Protestant schools and volunteerism

Interesting findings reported in Christianity Today, including a nice shout-out to Lutheran schools (the largest network of church schools next to that of the Catholics):

Religious Americans participate in charitable or volunteer organizations twice as much as do secular Americans. So says existing research. But a new study suggests that it’s not people’s religion that prompts them to become model volunteers, but which high school they attended.

According to Calvin College researchers Jonathan Hill and Kevin den Dulk, the type of high school people attend influences them more than any other factor—including religion, socioeconomic status, or family type.

What type makes the most difference? Their study, published this March in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, shows that graduates of Protestant high schools out-volunteer peers from Catholic, secular, public, and home schools—all by significant margins.

The “counterintuitive” findings (researchers expected homeschoolers to be on top) stayed consistent throughout all tests, den Dulk says.

“Educational setting,” he said, has a value “beyond religious identity.”

The problem is no one knows exactly why Protestant schooling predicts the likelihood of volunteering.

David Sikkink, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame whose research has found similar results, believes that somehow teachers implant a sense of civic duty in students’ minds.

Protestant schools tend to be strong communities where students get a sense of “collective identity,” he said, “and they get practice committing to the common good of the institutions.”

One possible explanation is the type of “opportunity structure” for community service that exists for graduates. Hill and den Dulk speculate that Protestant schools may provide better access to parachurch groups like Youth for Christ or InterVarsity, which are present in both high schools and colleges.  [Blog editor's note:  Not in Lutheran schools!]

Another explanation could be the way Protestant teachers motivate students. Bill Cochran, director of school ministry for the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, says most of its teachers encourage students to love their neighbors not because it’s a civic duty, but because it’s a biblical one.

Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton and author of Learning to Care, says it may not matter where a student volunteers. His research indicates that the willingness to volunteer comes from both the quality of the service and debriefing sessions that follow.

“The key factor was coming to think of oneself as a caring person,” Wuthnow said. “That meant not just being good-hearted, but knowing that one had some skills that would carry forward.”

But the Calvin study suggests that Wuthnow may not be right, according to Hill.

“It’s more likely they just get in the habit of doing it and automatically volunteer when there are opportunities,” he said. “Schools somehow affect people’s habits below the surface.”

via Who Volunteers the Most? | Christianity Today.

Here are more details:

The new research from Jonathan Hill and Kevin den Dulk suggests that students who attend and graduate from private, Protestant high schools receive double motivation to volunteer: not only are they provided the greatest number of connections to volunteer opportunities, they also likely more likely to “internalize” a sense of civic duty and carry it with them into adulthood.

They found that Protestant high school graduates are more likely to volunteer as adults (83 percent) than any of their peers—including graduates of Catholic (55 percent), public (48 percent), homeschool (23 percent), and secular private (10 percent) high schools. The study did not examine the effects of college on graduates.

According to the data, students at Catholic schools are most likely to volunteer while still in school (87%), while homeschoolers are least likely (63%). But as adults, the percentage of graduates who report no volunteering increases across all categories, except one: private, Protestant high school graduates, whose rate of non-volunteerism actually decreased by 6 percent.

Any other ideas about why this might be?  What conclusions can we draw from the data?  (For example, is it true that the wealthy elite–the sort that go to secular private schools–don’t volunteer very much and so can be said to have less of a sense of civic responsibility?  And is this something homeschoolers should do more with?)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Heather

    I know when I attended a Lutheran High School, we were required to do 20 JOY service hours every semester. National Honors Society students had more service hour requirements on top of that. It became a habit, and it was just part of the culture at our school. Most students really enjoyed it, I know I did.

  • http://www.lesbiansinmysoup.com/ Katy Anders

    That’s remarkable, and not exactly what I’d expect.

    I wonder how attendees of Protestant private schools compare with the general population – and how typical they are when the results are controlled for that.

    Also, what sort of volunteerism are they doing? Are the sorts of things they volunteer for substantially similar to that of other groups?

    Good stuff…

  • Ryan

    For once homeschoolers are at the bottom of the list, I wonder why that is it his case – seems counterintuitive.

  • Mary Jack

    We expect to volunteer while homeschooling. I suspect the broad nature of homeschooling (whether incorporating gardening/hands on stuff or further academic subject material) makes it less suited to statistics like this. Though I sure wish more were volunteering!

  • sg

    @3 Home schoolers may have more children of younger ages on average than the other groups. And the older kids may be doing a lot of helping at home. Also, a lot of people homeschool the lower grades and then send them to high school, where they get counted with the Christian high school kids. Just a guess.

  • Ryan

    It’s not if they volunteer during school or homeschool… But as adults the chance they will volunteer. I wonder what is driving the results and why homeschooled children are less inclined than any other group to volunteer as adults. We homeschool and I certainly want to instill in them this virtue but it looks statistically that, at least for this form of schooling, that it is the worst type. Interesting results.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    It would be instructive, regarding the homeschoolers, to see how much of the “volunteering” was mandatory (remedial Latin, anyone?). Then again, there’s the post-school volunteering, which is probably not required by anyone.

    I know there’s a sub-population of homeschoolers that are very isolationist, though. That might explain a lot of the data.

  • smiley

    Odd, around here it’s the public schools that require the most volunteer hours–significantly more than the Lutheran or Catholic schools.

  • Richard B.

    I was shocked at the homeschool number. I was homeschooled in an area with a very high homeschooling population. The homeschool population here is very active in volunteering, both during school age years and after. I wonder how they are defining what constitutes volunteering, if their definition of volunteering is narrowed in a way that misrepresents the activity of homeschoolers, and how they gathered the data? If they are going through volunteer organizations only, they are under-representing homeschoolers. The homeschoolers around here often form their own groups and directly interact with who they are volunteering to help without an intermediary. If these numbers were from polling volunteer organizations, they wouldn’t include any of these instances.

  • sg


    Odd, around here it’s the public schools that require the most volunteer hours–significantly more than the Lutheran or Catholic schools.

    Orwellian: required volunteer hours.

    If you have to do it, it isn’t voluntary.