit crimes, are less involved in violence, to have school problems and have difficulties with their parents.”

“They are more likely to behave safely, try to stay healthy and be involved in volunteering, sports and other community activities.”

Another study, done by the U.S. Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, found that religious youth are less likely to commit crimes, fight, drink-and-drive and carry weapons or use drugs and alcohol.

According to the Center’s director, Byron Johnson, “religion is one of the best predictors of avoiding crime and delinquency.”

There’s also a link between religion and higher self-esteem.

The U.S. National Study of Youth and Religion found a statistical association between the two when it studied 12th-graders who went to religious services at least once a week, or who professed deeply held spiritual views.

According to the study, teens who said religion was important were significantly more likely than non-religious students to enjoy life, think their lives were useful, feel hopeful about their futures, be satisfied with their lives and enjoy being in school.

Why would going to church, temple, synagogue or mosque make such a big difference for youth?

According to Glen Elder, who has studied the connection between youth, poverty, crime and religion, “what you have in the role of the religious community is a selected group of people who share values and are committed to the success of the child. Somebody always has his hand on your back.”

Of course, just going to religious services isn’t a panacea for a young person who lives in a gang-filled inner-city neighborhood, or who has to deal with physical or sexual abuse. Many more things need to done and addressed.

But at a time when we need every tool in the toolbox to help at-risk youth, religion is one thing that is almost taboo to mention.

But maybe we need a few brave politicians, social workers, police, judges and others to ask the question: Can being religious make a difference for at-risk youth and their families?

The answer seems to be yes.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank. This was a piece he wrote in 2006, and recently appeared on his blog,

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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