A handful of Christian authors have created a bit of a cottage industry peddling the scary news that the odds are not good that our young people stay strong in their faith into adulthood. Untrue.
There are important, effective, and relatively simple things parents and Christian workers can do to substantially increase the likelihood our young people will retain a thriving faith into and through their adult years. This is revealed in very strong, sophisticated research from some of the leading sociologists of youth and religion in the world.
Influencers of Faith
In the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), noted Notre Dame professor Christian Smith and his team found:
• There are relatively simple factors that "powerfully shape" faith that remains strong through life.
• The biggest influencing factor is the faith of parents themselves and the practices they employ with their teenagers.
• These practices are simpler than many parents might imagine.
Increasing the likelihood of enduring faith in our young people is not limited to super-spiritual parents. In fact, the more "regular" and human you are the better. The factors, listed by the power of their influence, are:
Parents: Parents with a vibrant and lived-out faith tend to have children who have and keep a vibrant, lived-out faith. Smith doesn't mince words: "Parents are huge, absolutely huge, nearly a necessary condition" for a child to remain strong in his or her faith into young adulthood. He concludes "without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent."
Personal Devotion: Along with at least one believing parent, it is important for the child to develop some practice and habit of regular prayer, church attendance, and reading of Scripture, growing in the conviction and experience that these practices are important for a happy life with God and others. And this practice doesn't have to be perfect, only relatively consistent. If teens and pre-teens have this in their younger years, they are remarkably more likely to maintain these faith practices into adulthood. It is important that this practice be learned and developed as an organic, natural part of their lives, rather than something they are expected to do solely out of duty or parental expectation. A faith developed as one's own tends to remain one's own.
Support/Encouragement from "Satellite Adults": Young people with lasting faith have the support of other adults around them who have a strong and inviting faith practice. These "satellite adults" who hover around our children in close relationship serve in supporting, affirming, and often times adding to the faith our children experience at home. They are powerful because our children observe, "If Coach Johnson/Principal Simpson/Youth Pastor Nigel/Deacon Stevenson/Aunt Wilma are such great people and so passionate and honest in their faith, maybe there's really something to it beyond what my parents think."
Our kids need to have the faith they learn at home supported and encouraged by the larger ring of admired adults around them.
Beliefs: Not as vital as the first three, but it helps if your child has some specific strongly held beliefs and practices.
First, a commitment to sexual chastity is critical for interesting reasons. Sexuality being such a powerful part of developing in one's teen and young adult years, having strong convictions and practices here indicate the presence of other deeply held and mature convictions regarding behavior. These usually cluster with faith convictions. It strengthens what these researchers call "cognitive resistance to modern secular culture."
Second, youth with lasting faith have the ability and support in honestly wrestling with and resolving their faith doubts. This teaches them to own their faith for themselves. And one is not likely to throw away what took hard work to develop.
Third, they should also experience and recognize God's hand in their lives through his faithfulness, answered prayer, and meaningful spiritual experiences.
Curiously, also having been teased for their faith is shown to be a faith strengthener, for this actually increases resolve and conviction. It requires they wrestle with the question of whether faith is really worth it.
Strong Faith Begets Strong Faith
Smith summarizes his team's findings in plain and direct language:
"religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not random happenstance about which all bets are off after age 18. Instead, they often flow quite predictably from formative religious influences that shape a person's life in earlier years. . . . [The] religious commitments, practices, and investments made during childhood and the teenage years by parents and others in families and religious communities, matter---they make a difference." (emphasis added)
And these NSYR conclusions are corroborated by findings from a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life analysis of religious convictions and practices of America's youth. Don't listen to the naysayers and pessimists. Their claims are as baseless as they say your child's faith-sustaining prospects are.
Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009),
Faith in Flux: Change in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April, 2009).
Other articles in this series: