Faithful parents everywhere aspire to “Train up a child in the way he should go,” (Prov. 22:6, ESV throughout) but are sometimes torn between “do not provoke your children to anger” (Eph. 6:4) and “whoever spares the rod hates his son” (Prov. 13:24). Threading the needle of Christian parenting is tough, any way you cut it.

How religious mothers and fathers balance their children’s growing autonomy with robust discipleship is the topic of a new book, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation, by Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, and Amy Adamczyk, professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York (CUNY).

Lyman Stone, a demographer specializing in fertility and family, spoke with Smith about where their research connects with the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), why young adult faith is more consumeristic than ever, and how parents and youth pastors often talk past each other in their efforts to disciple the next generation of believers.

(Click here for a companion interview with Melinda Lundquist Denton, NSYR researcher and coauthor of Back Pocket God.)

At a personal level, what was your reaction to the research findings?

I would say we started getting a handle on the importance of parents way back when we were studying teenagers in the National Study of Youth and Religion, which started in 2000. But there are two things that did surprise us a lot.

The first surprise in talking to religious parents in the United States is how similarly they talk about why they want to raise their children religiously, what the value of being religious is, and how they want to go about religious parenting.

In sociology, there’s a lot of emphasis on difference and diversity, and we were expecting to find all these differentiated ways that parents from various traditions and social classes structures would talk about parenting. But it turns out they all basically say the same things. Even Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons have a similar way of understanding religious parenting.

Christian Smith
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Portrait Courtesy of Christian Smith

Christian Smith

The other piece of that, which wasn’t surprising but is still worth pointing out, is that most parents think what’s really important about raising kids in the faith is that it’ll be good for them in this world. There’s very little reference to salvation or eternity. It’s very “this worldly” focused: The kids will be happier and make better choices. So I think religious parents have a very immanently oriented, not transcendently oriented, rationale.

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The other big surprise was parents’ views of their religious congregations. The common story is that laypeople just want to dump their kids off at church and have religion taken care of by youth ministers. But we found parents just want church to be friendly and a good environment, but they think it’s their job to take care of religious things. That seemed to be kind of a mismatch in how clergy and youth ministers think about parental involvement and the way parents described that involvement.

What’s the connection between this book and the National Study of Youth and Religion?

When we started the NSYR, we had no idea about parents. That wasn’t the focus. But over the course of that study, it became very clear how important parents were in the formation of their children. We realized that what parents are doing with teenagers really matters more than media, school, or friends. If we really wanted to figure this out, we needed to do a study focused on religious parents.

In the book, you say that a central part of your argument is that what religion is has fundamentally changed from a “communal solidarity project” to a “personal identity accessory.” Can you elaborate briefly on what that means?

This is my historical interpretation of our findings, trying to make the best theoretical sense I can of what’s going on. The idea of a communal solidarity project is that in a former time in American history, religion would have been much more of a collective, community-based experience. It would have been something people shared in common and that had much more of a social dynamic to it. The parents wouldn’t have had so much burden to promote religion because it would’ve just been living in the community. Over time, that world has dissolved.

There are pockets of it here and there, but for the most part, religion has been redefined. It’s an individualistic thing that may or may not be part of one’s personal identity, along with other features like your career or your sexual orientation or your hobbies. Religious faith may be a piece of that larger sense of individual self. You can choose it or you can not. As a result, it’s a lot of pressure on parents.

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As congregations think about this change, especially in context of their programmatic offerings, what are the implications?

Parents are looking to congregations basically as resource centers. They’re not community ways of life. They’re not bodies of people who are embodying some alternative or renewed way of living. They’re resources. My sense is that clergy understand this to some degree.

I don’t want to prescribe anything. But if congregations want to be able to connect with parents where they are and maybe lead them to somewhere else, they need to think about what the resources are that parents want. But I hate even talking like this; it sounds like marketing.

No, I understand.

But yes, it has implications. I would say the way to think about it in terms of faithfulness is something like this: If what parents are demanding is not exactly what we want to be offering, you can’t just ignore the parents.

So how do you create an environment that meets people where they are but draws them into something beyond that, without becoming just a dispensary of religious resources for people who want to pick and choose?

And it has big theological implications too.

A major theme in your interviews is that many or even most parents would prefer to use indirect methods of religious transmission. Not so much “sit your kid down and lecture them about the faith,” but instead, “show them what’s happening, and by osmosis, they’ll kind of pick it up along the way.”

But you found that the frequency of religious conversations between parents and kids strongly predicted the success of religious transmission. What do you make of this mismatch? Are religious parents adopting a bad strategy?

I don’t feel it’s too much of a mismatch. First of all, parents who are effective are just being who they are. They’re not saying, “Oh my gosh, my kid’s age seven, I better start some religious training.” They’re being who they are authentically. And part of who they are is they think about things in view of their religious faith.

Some do that more intentionally than others. I think those who are more successful at passing on their faith to their kids either are so authentically religious to begin with or they’re intentional about saying, “Hey, we need to pay attention to this and not just let it happen.” In other words, there’s a way to do something by osmosis which is still intentional.

What absolutely doesn’t work (and what parents are not going to try anyways) is the “sit down and lecture for one hour a week” approach. Parents are way too worried about rebellion, and so they’re willing to play religious transmission kind of with kid gloves. I think that most parents have this sense they’re worried about “overdoing it.” They’re worried about doing too much, being too direct, but still they kind of push and prod as much as they can.

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Let’s go back to what you said about parents who had fairly modest expectations of religious congregations. They saw themselves as the primary actor in their child’s religious formation. But if youth ministers, for example, see parents as very disengaged, and parents see themselves as very engaged, what might account for this difference?

First of all, I have to say, we didn’t do an ethnography of parents. We didn’t drive to church with Susan and pick up her kids from youth group. So we’re basing this on what parents and teenagers report in interviews and surveys. But my sense of things from studying this over the years is that it’s probably a combination of things. It could be that youth ministers want more direct investment from parents, but parents just don’t want to do it that way.

My suspicion is that a lot of youth ministers get their information about parents from the teenager. They’re not going out for coffee and breakfast with the parents. I’m not saying teenagers are lying, but teenagers obviously are going to give their own perspective on what’s going on at home.

Also, part of it is probably just expectations. If you’re hired as a youth minister, you’re ready to do great things. But then you enter into a situation where families have their settled routines. And it probably is kind of a frustrating situation for a youth minister, right?

Maybe, per your earlier point, clergy or youth ministers have a different kind of religion in mind than parents and really want something transcendent to be communicated. That gets into this cultural model of parenting that you described—where parents see religion as a kind of moral training to prepare kids for the journey of life, and additionally, as a way of building family solidarity.

In addition to the moral training, I would say religion gives you kind of a home base, a place to return to when things go badly.

So that’s moral, but it’s also psychological, emotional, mental, relational. Which, as I anticipate you’re about to point out, I doubt that that’s what clergy learned in seminary.

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As a missionary and a dad, I find this portrait terrifying for my child’s future. To me, the idea of religion as a psychological, emotional, moral script detached from existential or fundamentally spiritual questions is concerning. Was this research finding surprising to you?

On one level, it was. I expected there to be more of a mix at least. At another level, having studied American religion for decades, no, it wasn’t surprising. American religion has just become very therapeutic, consumeristic, and this-world-oriented.

And you raised the question of mismatch earlier, but I would say this is the real mismatch. Not so much strategy differences between parents and youth ministers, but what church is for. I think some of the main actors that are gathered in congregations have very different ideas of what they’re even doing there. What’s fascinating, sociologically, is how they can continue that mismatch for years and not really figure out the differences between each other—like not really have it dawn on them, “Oh, we have totally different realities going on here.”

Out of curiosity, I did a poll of my Twitter followers to get their take on some elements of the cultural model you describe.

My Twitter followers are not a representative sample, but I found a rather large majority who disagreed with the idea that exclusivity in religion is bad, or that parenting is largely about helping kids discover who they are. Do you think there are meaningful subpopulations who might be consciously resisting the cultural model that you identify?

Yeah, I guess I would say two things. First, Twitter followers of somebody who’s getting a PhD in demography, who’s a missionary, and writes for Christianity Today are not the average sort of American religious parents. I also think it shows the last point that you raised: Of course there are pockets of people out there who don’t conform.

But you know, we were just blown away with how similarly all these parents talk. I think it’s fair to say there is this dominant model, but it hasn’t turned everyone into a robot.

There are clearly subpopulations who don’t believe that cultural model of parenting. And from the point of view inside that subpopulation, it can look like the world has all these faithful people in it. But when you look at a national sample the vast majority are still what we described.

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That makes sense to me. Speaking of interesting subpopulations, I wanted to give you a chance to talk about the chapter on immigrant religious groups, which was just fascinating.

I’m particularly proud of that chapter. I didn’t write it, so I can say that. I would say for a lot of evangelicals, the world is sort of college educated or some college and largely white. But there’s a lot of the world that isn’t that. Even though evangelicalism has in some ways been diversifying ethnically and racially, I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the world out there is much more diverse than what our individual experiences can convey. Society changes. It’s interesting to think about how to be faithful while connecting with these differences.

So what’s the big takeaway for people of faith?

This is not a new conclusion, but it’s reinforcing what we have known for a while: American religion has really morphed into an individualistic, consumeristic reality.

It seems to me that requires some stepping back, reflecting, and having conversations—hard ones—about how you bridge between all these different tugs and pushes and pulls so that you’re not just selling out but you’re also not a going-down-the-toilet sectarian.

Read the companion interview here:

[ This article is also available in español and Português. ]