Sam Reimer’s research explains why the culture forces children to rebel, but also provides us with a compelling solution
Of the hundreds of evangelical clergy and parents in Britain, Canada and the United States that I have interviewed over the last two decades, passing on the faith the next generation is a top priority. Yet their best efforts often fail. I’ve listened to many parents grieve when their children leave the faith. I spoke with Joe, a committed evangelical father of four. Three of his adult children no longer attend church and two are no longer Christian. “Was I too pushy to force them to go to church? Or was I not? You know, did I not show them enough love? Or was I too soft?”, he wonders out loud.
Joe is not alone. In Britian and Canada, books of faith transmission titled ’Mass Exodus’ and ’Hemorrhaging Faith’ leave little doubt about what is happening. Between one-third and one-half of evangelical-raised kids no longer affiliate with any faith (much less attend a church), and have become what Stephen Bullivant calls “nonverts”. Why is it so hard to pass down the faith?
My research into this issue has led me to conclude that Western culture is pushing people toward an internal locus of authority, where each person has to find their own spiritual path and must resist pressure from external authorities to conform to their expectations. Each individual is responsible to discover what they believe and who they are. To simply accept the religiosity of parents or clergy is to abdicate your personal responsibility. You must find your own path by following the dictates of your heart. You alone can discover your authentic self.
In such a cultural climate, you can see that faith transmission is problematic. On the one hand, if parents pressure their children to accept their faith, or require them to attend church or read their Bibles, they will often rebel. Such pressure is counter-cultural. If, on the other hand, parents or pastors let youth decide for themselves, they fail in their responsibility to pass on the faith, allowing the void of their silence to be filled by the “algorithmic authority” of the Internet. What is a parent or pastor to do?
While faith transmission is fraught with obstacles, the research is clear on what increases the likelihood of success. I will list only three here, in order of importance:
1. Parental modeling: Youth seem to pay more attention to their phones and their peers than their parents. But the clergy I spoke with and the research agree: parents are the strongest predictor of passing on the faith (by a big margin). If both parents are in the same pew each week with their kids, if they model devotional practices at home, if they have open conversations about faith with their kids, and if (this is a big if) they maintain warm, loving relationships with their children into adulthood, then most children embrace their parent’s faith, and even go to church.
2. Reinforcing relationships: Parents can’t do it alone. Truth claims require reinforcement from other youth, and especially from other adults that they respect (youth leaders, grandparents, other adults in the church, teachers, etc.). Parents can maximize this reinforcement by assisting relationships with like-minded adults and youth (taking them to youth group or to visit grandparents, etc). Churches should facilitate mentoring relationships between youth and non-parental adults.
3. Religious experience: A conversion experience, sensing God’s presence, seeing a miraculous event like divine healing, strengthen religious commitment. This should not surprise, because emotive experiences direct the heart. Parents and clergy can increase the probability of religious experience by promoting events (camps, conferences, mission trips, etc.) that facilitate such experiences.
Youth and young adults are listening to their heart, as the cultural narrative dictates. Warm, stable, authentic relationships and religious experience are the key to their hearts, and to passing on the faith.