Most religious parents want their kids to stay in the faith not because they believe their religion to be true, but because they see religion as helpful.

That’s a key takeaway from Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation, a new book based on research from sociologists Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk. I want to unpack a few more of their findings, following up from my previous column that stressed the importance of family conversations in passing the faith to the next generation, because this research provides important context for pastors and church leaders.

Regardless of whether you realize it (and whether you like it), the dominant cultural model of most American religious parents for transmitting the faith from one generation to the next is probably not what you expect or hope to be true of your congregation. Here’s how Smith and Adamczyk describe the mindset most prevalent in the United States:

“Parents are responsible for preparing their children for the challenging journey of life, during which they will hopefully become their best possible selves and live happy, good lives. Religion provides crucial help for navigating life’s journey successfully, including moral guidance, emotional support, and a secure home base. So parents should equip their children with knowledge of their religion by routinely modeling its practices, values, and ethics, which children will then hopefully absorb and embrace for themselves” (12).

It’s not hard to spot elements of expressive individualism in that description—the idea that the purpose of life is to become your best possible self and thus find happiness. Understood biblically, there’s nothing wrong with that description, as Christians are indeed called to become our best possible selves (through the sanctification we become more like Christ and more ourselves as God designed us to be) and to find our happiness in God. But, as we will see, the cultural model described here is far from a Christian understanding of humanity’s purpose (to glorify God and enjoy him forever).

The Role of Religion

The picture here is one of travelers, all of us walking this road called life, on a quest for goodness and fulfillment as we seek out the best path for a blissful future. One goal of religious faith is to help you recognize and resist bad messages from the culture that could threaten success on life’s journey (16). You need religion to help you stay on track in your quest for authenticity and personal fulfillment.

Religion plays an important role in this. Your faith provides a home base or grounding that serves as a stable reference point by which to navigate through the trials and tribulations of life. Smith and Adamczyk point to the prominence in their interviews of metaphors describing religion as a “base,” “foundation,” “grounding,” “basis,” “guidance,” “rooting,” and “anchor” (30).

Most religious parents focus primarily on the practical value of their faith and how it helps them stay grounded. The whole point of religion is to help people be good. That’s what faith is all about, according to most American parents, a number that includes many, if not most, members of your church. Seen this way, you can either accept or reject the demands and requirements of your congregation or faith tradition. The best and most important aspect of religion is its “therapeutic value and social, cultural, and political benefits” (19).

No Place for Religious Truth 

You may be wondering, What about the question of truth? Can people not adjudicate between religions by appealing to history, or science, or credible testimony? Does this mean most people see all religions as true?

Yes and no. In this context, the question of ultimate truth is pressed into an overly personal and private frame. Faith is relegated to the realm of values (what works for me) rather than facts or objective truth (what is real for everyone).

Most American parents believe “all or most religions are after the truth” in some way and that “religions do teach genuine truths.” Some parents go so far as to say their religion teaches the truth. But even here, the two most important truths taught by religion can be summed up in vague generalities: (1) it’s important to believe in something, that there’s something bigger out there, a greater picture that gives meaning to life, and (2) the point of accepting religious truth is to help you live a good and moral life in the world. Parents who would say their religion is true in this broader sense still believe it’s dangerous to say any religious tradition has a monopoly on truth, even if they think it best to settle into a particular tradition or community.

In short, religious truth is judged by its practical value. As long as you believe in something bigger and you try to be a good person, you’re free to take whatever parts of your religion make sense or work for you and cast aside whatever parts don’t. “Nobody needs to accept or be subject to the whole package of a religious tradition” (20).

What’s clear in these interviews is that religious faith is not, first and foremost, about discovering truth about the world and bringing your life into alignment with that revelation. And even though experience matters, religion is not primarily about a personal encounter with God or Jesus or a higher power. Religion’s main role is to make you a good person, and if it helps in that regard, it’s successful (35).

Religion in the Hierarchy of Priorities 

Not surprisingly, once religion is no longer connected to transcendent truths about the world and is judged primarily by its helpfulness, other priorities easily eclipse religious devotion. Sports, homework, preserving family peace and unity—these activities often take precedent when they come into conflict with religious adherence, even for religious parents in stricter traditions (28). Religion is a useful tool in the life you design for yourself. It can be discarded or relegated to a lower priority once it no longer fulfills or actually detracts from that purpose.

Why This Matters

It’s important to recognize the dominant cultural framework of many of the parents in our congregations, as we seek to be faithful servants of the church in this generation. We will need to look for ways to challenge this model with a biblical framework that answers that longing for grounding and roots but also exposes the lie that any foundation can be firm and solid if disconnected from what is really true about our world.

Yes, Christianity is beautiful. Yes, Christianity can be helpful. Yes, Christianity can make us good. But the first and primary reason to be a Christian must forever be: the gospel is true.

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