During the last ten years I have come to realize that there is an almost infallible predictor of whether youth who are Confirmed will still be regularly attending the Divine Service during the years that lead up to graduation from high school. If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was regular attendance, this will continue. If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was absence from the Divine Service, this will return.Research continues to bear out this impression from one parish pastor. The latest data from the the Nation Study of Youth and Religion indicates:
Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.It is simple. And it is biblical. The apostle Paul wrote: "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4 ESV). It is the same thing that the Lord told his Old Testament people Israel: “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deuteronomy 11:18-19 ESV).
Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.
In contrast, 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults, according to data from the latest wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
The connection is “nearly deterministic,” said University of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the study.
Other factors such as youth ministry or clergy or service projects or religious schools pale in comparison.
“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.”
The direction for parents in Scripture is very straightforward. And God's Word gives a clear description about how this will play out. Proverbs says, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6 ESV). Ongoing research confirms the wisdom of this piece of Wisdom literature.
Parents are to practice the faith with their family and teach the it to their children. They are to train up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord so that they will not depart from it. Yet we must also recognize that this statement from Proverbs is a piece of Wisdom literature. It describes the way things usually work.
As a pastor, one of the greatest pains I see is that of the parent who raised his or her child in the faith, only to see that son or daughter ignore or reject Christ later in life. Sometimes there is an identifiable cause, such as experiences at college. Sometimes the outcome is a mystery. Either way, there is often pain and guilt about how things have turned out. They wonder what they "did wrong."
The truth is that we can never escape the reality of sin and all the ways it twists and distorts life. The very nature of Wisdom literature like Proverbs is that it describes how things usually work. Dr. Paul Raabe at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO describes this as the "80% rule" - it describes the way things work 80% of the time. However, because of sin, there is that other 20% that may defy explanation. Interestingly enough, the recent study found that "82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults."
As I raise my own children, I am confronted by the reality that I can only seek to be faithful in doing what the Lord has called me to do as a parent. I can't control the outcome. I don't know whether my children will turn out to be the 80% or the 20%. I pray for them every day that they will be in the 80%. That is all that any of us can do. It is indeed crucial that we seek to be faithful and carry out our vocation as Christian parents as we raise our children in the faith. We entrust this process constantly to God in prayer. We give thanks to God when we see them in the 80%. When we don't, we continue to pray for them. And we live the only way that any Christian can - by keeping our eyes set on Jesus in whom we have forgiveness, peace and life no matter what may happen.