This is one of the most important questions parents can ask, for it concerns the vitality and durability of their child’s faith in Christ and how that faith stays vibrant through the rough and tumble transition of young adulthood.
The good news is that very strong, sophisticated research from some of the leading sociologists of religion in the world indicate there are relatively simple things parents can do greatly ensure faith continuity in their teen and emerging adult children.
This research comes from noted Notre Dame professor Christian Smith and his team conducting the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.The NSYR is a longitudinal examination (from 2001-2014) of 3,290 young people, involving ongoing personal interviews with 267 of these respondents in 45 states in the United States.
Factors Most Likely to Ensure Lasting Faith
- First , there are relatively simple factors that “powerfully shape” faith that remains strong through the teen years and the transition into adulthood.
- Second, the biggest factor is the faith of parents themselves and the practices they employ with their teenagers.
- Third , these practices are probably simpler than many parents might imagine.
The most significant factors the NSYR discovered that contribute to faith remaining vibrant from childhood, through the teen years and into young adulthood are below by category and significance:Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 220-224.
#1 Parents : Professor Smith doesn't mince words: "Parents are huge, absolutely huge, nearly a necessary condition" for a child to remain strong in their faith into young adulthood. He concludes "without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent." Christian Smith, presenting at the FamilyINSIGHTSLectureSeries, Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, July 26, 2010.
#2 Personal Devotion : Along with at least one believing parent, it is also important for the child to develop some habit and practice of regular prayer and reading of scripture. If a teen has this in their younger years, they are remarkably more likely to maintain these faith practices into early adulthood.
#3 Beliefs : Not as vital as the first two, but it helps if your child has strongly held beliefs and practices about sexual chastity as well as the ability to wrestle with and resolve their faith doubts. They should also have experienced God’s hand in their lives through His faithfulness, answered prayer and meaningful spiritual experiences. And having been teased for their faith is shown to be a faith strengthener, for this actually increases resolve and conviction.
(On the sexual chastity factor, the scholars surmise it has to do with two key factors: 1) what they call the benefit of "cognitive resistance to modern secular culture" and, 2) the benefit of not experiencing the deep emotional conflict of breaking important moral values which can tend to make one feel disqualified from their faith.)
Parents Can Be Pretty Sure…
Smith summarizes these findings in explaining, "religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not random happenstance about which all bets are off after age 18. Instead, they often flow quite predictably from formative religious influences that shape persons' lives in earlier years…. [The] religious commitments, practices and investments made during childhood and the teenage years, by parents and others in families and religious communities, matter – they make a difference." Smith, 2009, p. 256. (emphasis added)
This is a huge scientific, empirical vote of confidence for the importance of intentional parenting! And these NSYR findings are corroborated by recent findings from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Faith in Flux: Change in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April, 2009).
Declines in Faith from Teen to Young Adult Years?
The overall decline in faith from the teen to young adult years is substantial, but not nearly as bad as most evangelical research groups insist. The NSYR research reports, "the transition from the teenage to the emerging adults years involves in general an impressive amount of stability but also, when it comes to change, a significant decline in religious commitment and practice." Smith, 2009, p. 213. Note this is a decline, not an abandonment, and in many cases, a temporary decline.
However, between 17-27% of young adults shift into a higher religious commitment over these transitional years, while 34-55% moved to a lower religious commitment. Most importantly though, the "moderately religious teenagers are the most likely to shift to a different level [of commitment], with well more than half becoming less religious and one in five becoming more religious." Smith, 2009, p. 214. The highly religious teens are likely to remain highly religious in adulthood.
Professor Smith explains, "in most cases whatever religious change there is does not outweigh the continuity," because, "the religious lives of youth during this period [of movement into young adulthood] reflect a lot more stability and consistency than many seem to have previously realized, compared to the amount of change and upheaval that has so often been assumed." Smith, 2009, p. 254.
In fact, these scholars note, "who people are usually does not randomly and unaccountably change over time. What people have been in the past is generally the best indicator of why they are what they are in the present and what they will likely be in the future. This is a fact that needs to condition the understanding of emerging adult religion." Smith, 2009, p. 256. (emphasis added)
Is College Corrosive to Faith?
In the last few years, social scientists have "found that the religiously undermining effect of higher education…has disappeared" and that a recent study "using some of the best longitudinal data available has shown that is not those who attend college, but in fact those who do not attend college who are most likely to experience declines" in religious participation and importance. An additional survey of college students found that 2.7 times more students said their faith was strengthened, rather than weakened, through their college experience. Smith, 2009, p. 248-249.
Reasons for this are considered: the increase in campus-based ministries like Campus Crusade and InterVarsity, the increase of relativism and the decline of strict scientism as well as an increase in committed evangelical and Catholic faculty at secular universities in America.
This highly reputable, long-term research reveals the powerful significance of parents in the faith trajectory of teens through early adulthood. If young people have a vibrant growing faith in their teen years which is supported and encouraged by believing parents and other important adults, they are remarkably likely to not only retain their faith in early adult years, but have it grow as well!
Parents should know that helping their children accomplish this important passage is not a result of getting all the spiritual dials in life calibrated just exactly right and if they don't, then game over! These factors are determined largely by a few important broad brush strokes steadily applied over the years, rather than getting all the micro-details right.
Parents should be encouraged that successful faith transfer is not anything close to rocket science, but really about relatively consistent faithfulness and honesty in living out a committed faith, even if that faith is less than perfect on every point!