Published on May 21, 2024 by Anne Madison Adcock  
nelson cowan headshot

Nelson Cowan, director of Samford University’s Center for Worship and the Arts (CWA), was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. This grant will be used to fund an innovative study aimed at understanding the motivation behind youth participation in worship. The project seeks to explore the attitudes of young people towards diverse liturgical forms, their responses to liturgical changes and their participation in different expressions of public Christian worship.

“Our own research at Animate, CWA’s flagship summer camp in worship and the arts, has inspired this larger project. We have found that young people carry within them a level of liturgical curiosity and flexibility in their teenage years. These learnings inspired us to dive even deeper into this research,” said Cowan.

The study is guided by several key questions. These include: What liturgical and ecclesial contexts motivate young people to participate in public worship? What motivates them to participate in the first place? How do they respond to liturgical practices that are new to them? What expressions of worship do they find compelling and formative? How does musical style affect their participation, and are there changes to worship practices that consistently change the demographics of participants in worshiping communities?

This initial phase of the multi-year research study will focus on two key areas: qualitative research site visits at youth summer programs in worship and the arts, and the development and results of a nationwide survey instrument for young people. During the summer of 2024, Cowan and his team will conduct informational interviews, focus groups and participant-observation fieldwork with young people at several worship-arts focused youth summer camps.

In the fall and early winter of 2024, the team will administer a nationwide survey to gain insights into individual young people’s identification of factors that influence their liturgical participation in public Christian worship. The goal is to receive responses from at least 1,000 individuals, including teens and emerging adults from diverse geographical locations, and who represent a variety of Christian ecclesial and liturgical traditions. The survey will be available in both English and Spanish.

“I’m excited about the deep listening that this project is poised to do with young people. Let’s actually listen to young people on their own terms, then make these insights available to scholars, pastors, and leaders through a variety of published formats,” said Cowan.

By combining the insights from qualitative fieldwork with the nationwide survey, Cowan's study promises to provide invaluable information for churches, denominations, pastors and leaders interested in understanding the factors that motivate young people's participation in worship.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.