Old Wisdom Meets New Trends for Faith and Families

The latest findings from the Pew Forum show that religious attendance and affiliation have continued to drop over the last three decades in the United States, a nation long considered to be exceptionally religious compared to other post-industrial nations. As The Washington Post reports, between 1983 and 2014, religious affiliation has dropped from 93% of the American public to 79%, and religious attendance (at least once a month) has dropped from 53% to 43%.[1] These findings probably come as no surprise, but for many families who wish to pass down their religious beliefs and values to their children, the Pew Forum’s data may also cause some concern. How can Christian parents protect their children from the apparently ongoing secular slide? For families who do successfully transmit their religious beliefs from one generation to the next, what is their secret wisdom?

Grandfather & Granddaughter Walking on Beach silouetted by the e

Sociologist Vern L. Bengtson tackles this question in his impressive work, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford UP, 2013). Studying over 3,000 California families over a period of 35 years, Bengtson and his coauthors, Norella Putney and Susan Harris, found an “intergenerational religious momentum” for families who actively seek to transmit their faith and values from one generation to the next.[2]

But how does a family create this religious momentum? Do they send their children to religious schools or choose to homeschool them? Do they shield them from violent movies, sex-saturated music, or the dangers of the Internet? Should they read the Bible to them every night before bedtime, or is it more a matter of prayer?

As it turns out, none of these techniques are the primary solutions for the successful transmission of faith. Instead, what Bengtson & Co. find is that warm, affirming parents—especially fathers—are one of the most consistent predictors of religious similarity between parents and children. In fact, in their sample of families, 67% of all fathers who were close to their children had the same religiosity as their children.[3] A second surprising finding pertains to the role that grandparents may play in the religious formation of children. Even though Millenials on the whole have a more subjective, less institutional approach to religion and spirituality when compared to the oldest crop of Baby Boomers, many still appreciate and emulate the faith of their grandparents. Finally, if we are to consider the opposite outcome—that is, what weakens intergenerational religious transmission—we find that divorce and mixed faith marriages greatly increase the chances of religious dissimilarity from one generation to the next.

In the end, perhaps these conclusions are even less surprising than the ones articulated by the Pew Forum. Yes, there are some signs that our world is headed towards a more secular age, but halting the materialist march does not require helicopter parenting or radical new liturgies. If parents (and grandparents) love their kids and faithfully model biblical values in the context of loving homes and marriages, then the wisdom of past generations will generally trump current trends and news cycles.

Paul McClure

[1] Scott Clement, “Americans continue to pray even as religious practices wither, survey finds.” The Washington Post. March 6, 2015.

[2] Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney, and Susan Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 193.

[3] Ibid., 77.

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