Four Things Successful Families Do Differently to Pass on Their Faith
by Haydn Shaw
“Did I just hear you right?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I replied. “I have four children. It’s terrifying, but statistically speaking, one of my kids will leave the faith.”
Emotion covered her face. “I can’t imagine one of my three kids leaving Christianity and not spending eternity with me in heaven. It makes my heart race just thinking about it.”
I was in the middle of a presentation to a group of parents, and this mother stopped me with her questions. “You’re not alone,” I told her. “Whenever I speak to people about how increasing their generational IQ will help them deal with 10 key issues that keep Christians up at night, this is the one that takes people’s breath away: that one of their children might not be with them in heaven. Especially those whose children have strayed from the faith. Sometimes they cry, sometimes they tremble, and sometimes they freeze in place, not even breathing. I understand. It’s the scariest thought I ever have.”
“And today it’s so much harder to pass on our faith to our children than it was in the past,” she said.
Most people, like that mother in my session, assume that with all the technology and shifts in philosophy, it’s a much more difficult world in which to raise godly children. But the opposite is true. According to Vern Bengtson, a researcher from the University of Southern California and author of Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations, more than half of the children have stayed in the same religious tradition, the same as it was in the 1970s. While evangelicals, Jews, and Mormons pass on their faith more than mainline Protestants and Catholics, the numbers for all faiths and denominations are startlingly higher than many people think.1
But these families do have some secrets to their success.
1. The parents are still married.
I realize that staying together for the sake of the children has fallen out of favor. But this discovery confirms that staying together helps more than a child’s financial and emotional well-being, it makes a measurable impact on their soul. This research powerfully confirms the reason Malachi 2:15 tells us that God is against divorce: “What does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.” Verses 14 and 16 make it clear God is talking about divorce. God wants the couples who worship him to stay together because he knows it impacts the spiritual life of their offspring. This verse and this remarkable research encourage you to double down on your efforts to find a way to live with your spouse if your marriage is struggling. It will make an impact on your children for eternity.
I realize that you may already be divorced. Fortunately, while it will be more difficult than for a family without divorce, millions of single parents do pass on their faith to their children. Moms can also increase the likelihood of children remaining in the faith, especially sons, if they find a Christian man who will spend time with them the kids.
2. Both parents are actively involved in their church.
If children see both parents attend church regularly and notice the influence of their faith on their lives, they are more likely to embrace it themselves. Since more women attend church than men, this finding puts additional emphasis on the importance of the father. But dads play a huge role in another critical way.
3. The father is emotionally warm and engaged.
Church involvement and modeling their faith does not make up for dads who are emotionally cold or rigid doctrinally. Bengtson’s research in this area serves as a commentary on Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Well-intentioned fathers who insist on harsh discipline and silent compliance and who are emotionally unsupportive and disengaged from their children, are not training them, they are exasperating them. So much so that they sometimes walk away from their faith.
4. The parents allow their kids to ask questions and try other denominations.
We know we cannot force our faith on our children, but parents admit to me that when their teenager or twentysomething starts expressing doubts, asking questions about other religions (or merely other denominations), or hints at walking away from their faith, their first reaction is to lecture more and listen less. While understandable, that reaction is dangerous, because many parents who use it will discover that their children leave the church and do not come back.
Instead of lecturing and quoting Bible verses, listen, don’t freak out, and ask questions. Instead of insisting that as long as you live in this household you will be a Baptist (or Lutheran, Methodist, fill in the blank), take them to other denominations so they can see for themselves how other Christians practice the faith. Bengtson and his team found that families who are rigid about their denomination often drive their children from the faith entirely. He learned that after they rebel and drop out, prodigals often come back to church, though not the same denomination, if given warmth, support, and a little encouragement.2
Parents are scared that the odds are stacked against their attempts to raise godly children in today’s environment. So we need all the good news we can get.
At the end of that session, another mother thanked me. “I’ve been so scared. I thought it was almost impossible to raise my children in the Lord. You have given me a lot of hope. It is scary, but it isn’t as hard as I thought.”
She’s right. It’s not easy, but we have far more going for us than we may have realized.
1Amy Ziettlow, “Religion Runs in the Family,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/religion-runs-in-family.html.
Haydn Shaw, who has researched and helped clients regarding generational differences for over twenty years, is the author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart, and FranklinCovey’s bestselling workshops Leading Across Generations and Working Across Generations. He has just written a new book, releasing this month, titled Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and The Future is Bright.
We’d like to hear from you. Please share your comments below or like us on your Facebook page. Be sure to check back each month for more articles and products available at your local Christian bookstore.