I cannot remember not going to church as a child. My parents took me to church ever since I was born. I was involved in Sunday school, Wednesday night programs and anything else they took me to. When we switched churches, I was about ten, my parents kept me heavily involved. I never complained, I liked it. Beyond church, religion was a central part of our lives. My grandmother always encouraged me to read the Bible. As I moved into my teenage years, and after my parents got divorced, I continued to attend church and youth group. Now it was basically my own decision and I kept going. Even though the youth group was sparsely populated, many of the students being at least three years younger then me, I was always there. I looked up to the older members of the congregation, whether in their 40s or in their 80s, as examples of Christian living. From all these beginnings, when I went away to college I sought out a community of Christian students to be a part of.
My story is not extremely unique, at least according to the studies done by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell in Souls in Transition. What they found repeatedly is that a theme of religious lives of emerging adults (18-23) is continuity. Students who were highly religious as teenagers remained so, more or less. Those who were not highly religious did not become religious. Of course there are always exceptions, but the basic point is that the trajectory people are put on in their teenage years, and before, is what they remain on into their twenties and beyond.
Smith and Snell, with help from Kyle Longest, seek in the eighth chapter to determine what factors in the teenage years contribute most to religious commitment as emerging adults. The researchers found that there are five factors during teenage years that are most important in contributing to emerging adult religion: religious parents during teenage years, frequent personal prayer, high importance of religious faith, few religious doubts, and religious experiences (p. 218-9). Later they sum up the factors as consisting of strong relational ties to religion (such as religious parents, other adult religious mentors, part of community), a personal embracing of faith (eventually the teenagers makes the faith her own, not just on loan from parents), and regular devotional practices (prayer, scripture reading) (p.227-8). On the flip side, teenagers who were once highly religious but who become less religious as emerging adults have less of these factors: less religious parents, lower importance of religion, more doubts about faith, less frequent personal devotion, fewer religious experiences (p.229-230).
What struck me is the absolute vital role parents play in the religious lives of children. Along with parents, another important factor is having other adults in a religious congregation that the teen can turn to for support, advice and help (p.233). What is interesting is that having religious parents and other adults in their life was more important than being part of a youth group or having religious friends. It is not that such things are unimportant, they do help, but their absence is less detrimental than the absence of parents.
The reason that parents are important is seen in the age of first commitments to God. The researchers found that 85% of those who ever commit to God (surveying emerging adults, so “ever” means up to age 23) do so prior to age 14. Compare this with 7.7% who made first commitment between ages 14-17 and 7% who made first commitment between 18-23. The conclusion is clear: the majority who commit their lives to God do so prior to age fourteen and the role of parents in this is essential. Further, as the story of the religious lives of emerging adults is one of continuity, most who commit to God prior to age fourteen stick with it.
This message is challenging: parents, you have a vital role in the religious lives of your children. Once again though, it must be said: your children are individuals and nothing is full-proof (none of these statistics reach 100%). You could be religious and your children turn away. It happens and it is not your fault. Yet statistically, if you demonstrate a religious life to your children while they are young it appears it will often rub off on them and will set them on a religious path for many years.
My prayer is that when I become a parent one day, I will model my faith as my parents did.
Also, this may should be a challenge to youth pastors and leaders. It seems that while it is important for kids to be a part of youth group, with Christian peers, it is more important that those youth groups have adult volunteers to be friends and mentors to the youth. Perhaps separating the church by ages for worship is a bad idea, for we need to be connecting across generations. At the very least, a call can go forward based on this: Volunteer with the youth group at your church! You do not need to be a parent to change a life of a child!