A new study has discovered what is being called the “holy grail” for keeping teenagers in the church when they become adults: Parents. If their parents talked about their faith at home, showed that their faith is important to them, and were active in church, 82% of their children became similarly religious as adults. The connection is “nearly deterministic,” according to one researcher. (Cranach)
The holy grail for helping youth remain religiously active as young adults has been at home all along: Parents.
Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.
Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.
In contrast, 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults, according to data from the latest wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
The connection is “nearly deterministic,” said University of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the study.
Other factors such as youth ministry or clergy or service projects or religious schools pale in comparison.
“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.” (ARDA)
Having been through the NSYR data for my own research, Smith is right to call the results "nearly deterministic." In a conference that Smith presented at a few year's ago, he discussed these result along the lines of the spiritual formation of young adults having been formed as a direct result of what they saw modeled for them in their parents.
This is the potential down side. What the behaviors of parents in church and you may see both reason to celebrate and reason to be concerned. I see both in my own church. Now that I am no longer serving on a church staff I have time as a parent to consider what it is like to be in worship with two small kids, trying, sometimes desperately to focus on the sermon.
I also get to see the patterns of my fellow parents as many come to church as a family and then quickly split off, kids off the Sunday school, and parents to worship. I get it. I disagree. But I get it. I understand why it would seem far simpler to not have small children in worship. I have two active boys and on the days where my wife is singing in the praise team, I understand the desire to have them handled by someone else. They are a potential distraction to those around me, and I am certainly not wholly present in worship.
However, I cannot have a short term view on matters of eternal significance. Sure they are constantly on the move, fighting with each other, scribbling on everything, but then again they are present for worship. A few weeks ago, I decided to cut out the kids activity bags, so as to avoid the boys fighting with each other over them. A risky move, as this was a solo dad day. Interestingly enough they behaved better that morning. Even the two year old began to imitate the postures I took as I worshiped.
Having my kids in worship with me is an investment for the long term. I teach a Bible study on Sunday mornings, during the same hour as the most well attended service and Sunday school. That is intentional. We want to be able to have our kids on worship and Sunday school, thus we have shaped out Sunday morning around those values. We want to have out kids see us in Bible study, so that as the NSYR results suggest they will grow up to value Bible study. We want to have our kids see us in worship so that they learn what it means to worship and grow up with that as an essential part of their lives.
So what does a study like this mean for those who work in the church? It means we have evidence that what we value and promote has validity. We can make the claim with confidence that encouraging parents to proactively practice their faith in the presence of their children will have an impact for today, tomorrow, and eternity.