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Busting the Myth: Parents Don’t Matter

This blog series will explore the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and their religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.

I don’t know about you, but I wish I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard a parent say, “I’m only making my child finish confirmation and then s/he can decide on their own about going to church.” Such comments are disheartening to me, though I understand them. Parents get weary in those volatile teenage years of having to entice, cajole or even fight about what their child will or will not do. Since there are so many touchy subjects, it would stand to reason that parents would pick their battles.

Religion seems to be one of those battles that are often surrendered, according to the research from the National Study of Youth and Religion. However, this may not be a battle that parents should be so willing to give up.

In Souls in Transition, the NSYR’s book about the religious lives of emerging adults (aged 18 to 24), researchers found that parents matter A LOT in the formation of their teenagers’ religious lives. “Teenagers can become quite absorbed into groups of peers,” author Christian Smith writes. “And, adolescents often do go through phases and have characteristic situations where they do act like they want their parents to ‘butt out.’ But none of that actually means that parents have become irrelevant, that their influence is vanishing, that they no longer matter.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 284)

In fact, in their long-term research of nearly 3,000 teenagers and emerging adults, there are few other factors more influential than a parent’s religiousness on the faith lives of emerging adults. “Of the many teenage-era factors that our study investigated as possible influences on emerging adult religious outcomes, one of the most powerful factors was the religious lives of their parents – how often they attended religious services, how important religious faith was in their own lives, and so on.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 285)

Despite this pretty compelling evidence, church leaders routinely separate children from families and other adults as if children can only learn with other children their age. In fact, this research is telling us that enriching the lives of adults and focusing on helping families live their faith on a daily basis may actually be more effective at creating long-term discipleship than some of the ways we’ve done Christian education and youth ministry in the recent past. Plus, it means that parents may need to become more willing to fight this teenage battle – at least if they want their children to become adults who value and practice their faith.

If we think back to the gospel stories, Jesus didn’t separate out different age groups as he was teaching. He just taught to the whole crowd. If children were present, they would have just absorbed whatever they were able to absorb. Parents and the other adults around them would have then been responsible for modeling this Jesus-led life. Absent formal churches and Sunday school programs, they would have just learned by living a life of faith with their families. Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from modern research AND ancient practices – investing in the living of faith rather than just the knowing about faith.

Our Next Myth: They’ll Come Back (to Church)

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