I have had the wonderful privilege of working with many Christians struggling to parent their child through the difficult teenage years. Most of these families are like any other family that enters counseling. They are struggling with conflict, rebellion, communication difficulties, trust issues, and emotional challenges. One unique concern for Christian parents, however, is the desire to pass their faith in Jesus to the next generation.
Some parents fear that their ability to pass the faith on to their children has decreased due to a perceived reduction in the influence of family. Others fear technological advances and social changes that seem to have eroded their ability to influence their child’s value system.
Recent statistical reports noting the significant rise in the number of “nones” (adults with no religious affiliation) in the United States seem to confirm the challenges facing parents when seeking to pass their Christian faith to their children. In his book “Faith and Families: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations Vern L. Bengston gives five suggestions for parents hoping to pass the Christian faith to their children.
Bengston conducted a 35-year study of how religious families from a wide variety of faiths; pass their beliefs and practices to the next generation. He suggests that parents….
Have more religious influence than they think
Despite the popular opinions downplaying the influence that parents have on the religious beliefs of their children Bengston found parents to be the most important factor in the transmission of faith to the next generation. He also cited researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton as noting,
“Contrary to popular misguided cultural stereotypes and frequent parental mis-perceptions, we believe that the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents”
Bengston also described the importance of a close and warm relationship between parent and child when determining the level of influence afforded a parent.
Fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad
The fervency with which parents teach or adhere to their faith does not outweigh the power of a warm and close relationship in the transmission of the faith. Bengston found that children who felt a warm and close connection to their parents were more likely to share their parent’s religious affiliation than those with a cold or distant relationship. Not only that, this association was especially strong for the relationship between children and their fathers. (Go HERE to read more about how to connect with your children)
Allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity
Those children that are allowed to experience religious choice were more likely to share their parent’s religious beliefs. This one can be especially difficult for parents to put into practice. The strong desire for our children to share our faith may cause us to become overbearing and rigid. Remember that ultimately the Holy Spirit does the work of regeneration. It is not possible to “parent” our children to faith in Christ. Allowing for honest questions, open dialogue, and “belief exploration” may create the space needed for the Spirit to do his work.
Don’t forget the grandparents
Bengston found that for many families, grandparents have become the moral and religious compass. Grandparents offer important support to exhausted and over worked parents that encourage the continuation of religious practices and beliefs.
Don’t give up on Prodigals, because many do return
One of the most painful experiences for Christian parents may be a child who rejects the faith they have shared. Bengston found that those parents that waited, were open and accepting, and did not push were most likely to have their children return to the faith. Additionally, he found acceptance and affirmation as opposed to judgment and preaching as important factors.
What have we learned?
Ultimately parents cannot control whether or not their children come to faith in Jesus Christ. That is the domain of the Holy Spirit. It does appear however that a close and warm relationship with parents, particularly dad, belief exploration, support from grandparents, and patience can be important factors when seeking to disciple your children in faith.
What do you think? Do these points fit with your experience? What do you find helpful when raising your children in faith?