By Rev. Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development
“Yes, yeah. I want to. I believe I hold responsibility and I have to hold responsibility for the knowledge of God that my children have. If the church is replacing that because I’m lax in my job, so be it. Can they do it? Yes, they can be the sole provider of spiritual information and spiritual insight. But I don’t think as a parent that is their responsibility. I believe that’s my responsibility.” (Handing Down the Faith, Smith and Adamczyk, 2021, p.201)
If one of your parents in your congregation said this to you, how would you react?
I want to highlight one last discovery that really matters. In the last chapter of Handing Down the Faith, Dr. Smith makes an important and surprising assertion that flows directly from his interviews with faithful parents: Though his team talked to parents from a variety of religious expressions and levels of commitment, he found them to be remarkably confident about their role and commitment to the spiritual lives of their children.
Even so, our conventional approaches to faith formation often reveal a false assumption that if we don’t do it, parents won’t do it. We must teach their kids, because (we believe) parents feel so uncomfortable and inarticulate when it comes to talking about their faith that they naturally shy away from taking a primary role as faith-nurturers.
This is really important—Smith has uncovered a surprising disconnect between what ministry leaders believe about parents and what parents actually say. Smith observes:
“Nearly all American religious parents we interviewed held low expectations of their religious congregations concerning responsibility for socializing their children religiously. That was the job of parents. (Smith and Adamczyk, p.198)
These findings about parents’ sense of self-competence and responsibility surprised us somewhat. That is because of our familiarity with a common stereotype among and sometimes complaint from congregational youth ministers and some clergy that parents often back away from taking responsibility for the religious raising of their children, claiming ignorance and incompetence in the matter. That stereotype must have some basis in fact. But it did not show up much in our interviews. (p.203)
Many faith-formation ministry leaders already struggle with the profound differences between the practice of their calling then (20 years ago) and now. As a result of tectonic changes in both our culture and families, it’s a completely different job. This new research from Smith adds another wrinkle to those differences.
So what do we do to navigate this new reality? Well, maybe this is the year we begin to let go of the old assumptions about parents and families and pick up new mindsets and habits. Here are five suggestions from our Vibrant Faith Team…
- Help parents articulate what they are really looking for from your church. If they are not showing up, maybe they don’t need what you are providing.
- DO NOT assume that parents aren’t talking about their faith with their children. How can you help fuel this crucial practice, or give added momentum to what is already happening?
- Assume that parents need your support to strengthen their spiritual lives, so they have something to “hand down” to their kids. How can you come alongside them?
- Learn much more about the family lives of the children in your church. Their family life matters greatly for their spiritual nurture.
- Connect families that are deep into raising children with people at your church who can care for them and support them in that effort. The African proverb reminds us that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and that’s never more true than in their faith formation.
Blessings on what could REALLY be a NEW YEAR for you and your ministry!
Rev. Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Nashville with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.