Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Many of us have heard the sobering statistics of the numbers of young Christians, the Millennials, that leave the faith once they leave home. A great deal has been made about this along with explanations why. Whenever reading these sorts of reports, I read them with my eyes wide open. These kinds of reports are affected by the questions asked and the way in which questions are asked. Furthermore, evidence is not merely objective. It must also be assessed and interpreted.
Andrew Hess, Research Associate for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and Adjunct Professor of Humanities and Theology at Colorado Christian University, and Glenn Stanton, Director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, looked at the same phenomenon seeking to understand who was leaving the faith and why they were leaving. They shared the results of their study in Focus on the Family Findings (August 2013), “Millennial Faith Participation and Retention.” The results they discovered actually surprised them. As often happens, negative and discouraging results are highlighted, while the more significant and encouraging ones are either downplayed or ignored.
As noted, “Pew Research recently found that 18% of young adults leaving their faith altogether and another 20% are switching from one faith to another.” This means young people are changing local churches, but they are not leaving the faith altogether. Most assessments are not acknowledging this change of local churches, and are likely included in the numbers that are leaving the faith. Another important thing to observe is the difference between liberal churches and those that are Evangelical. In the General Social Survey it tracks that the mainline liberal churches have declined by 2.2%, while during the same time Evangelical churches grew 0.6%.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the survey is what Pew discovered about those who were leaving their faith. When asked how many of those who have left the faith had a strong faith as a child, only 11% said they did. The strong majority, 89%, claimed they never had a strong faith. This led Hess and Stanton to conclude in their report,
Not surprisingly, homes modeling lukewarm faith do not create enduring faith in children. Homes modeling vibrant faith do. So these young adults are leaving something they never had a good grasp of in the first place. This is not a crisis of faith, per se, but of parenting.
Writing a brief article summarizing their report, Hess writes,
Young adults are not developing a strong faith as children and walking away as they enter adulthood. Instead, the majority are failing to develop strong faith in the first place and then walking away. As Notre Dame Sociology Professor Christian Smith writes,
Religious outcomes in emerging adulthood ... flow quite predictably from formative religious influences that shape persons' lives in early years ... 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.
What are the implications of this for parents and the church? It is important for parents to instill and live the faith once for all entrusted to the saints. It is also vital for the church to supplement and support parents’ teaching in the home and to teach and model these truths in the church as well. The authors observe two implications.
First, it's encouraging that those children who develop a deep faith early on will likely hold onto that faith throughout their lives. But secondly, this shows being in and around church is simply insufficient to develop strong faith for many children. Taking children to church and Sunday school, while important, should not be seen as the only, or even best, way to instill strong faith in our children.
Here is the challenge:
Parents should be intentional about creating homes where their children learn a vibrant faith from God-fearing parents, relatives and other adults. Parents should teach personal habits of prayer and Bible reading in their children, which makes them much more likely to hold onto their faith.
Parents do not make their children Christian. They can birth them physically, but not spiritually. That requires a sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit. This is why it is stated that God has no grandchildren, only children. But God does use means, and parents and other adults are important means of teaching the faith once for all entrusted to the saints, and, as important, modeling a deep and abiding faith in life and ministry. It also means that we are quick to recognize our own sins as parents, and just as quick to rest in God's grace, both for us and our children.