The amount of research on what “keeps kids religious” can be dizzying. Yet, this research matters, not because we need to “keep” kids a certain way, but because God has a personal plan for each one of them, and desires a relationship with every person that grows throughout one’s entire life.
How to Keep Kids Growing as Disciples into Adulthood. That’s the Question.
When we consider this most generally, the conclusions aren’t shocking:
In research using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, sociologists Christopher Bader and Scott Desmond found that children of parents who believe that religion is very important and display their commitment by attending services are most likely to transmit religiosity to their children.…One of the strongest factors associated with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was having parents who talked about religion and spirituality at home, Smith said.
Other key factors included having parents for whom personal faith is important and who demonstrate that faith through attending services. Teens whose parents attended worship with them were especially likely to be religiously active as young adults.
Among related findings, parents from religious traditions that in general promote greater commitment and encourage discussing faith outside the sanctuary also were more likely to have children who remained active in their faith as young adults. (NSYR, HuffPo, 2014)
Pulling out practical, concrete examples–that can be harder. Fortunately, additional studies and reflections provide clues.
Attending Religious Services
A LifeWay study of 2,000 Protestant households found that while attendance does have an impact on fostering discipleship into adulthood,
It wasn’t just that parents took their kids to church (where “professional clergy” could feed them spiritually), but that the children were included and integrated into the church through the avenue of service. The habit of serving others in the church and community likely formed these young adults in a way that kept them from identifying merely as a churchgoing “consumer,” but instead as a contributor to the building up of God’s people.
Talking About Religion and Spirituality At Home
Brad Klingele, a teacher (and former Youth Minister), writes:
As educated Catholics, we all to try to help our children to have an adequate ability to think clearly, to analyze, and to gain an accurate understanding of the world and of our faith. My family spends countless moments discussing events, ideas, and our faith. Each day presents opportunities for intellectual formation. We value abstract reasoning. Most educated Catholics conceptualize passing on the faith as participating in the sacraments and passing on the truths of the faith.
The truths of the faith. To hold something to be true, we tend to think that we have an understanding that we can articulate in words. Almost everything about our culture encourages us to think of truth as an idea, a concept. Our educational culture since the Enlightenment encourages verbal and written articulation. Outside of encouraging weekly Mass and some service work, we think of passing on the truths of the Catholic faith as passing on a correct conceptual understanding. A dear family friend, Fr. Joe, calls it Catholicism as Philosophy.
What Klingele senses is a challenge for many–including/especially parents who are very passionate or well-formed in the Christian faith). An overly conceptual understanding of truth (=”ideas”) is not necessarily talking about being a disciple of Jesus Christ in a way that children at different ages and stages desire.
As Marc Cardaronella writes, “Articulating faith means internalizing it, owning it, and making it a part of you. That requires dialogue.” In the study, “Understanding Former Young Catholics,” Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith find that “narrow and rigid viewpoints” are often viewed with suspicion by emerging young adults. Talking about beliefs in a way that is affirmative and open to dialogue not only helps form young people in the faith, but also models how to be passionately in love with Jesus and respect the different beliefs of others. [If you’re familiar with Alpha, think of it as an adaptation of Alpha culture in the home.]
Fortunately 🙂 when it comes to talking about religion and spirituality in the home, it’s not all up to us as parents! God communicates with our children, just as He does with us (Praise the Lord for that). In the LifeWay Protestant household research:
The biggest factor was Bible reading. Children who regularly read the Bible while they were growing up were more likely to have a vibrant spiritual life once they became adults.
This statistic doesn’t surprise me. God’s Word is powerful. The Bible lays out the great story of our world and helps us interpret our lives and make decisions within the framework of a biblical worldview. Bible reading is a constant reminder that we live as followers of God. Our King has spoken. He reigns over us. We want to walk in his ways. (Trevin Wax, “Parents, Take Note…”)
The inspired Sacred Scriptures are a powerful gift to us as human beings who so crave communication. God hands on His very-self to us in the “wellspring” of Sacred Scripture (Dei Verbum, para. 2, 9). When our kids read it (or have it read to them), God works.
Prayer also offers the opportunity for God to speak into the family, including kids. Manglos-Weber and Smith found that among young adults who were continuing to grow as disciples in the Church, 56% prayed alone frequently, compared to only 33% of those who left the Church praying alone regularly. Prayer can take on a wide range of forms, whatever works for your children’s ages is a great place to start. Singing together is also prayer–the LifeWay study found that listening to Christian music ranked highly among Protestant youth who continued to practice their faith as young adults.
Cultivating habits of prayer and Bible reading allow the Holy Spirit to speak and move in powerful ways, to direct our “talking” to what is most important for each of us, in our families, right now–and encourage our children to delight in listening and conversing with God our Perfect Father, through His Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit directly.
Faith Outside the Sanctuary
Emotional closeness between Catholic parents and their teenage children—especially with fathers—influences whether teens remain Catholic into their 20s. Greater relational distance between parents and teens increases the chance that the latter will leave the Church in emerging adulthood.
Well before the teenage years, imitation plays a significant role–do we as parents model a faith our children would logically want to imitate? i.e. does following Jesus bring us joy? make us pleasant to be around? lead us to love in illogical and moving ways?
Phil and I agreed that we cannot hope to help our children to stay Catholic when they are cut off from the people with whom Jesus is closest…If Jesus is closest to those in need, and our only connection with people occurs across the ocean of a soup kitchen pot, we are not close to Jesus. We cannot find our Lord when we are absent from him, and he is with the poor…When our kids realize we are equally poor, and that we must continue the Eucharist through the sharing of our very lives with our brethren, our kids will meet and stay with Jesus.
He recognizes that if he does not live a commitment to what the Gospel is outside of Mass, then not only is his life as a disciple muted, his children’s growth as disciples of Jesus Christ will be stunted.
Much to ponder–I say that with great humility as a parent of young children who remind me all of the time about what imitation means.
Due to the writings of Sherry Weddell, “intentional” has become the ubiquitous adjective on “disciples.” And that’s not a bad thing. It’s true. And, extra-true 😉 when it comes to forming disciples starting in childhood and continuing through adulthood. The intentionality in homes and parish communities matters.
In conclusion, a set of personal questions from Trevin Wax for any household or parish to pray with, ponder, and discuss from time to time:
- What kind of culture do we want in our homes and churches?
- What space are we creating for our children to flourish?
- How are we rooting our families in God’s Word?
- How are we modeling prayer and repentance?
- What does faithfulness look like in our home?
- What are the songs that are in our hearts and on our lips?
- How are we fulfilling the Great Commission?
Update 2/16/2018: Here’s an excellent summary of another recent research project on the topic, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” Thanks Jerry Windley-Daoust for posting!