What We’re Learning: Religious Parenting

By Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

It’s finally happening, isn’t it? 

Church leaders who’ve been leveraged by Covid-world restrictions that have decimated their “normal” discipling ministries are pivoting to help FAMILIES better-practice their leadership role in the faith formation of their children and youth. At my own church, I’ve seen the delighted thanks of parents posting on Facebook, grateful for the amazing “at-home” ministry packets our children’s minister has created and dropped off. It’s Deuteronomy 6:5-9 in action…

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 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.” 

Dr. Christian Smith, renowned researcher of the religious lives of youth and young adults through the National Study of Youth and Religion, is releasing a new book in April (with Amy Adamczyk) titled: Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation. (Oxford University Press). The book is driven by insights from 230 interviews with committed religious American parents of diverse cultural backgrounds. And here’s the thing. Smith’s interviews are informed by what we already know from more than 40 years of research studies on how faith is passed-on to succeeding generations. Dr. Smith makes what we already know quite clear in the introduction: 

“The single, most powerful causal influence on the religious lives of American teenagers is the RELIGIOUS LIVES of their parents.”

Smith adds: ”Myriad studies show that, beyond a doubt, the parents of American youth play the leading role in shaping the character of their religious and spiritual lives even well after they leave home and often for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, this parental influence has not declined in effectiveness since the 1970’s” (Smith and Adamczyk, 2021. p.2)

In addition to this “cornerstone truth,” Smith highlights other foundational realities—truths we’ve known for a long time about how faith is formed from generation to generation…  

  • The quality of faith-informed interactions between parents and children matter;
  • The role of fathers is over-weighted in the way faith makes an impact on children in the home; 
  • When parents intentionally live a life of faith together the influence on their children is profound; 
  • Grandparents and other family-like relationships have great influencing power over a child’s faith trajectory; 
  • Parental consistency between word and deed really matters; and
  • Growing up in a faith-focused home has long-lasting, positive psychological affects. 

We’ve know these truths for a long time, but we’ve struggled to find practical ways to come alongside families with the faith-fuel they need to deepen and broaden their impact. But the God who makes beautiful things out of ugly things has re-worked the impact of the pandemic to give the church a unique opportunity to extend its impact directly into homes.  

We can CONTINUE to build on what we’ve begun by helping and supporting parents and grandparents and family-like friends to use their hard-wired influence to plant the seeds of lifelong faith formation in their children. 

We can CONTINUE to spark conversations with all those faith-formers, asking them to share their stories of everyday discipleship and the fruits of faithfulness. 

We can CONTINUE to ask “How did that lesson work for your family?” or “What devotion themes make sense for this season?” or “What else do your children need to talk about?” or “How can we help you?” or “What are your children praying for?“ or “How is Jesus becoming real to them?”or “What questions are they asking?”or “What questions are you asking?” or “How can I be praying for you and them?”  

For more help, check out the wonderful piece written by our Vibrant Faith Coach, Denise Utter, focused on helping ministry leaders re-think and re-organize their ministries around parents and families (“Spotlighting Parent Impact”). You’ll want to read it… 

AND you won’t want to miss our FREE online conversation on “Religious Parenting” on March 18, at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time, with Dr. Christian Smith and Vibrant Faith’s Executive Director Rick Lawrence. It will be an hour-long conversation on the insights and strategies gleaned from Dr. Smith’s groundbreaking research highlighted in his new book—the habits of faith-influencing parents. Click here to register. Spots are limited and filling up quickly!


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