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What We’re Learning: Why Parents Matter More Than Ever

By  Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

Research has told us for more 25 years that the faith lives of parents matter (and actually matter most) for the formation of faith in their children. That message and the impact of ongoing research for discipling and education ministries in the church was first identified by Dr. Merton Strommen in the 1990’s, and was the catalyst for his founding of The Youth and Family Institute (which later morphed into Vibrant Faith). Helping the church claim this truth has always been our mission as an organization. 

To Repeat: We know with certainty that the impact of parents’ faith on the spiritual formation of young people far outweighs youth group or youth pastors or pastors.  

In a book published earlier this year, sociologists of religion Dr. Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk took another look at this important research in a new study of religious parenting. Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass on Their Religion to the Next Generation is a first-of-its-kind sociological study that shows what both Christian and non-Christian parents actually DO that has significance for forming religious faith in their children.  

Here at Vibrant Faith, we immersed ourselves and our tribe in this research by sponsoring a webinar followed by a two-session MasterClass (both led by Dr. Smith), and four sessions of an online group discussion that I led, with Smith as a guest, that focused on his book. Today, I want to share one small facet of the case Smith makes for why parents matter now more than ever…  

Quietly buried in Chapter 3 of the book, Smith and Adamczyk use the following table to compare the cultural movement in religious traits over the last generation. They and the table help us as ministry leaders clearly see why what we are doing isn’t working, why it sometimes feels like we are talking a different language than our families, why there are so few people interested in our programs. Look at it carefully, and note the cultural movement influencing what it means to practice religion—I mean, religion moving from a “Community Solidarity Project” to what it has become today, a “Personal Identity Accessory.”   

Sociologists are reporters, not theologians. Smith and Adamczyk are not judging parents for their expression of religion, they are simply articulating what they heard in hundreds of interviews with religious parents. And what they share is this:

The water we swim in (the religious culture) has simply and profoundly changed over the 20 years since Strommen and others first noted the power of parents for the formation of faith. Today, families do not look to the church as an “authoritative carrier of traditions” to be passed from generation to generation. Religious faith is now expressed as an “optional lifestyle accessory.”  

Smith makes the case that the ways in which religious preferences and PERSONAL IDENTITY are subjectively felt and expressed make it virtually self-explanatory that parents—the people who can and will have everyday access to their children—are the only people who will be physically and emotionally available frequently enough to share the life-shaping message and values of the Christian Gospel. Amid the MANY, MANY other cultural messages young people are absorbing in their immersive culture, parents are best-positioned to plant seeds of love for Jesus and the story of the people of God in their children. In other words, parents are the ONLY PEOPLE on deck often and intensely enough for the kind of existential impact on religious preferences and personal development that is essential to form faith in today’s world. 

We can complain that it shouldn’t be this way—that the “optional lifestyle accessory” approach to religious life is demeaning to the Christian witness.  However, cultural swings that have challenged the impact of formation have been evident throughout the history of the church. The task now is to pivot enough in our ministry approaches to adequately address the situation.  

So what can churches do about the fact that we are almost all “missing the point” when it comes to our faith formation ministries? The answers are simpler than we might think. Smith and Adamczyk also believe that they bubble up fairly clearly in his research. The church can do A LOT.  More on that right here in two weeks! 

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.


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