Historically, African-American churches have served as the locus of economic development, education, and social reform within rural African-American communities. The church was often the center of social activities, as well as the meeting place of church-sponsored auxiliaries. The ministers of the congregations often served as community leaders and spokespersons. In addition to serving the spiritual and secular needs of the local Afro-American community, the church, along with fraternal organizations and newspapers, provided an important psychological link with the national Black community. Within the church, various health initiatives that deal with a wide range of subjects--including cancer, hypertension, diet, and diabetes--have been implemented. In addition, the African-American church serves as a reliable medium for providing comprehensive sex education not only to its congregation, but also to the larger community (1). As a group, African-American adolescents constitute the highest rate of adolescent pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, especially in the South.
Extensive research on the role of rural churches and religion within African-American culture documents that religion has a major impact on adolescent behavior. African-American communities find comfort, security, and refuge in their local churches. Youth initiatives are at the cornerstone of all church programs in rural communities because the rural African-American church is not only the house of worship, but also a community center that implements health programs, political meetings, and educational activities. (2) The church is presumed to give adolescents self-value, moral characteristics, and positive social support for future ambitions. The aim of the Rural African-American Church-Based Sex Education Initiative (RACSI) project was to research the shape and influence of religion and spirituality in the lives of rural African-American adolescents; to identify effective practices in the religious, moral, and social formation of the lives of youth; to describe the extent and perceived effectiveness of the programs and opportunities that religious communities are offering to their youth, according to parents and ministers' perspectives; and to foster an informed national discussion about the influence of religious programs in rural African-American youth's lives, in order to encourage sustained reflection about and rethinking of our cultural and church-based institutional practices with regard to youth and religion. The church provides an avenue for adolescent sexual health programs. However, the key is "buy-in" by the gatekeeper, who is the minister. The minister's perspective can have a lasting affect on the success of any church health program.
A new, high quality study on American youth and religion published by the national Study of Youth and Religion provides valuable information about the real value of religion and adolescents. In this "counter-culture" age of accessible sexually explicit audiovisual media, parents and adolescents are especially challenged. African-American churches provide a "safe haven" and an avenue for interventions related to parental and adolescent sex education. (3) In order to ensure that the church is an avenue for educational and social programs, collaboration between parents, adolescents, and ministers must be implemented.
The Role of the Adolescent. Much of the literature on the role of rural African-American churches' influence on mental health has brought about innovative methodologies to ensure abstinence among adolescents. An alarming number of teens engage in behaviors that place them at risk for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including AIDS. (4) Intervention studies targeted at reducing risky sexual behavior and improving school retention and literature investigating how risky sexual behavior affects school performance were reviewed in order to develop the Social-Cognitive Model for sexual behavior during adolescence. (5) In a study of youth ages 11 to 25, respondents who were not sexually active scored significantly higher than sexually active youth on the importance of religion in their lives and reported more connections to friends whom they considered to be religious or spiritual. (6) One study of youth ages 12 to 17 found that 26% of teens who said that they attended religious services only "a few times a year" or "almost never" still identified "morals, values and/or religious beliefs" as the factors that most affected their decisions about whether to have sex. (7) In a study by the Rollins School of Public Health, 64% of the adolescents surveyed via a four-item scale religiosity assessment reported high religiosity scores. Female adolescents who had higher religiosity scores reported significantly higher self-efficacy in communicating to their male partners about sex, STIs, HIV, and pregnancy prevention. These adolescents were more likely to initiate sex at a later age, refuse...