Editorial: Winter 2013-14
My parents took my sister and me to church at least three times a week. We joked that we were usually the first family there and the last to leave. Obviously my parents were heavily invested in our congregation.
You might think that, having our fill as children, we've decided as adults not to invest our lives in the church the way our parents did. But both my sister and I are active and committed members of Mennonite congregations. The most life-shaping legacy I've received from my parents is their awareness of the importance of faith and church.
Not all children respond the same way, often to the consternation of their parents. I have told numerous parents they shouldn't be too hard on themselves when their children have not turned out the way they wished. Each person is responsible for the decisions he or she makes. No matter how important the influence of parents on the faith life of their children, many other influences in the world shape them: their peers, the culture, the circumstances in their own lives.
This issue of Leader deals with the theme of families in the church, including the role families have in passing on their faith to their children. If anything, the family is more important in the faith formation than when my parents were raising me. Seldom do families attend church three times each week. In fact, now many families attend church on Sunday morning only twice or three times a month.
If the church has only two hours a few times a month with their children, how can it compete with all the other influences children encounter in their lives? To put it bluntly, faith is likely not to be passed along on the basis of what the church does alone. Families have to be the prime context for the faith development of their own children. And they need the help of the church in carrying out that function.
A newly released study of families and faith formation does provide some optimism.* This longitudinal study documents that families are fairly resilient in passing along the faith to their children. The fear and the skepticism about families' ability to pass on their faith is largely dispelled by this study. Although there have been many changes in the family since 1970, the researchers in this study discovered that there was as much intergenerational similarity in matters of faith in 2005 as in 1970. "Something about religion seems to 'stick around' families over generations," the researchers conclude.
It is important that the parents themselves are very much engaged in the church and active in living out their faith. Intact families are more likely to pass on their faith than others. Divorce and religiouslymixed marriages present special challenges in the faith formation of the children. Perhaps surprisingly, parents who are not doctrinaire about their faith and allow their children some space in their own development are more likely to pass on their faith than parents who are heavy-handed with their faith. Fathers and grandparents have special roles to play: fathers who have warm, emotional connections with their children are more likely to reproduce their faith. And grandparents play an often neglected and increasingly critical role in their grandchildren's faith development.
It should provide some comfort and caution to Mennonites to know that high demand faith traditions and ones that are set apart from the rest of the culture have the highest rates of success in passing faith on to future generations. Comfort, because Mennonite distinctives can be demanding and set us apart from the rest of culture, concern because those very distinctives—peace, simple living, community, nonconformity—are under attack.
As for the church itself: congregations need to focus more on the family as a unit. So much of what the church does often focuses on the individual members of the family. Sunday school, youth group, Venture clubs segregate children and youth into agespecific groups. More effort is needed to bring families together as families in the context of the congregation. A challenge for the church is to give more priority to forming intergenerational family bonds.
The future of the church depends in part on the faith formation of our children and youth. We can be relatively optimistic about that, based on the results of this study. However, passing on the faith can't be assumed or taken lightly. It is a God-given task which takes intentionality and commitment on the part of congregations and parents alike.
—Richard A. Kauffman*Vern L. Bengtson with Norella Putney and Susan C. Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across the Generations (Oxford University Press, 2013). The data for this study consists of more than 3,500 respondents from 357 three- and four-generation families.