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Helping Parents Hand Down the Faith

Helping parents hand down the faith

By Rev. Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

This is part one of a series on helping parents hand down the faith.

She teaches her daughters how to pray for people when they need support: “About four or five times my middle girl has had to come to ask me how to pray.” And daily she blesses her daughters. “Every day I always do the sign of the cross to bless them. I tell them, ‘The Lord protect you, God take you and bring you happiness.’”  ( Handing Down the Faith, Smith and Adamczyk, 2020, p.155)

Two weeks ago I reported on the clear message conveyed by the ground-breaking research of Dr. Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, published in Handing Down the Faith. The research team organized an extensive “listening campaign,” observing what committed, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim parents do to hand down their faith to their children. 

What Smith and Adamczyk heard and saw has the power to both inform and transform what faith formation leaders can do to help parents grow into their calling as the primary faith formers in their children. But what I’m about to write comes with trepidation—I already know you’re not going to like what I have to say. And I’m writing this right before Christmas, in a year that has sapped your strength. Likely (as is true for many of my ministry friends) you’ve long ago embraced the truth that parents are vital in planting the seeds of a mature faith in their kids. Nevertheless, most churches continue to functionally sideline parents in their faith-formation programs, strategies, and norms. There is a big disconnect between the job you were hired to do—attract families to your church with programs so that your church will feel successful—and supporting the parental activities and behaviors this research highlights as truly impactful. Including…

1. Helping parents live their faith out loud. 

In his book, Dr. Smith confirms previous research that parents who simply talk about their own faith with their children in their everyday life are profoundly discipling their children in the process: “When parents talk naturally and substantively about religion and its place in life throughout the week, that effectively indicates to children that, in the mix of life’s many priorities and values, this stuff matters a lot. And that raises the stakes for children’s decisions about their own future religious commitments.” (Smith and Adamczyk, p.83). And even more concretely…

“Now consider parents who are religious and want their children to continue identifying with and practicing their family religion. In such cases, cultivating their children as religiously developing agents of their own self-examination, evaluation, and decision-making is crucial. Passively absorbed religious identities and lives that are ascribed or imposed are simply unacceptable in contemporary culture. Individuals must actively, personally choose such identities and lives for themselves in order for them to be considered authentic. So religious parents in effect need strategically to arrange family life, routines, and relationships in ways that both maximize their parental influence on their children’s religious development and choices and cultivate their children’s independence of religious self-identity, reflection, and choice. These may seem to be contradictory purposes.

“But one available practice in which parents can engage that promises effectively to achieve both outcomes is to regularly converse with their children about religious issues and questions. By initiating and guiding such conversations, parents can communicate clearly what matters to them religiously, what they think and believe, and how they wish their children to turn out. And at the same time, because such talking at its best is conversational, not lecturing in monologue, parents can through them also create spaces for their children to sort out and express what they think, feel, believe, and desire for themselves. By engaging such natural, recurrent, interactive conversations, parents can be both proactive and receptive, simultaneously directing and asking for responses from their children, and teaching them how to direct themselves and practice self-reflexivity.” (p.90)

It’s that simple. But those conversations and ways of engaging life through the lens of an intimate, active, and growing relationship with God happen very naturally in some families, and not at all in others. That means the church must intentionally help parents learn to do this one simple thing: Talk about THEIR faith in an authentic way while they are at home and in the car. This CAN include praying and Bible-reading and doing family devotions together, but the conversations are the key. So, what will it take to help parents do that? Dr. Smith points to two things…  

2. Empower parents by helping them learn to “talk the talk and walk the walk.” 

For some parents, we need to release anxiety about starting and maintaining faith conversations with their kids. The first step is to help them embrace their profound and ongoing influence. Do your parents know the power they have to influence lifelong faith in their kids? Every parent who merely tries to reflect an everyday relationship with Jesus with their kids outstrips the impact of the best-trained ministry professional. How can you help parents know and embrace this beautiful truth? 

This is not a content imperative; it’s a relational mindset. Parenting programs and curriculums may help, but simply modeling the language and conversational norm of talking about your faith may be the most powerful thing you can do. Help parents brainstorm intentional and proactive ways to “live their faith out loud” in everyday ways and give them practice articulating what they believe.   

3. Cultivate the faith life of parents.

No matter what ministry role you have, helping parents hand down the faith can become your intentional focus. The more deeply connected they are to Jesus, the more likely they are to talk about their relationship with Him in a normal, conversational, authentic way. So, what do you already know about the faith lives of your parents? If they know that their own deepening attachment to Jesus spills over to their kids, spurring them to connect to God themselves, then leaning into their own growth may tap into their deepest desires for who their kids are becoming. 

We must admit that our conventional ways of “doing church” encourage parents to believe that we have a magic formula for faith formation in young people. But the truth is simple: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates”  (Deuteronomy 6: 6-9).

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