A new interview with Vern Bergtson, a scholar who has studied the impact of faith in families for 35 years, was published in Christianity Today this week. He has released a new book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations that examines the ways parents attempt to instill religious faith in their children in light of today’s individualistic society. He has found that the influence of parents is about the same as it was thirty five years ago.
Despite the many societal changes that have lurched us towards greater individualism and away from a more collective family focus, over half of young adult children are following in their parents’ footsteps, in that they are affiliated with the parents’ religious tradition. (To a lesser extent, their religious practices and beliefs also align with those of their parents). This number is the same now as it was in the 1970s. In today’s culture, one that often disparages family continuity and assumes that families are not doing a good job, our research reflects a basic resiliency in American families over generations. Good news for the church.
The number of people who followed in the footsteps of parents who had no faith also stayed about the same. Bergtson suggests that in order to have children retain the same faith, parents need to provide some flexibility and tolerance of deviations.
. . . W]e found that allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity. A “hard-nosed” approach that says, “This is our faith, you will follow it, you will practice it, and you are prohibited to experiment with any other faith,” tends to be less successful. A better approach says, “We want your faith to be your own, we believe we have found the faith that is meaningful to us and our family, but we don’t want to impose it on you. Feel free to experiment.” In evangelical families, the latter soft-minded approach by the parents was much more successful than prohibitions on straying or experimenting.
The author also relates the importance that the faith of grandparents can have, as well as how churches need to be more welcoming to “prodigals.” Read more here.