First, it was Grandma Lois. Then, it was Mama Eunice. And finally, Timothy, the apostle Paul’s “son in the faith.” In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul celebrates Timothy and the lineage of “sincere faith” that first lived in his grandmother and mother.
Every generation must receive the gospel—the Christian faith “delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3)—and then faithfully pass on that gospel, unchanged. But how does this transmission take place? What is the role of the church? The role of the family? What practices make a successful handoff more likely?
A few years ago, I summed up a Lifeway Research study that surveyed families whose children remained in the Christian faith during their late teens and 20s. Several practices were common in such families: Bible reading, prayer, active service in the church, and listening to Christian music.
Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk’s Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on the Next Generation is a newer study, published by Oxford University Press, that features broader research based on thorough interviews with American adherents to different religions. Their findings point to an overly personal, private perspective on “faith” that is widespread in society today. (More on that in my next column.)
The big takeaway? In our culture today, nearly everyone agrees that parents are primarily responsible for passing on religious faith and practice. One’s church, mosque, or synagogue is always secondary, playing a supportive role (31).
Regardless of whether we believe this assumption is right, and even if we take issue with aspects of the dominant cultural model most parents adhere to in handing down religion, we should be alert to these findings, as they paint a picture of our cultural context and point to the vital role we parents play in religious transmission.
Here are three standout findings.
1. Religious parents raise religious children.
By “religious parents,” I don’t mean adults who say they’re religious or who say they have “a spiritual side.” I’m referring to parents who are religious in belief and practice—fathers and mothers whose lives reflect the importance of religion in their lives.
Smith and Adamczyk write:
“The more important religion is to parents and the more parents attend religious services, the more important religion becomes for their children and the more their children attend religious services, even years after they no longer live with their parents.” (38)
So, parents with a nominal faith are likely to have children whose faith is nominal, if they have faith at all. By contrast, parents whose faith shows up in daily life and regular routines convey a sense of religion’s importance. Either way, regardless of whether they realize it, parents are the strongest force shaping the religious futures of their kids.
2. The most important thing a parent can do is talk about faith at home.
The most surprising conclusion in this book points to the outsized importance of a simple act: parents talking with teenagers about religious matters at home during the week. Yes, the parents’ personal religious beliefs matter. The frequency of attending a religious service matters also. But in terms of influence, talking about the faith on a regular basis at home matters most (53).
Why is this so powerful? Smith and Adamczyk speculate that these conversations send “a powerful signal to children of religion’s personal importance” since, after all, “people usually talk about what they care about” (83).
Also, in a world that often relegates religion to the private sphere (as little more than a “personal identity accessory”), compartmentalizing the faith becomes the norm. Discussing religion with children during the week pushes back against such compartmentalization, “desegregating” religion and making one’s faith a natural part of life, a set of beliefs that belong in the regular rhythms of routine, not just in religious services (84).
Here we see sociological affirmation of a principle laid out in Deuteronomy 6:
“These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
All the Israelites were called, in this sense, to be teachers. They were to look for ways to instruct their children, opportunities to pass on the faith in the daily rhythms of life.
3. Parents must speak the language of faith.
Along these lines, Smith and Adamczyk mention the importance of religious language. Whereas many today assume the way to reach the next generation is to discard traditional religious vocabulary in favor of doctrines and terms more easily accessible, it’s better to engage in conversations that rely on the uniqueness of the language of faith. They write:
“Learning to believe and practice a religion requires essentially learning a second language, and that always requires practice talking, even when one is surrounded by native speakers. So when parents regularly talk with children about religious matters in ordinary conversational settings, that provides children with exactly the kind of sustained practice in learning the second language that is necessary for religion to be sensible and possibly interesting” (71).
If you take your kids to church for a couple of hours a week but don’t engage in conversations about faith, it’s like sending them to a foreign land where they hear other people speaking another language. No matter how many years you take them to church, “most children will still not be able to speak more than a few words of the language. And we should not be surprised if they prove uninterested in extended visits there with their parents. The language would remain incomprehensible and the land still foreign” (71–72).
But if parents talk about the faith throughout the week, children are more likely to pick up the language because they have more chances to speak it, too. Furthermore, they are more likely to be interested in the truths conveyed through these conversations, which makes it easier for teenagers to be drawn to the same faith later in life.
The Power of Deuteronomy 6
There’s more to be said about the downside of this study—a common-sense perspective on religion that fits well in a society given to expressive individualism, but fails to reflect the full-orbed meaning of “the faith” we find in the Scriptures. Still, there’s something satisfying and simple in seeing how big an influence a seemingly small practice—conversations with teenagers about the faith—can have on your family. It’s the power of Deuteronomy 6, still effective, still at work.
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