Dr. Andrew Zirschky
Andrew has more than 20 years of congregational youth ministry experience and holds an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation and Teaching Outside the Box: Five Approaches to Opening the Bible with Youth.
By this point, it’s no secret that decades of research on youth and religion has confirmed that parents are the primary influencers of the faith of their children. My concern is that many in ministry have paired the empirical findings of sociological research with a thin reading of scripture to arrive at an overly-theologized role for parents in the faith formation of youth.
Yes, it’s established sociological fact that in early 21st-century America parents are the primary influencers of child and adolescent faith, but that’s a far different reality than proclaiming that this is a timeless, God-ordained reality.
Such an errant view places a heavy burden on parents’ shoulders, while it gives congregations and clergy permission to wash their hands of the responsibility for Christian formation: “They’re your kids, their faith is on you. God said so.”
One scriptural reference often cited in support of the idea that parents bear exclusive responsibility for faith formation is Deuteronomy 6. This passage instructs the Israelites to diligently teach their children the commandments of God. It’s tempting to read this through the lens of the modern nuclear family, but Deuteronomy 6 isn’t a call for merely parental instruction but for the entire community of faith (or most fully, for the entirety of God’s people) to be actively involved in the spiritual upbringing of all children.
Here God isn’t commanding parents; God is directing the activities of the entire community.
The sociological reality that researchers such as Christian Smith have uncovered is that the people who are active daily in the lives of children end up forming them; shocker, right? They influence their habits, perceptions, their understanding of what’s important in life, and ultimately their entire worldview. It just happens that, in a pluralistic American society filled with competing values and crumbling authority structures, it’s parents who are most effective in orienting their children to a particular way of life. But there’s no theological mandate that things should be this way, or that parents must bear this weight alone.
God has not ordained parents as the exclusive agents of spiritual influence.
On the other side of the equation, church isn’t a place where parents can just drop their kids to “get them some religion.” Rather, if parents are deeply involved and invested in the congregation as a community of faith, then our collective ways of life and action can become deeply formative in the lives of all God’s children. The challenge and calling for churches is to both assist parents in their culturally constructed roles as primary influencers of faith, while also recognizing that the church’s role is far from diminished if parents are involved. Clergy and congregations can support and equip parents, even as we help model and nurture faithful responses to God’s presence and action in our lives.
1If the importance of parents in faith formation is news to you, consider starting with these titles: Christian Smith, Soul Searching (Oxford, 2005); Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian (Oxford, 2010); Kara Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith (Zondervan, 2011); or Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, Handing Down the Faith (Oxford, 2021).
2For a significantly more nuanced and developed argument along these lines, see Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, Handing Down the Faith, Chapter 3, “Why Are Parents the Crucial Players?” (Oxford, 2021).