Does a Christian home have any influence on its own children or is the pull of the world and the immersion into secular media so strong that the home has been rendered impotent, unable to influence and persuade? Scripture suggests that families play a significant role in the transmission of faith (Psalm 78) and throughout Scripture parents are commended to instruct their children (Deut. 6), and introduce their children to faith (Mark 10). There is a resurgence of attention placed on the role of the home in the transmission of faith and churches are encouraged in greater extent to seek to equip and empower the home for faith transmission. Wesley Seminary offers a program for the purpose of equipping lay leaders and ministers in the quest to reach children, teens, and families with the life saving message of Jesus Christ.
But if we are honest, we must admit that there are times we wonder if our efforts are in vain and if there really is a way to counteract the pull of peers and culture. Families seem to be falling apart and those of us in local ministry might be tempted to do an “end run” working in spite of the home to reach the younger generations.
Bengtson, Putney, and Harris (2013) conducted a 35-year longitudinal study in search of the answer to the questions is faith passed down in families and if so how? The results of the study are compelling and encouraging! They concluded that amid the apparent disintegration of the family unit, families are still surprisingly successful at transmission of faith and that parental influence has not declined over the past thirty-five years. The authors conducted interviews with four-generation families who successfully held to the faith from the earliest generation to the youngest, and identified parental warmth – and particularly a caring father, grandparents, same-faith marriages (with divorce being a deterrent), strong interconnections between home and church, and the modeling of faith in the everydayness of life.
The research also offered a compelling look at the reality of unchurched or dechurched families – families who identified their religious tradition as “none”. They too demonstrated a great influence on their children and were highly successful in transmitting the “faith” they held. We like to imagine that unchurched homes are heartless, angry, and abusive and that the children are in need of rescuing not just from spiritual peril but from physical and emotional peril as well. And while that may be the case in some instances, the statistics suggest that in many of these homes – the majority of these homes – children experience warmth, caring, and security.
So what can we do to break the cycle of transmission of no faith?
How do we respond to these homes? A few thoughts come to mind:
1. STOP wearing the big “S” on our chests. When we function as if we are superman/superwoman ready to save these children from a horrible life, we alienate both the parents and the kids. Many are loved, well cared for, and respected but they do need a Savior – we just need reminded that we’re not Him. How can we share the need for a Savior to people who feel safe?
2. SEE that children are valuable to the Kingdom (and your local church community) on their own. Using children in order to get the “big fish” is disrespectful and ingenuous. If you are fortunate enough to have children show up to your ministry what are you ways you can celebrate them, invest in them, accept them, and love them?
3. BUILD relationships that extend outside the doors of your church, perhaps relationships that may never connect inside the church. We used to sing the song “One door and only one, and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside – on which side are you?” Please don’t stay on the inside! Can we see the home as a partner in ministry, even non-religious homes? What would that look like? How do we build relationships and partnerships with unchurched families?
4. REPSOND with respect, love, and compassion. Is it possible that these families have value and a friendship with them would be as beneficial to us as it is to them?
5. MEET – their needs without strings attached. When our friendships with unchurched families reveal needs, is it possible to respond to those needs with the only desire being to show the love of Christ and be okay if they never attend our church?
6. LOVE – the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighboring families as much as you love your own.
What other thoughts would you add?
The good news is that Psalm 78 still holds true! Families play a significant role in the transmission of faith to the younger generations. Families that are warm and caring, who have a strong connection with a local body of believers, and who model faith in the every day moments of life do pass on their faith to “the next generation – even the children not yet born” (v. 6). We need to celebrate families, help them see the great responsibility and opportunity that is theirs in the continuance of faith in their family and partner with them in living out that faith. But we must also find ways to interrupt the transmission of religiosity in families who select “none”. What can you do to encounter, encourage, and love these families?
Love to hear your thoughts – what has worked for you?
Bengston, V. L. Putney, N. M. and Harris, S. (2013). Families and faith: How religion is passed down across generations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Dr. Colleen Derr is Associate Professor of Congregational Formation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University.