How is religion passed down across generations? That’s the theme of the new book Families and Faith by Vern L. Bengtson (with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris). As an exercise in statistical and sociological research, there is nothing particularly biblical or spiritual about the book (though, interestingly, the author describes how at the end of the project he started going to church again and now is an active part of a local congregation). And yet, this doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from books like this.

In the concluding chapter Bengtson suggests five things families should know, do, or remember if they want to pass on their faith to the next generation (195-98).

1. “Parents have more religious influence than they think.” One of the main themes in the book is that parental influence with respect to religion is not actually waning, despite the alarmist cries from watchdogs and worry-worts. The single most important factor in the spiritual and religious lives of adolescents continues to be their parents.

2. “Fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad.” It’s important for children to see religious role modeling in their parents. But personal piety is no substitute for the quality of the parent-child relationship. Parents who are warm and loving are more likely to pass on the faith than those that are distant and authoritarian. This is especially true when it comes to fathers. A relationally and spiritually distant dad is very difficult to overcome, despite the religious zeal of the mother.

3. “Allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity.” On the one hand, Bengtson argues that tight-knit religious communities with clear doctrinal and ethical boundary markers are more likely to pass on the faith from one generation to the next. On the other hand, families must allow for some flexibility. Children must not be afraid to explore the whats and whys of their parent’s faith, even if that exploration feels uncomfortable to mom and dad for a time.

4. “Don’t forget the grandparents.” This was the most eye opening theme in the book. In white middle class America, when we talk about the family we mean the nuclear family of mom and dad and their kids. Bengtson’s research shows the important role grandparents play in either subverting the faith of the parents or reinforcing it in their grandchildren. It makes sense: if our children are around grandparents (not to mention aunts and uncles and cousins) who all believe, faith will feel much more of a natural given.

5. “Don’t give up on Prodigals, because many do return.” In Bengtson’s sample, the prodigals who came home were the ones who knew they had parents waiting for them, ready to accept them if and when they returned to their roots. Don’t give up parents. Keep praying and keep on loving.

Overall, Bengtson argues that families are doing pretty well in passing along their faith to the next generation. Intact families do better than families with divorce, and religious homogenous parents are more successful than parents in interfaith marriages. Warm, affectionate parents–the kind kids admire and look up t0–do better than cold, distant parents. And these parents do better with the support of grandparents. But even when these ideals are missing, family mechanisms can compensate: “families are wonderfully resilient” (198).

The even better news is that our God is wonderfully gracious, faithful, and able to do more than we ask or imagine.

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6 thoughts on “Five Points for Parents Who Want to Pass On the Faith”

  1. Curt Day says:

    The emphasis on parents being warm, close, and affectionate is really important. When he was young, the son use to always sleep during church so I would hold him when he slept and would pray for him to believe. Should note that i had plenty of faults as a father as well. But I didn’t want to be strict with him about how he was in church because I was afraid of what I would be associating with God if I didn’t give him some leeway. He became a believer by attending another church and it was easy to see why. He didn’t understand the preaching of our minister; that is why he slept.

    Some other items to add. It is important for parent to back each other up if they want the kids to be close to both parents. This must be done even when parents disagree. Each parent should teach their kids to try to understand the view of the other parent.

    In addition, us parents need to be aggressive in learning the concerns of our kids’ generation. That is because as our kids get older, it is these concerns that will help shape their faith. If our faith does not address these concerns, then kids might feel that the Christian faith may no longer be relevant and feel pulled away from the faith.

  2. Zach Garris says:

    Kevin, does this book by Bengtson make any mention of Christian education in parents passing on their faith? This seems to be an issue that is neglected today by many in the church. We have Christian private schools and Christian home school resources at our disposal, and yet most in the church opt to hand their children over to government schools for 30-plus hours per week. How parents educate their children is undoubtedly a major factor in the future religious adherence of children.

  3. A Feather says:

    Zach Garris ~ My sisters and I all grew up attending public schools. We also were part of the family described in the 5 points listed above. We were never “handed over” to the government’s disposal. Our faith continues on to the next generation of children. In my home we had family dinner. Every person had a chance to discuss the events of their day. These were the teachable moments in my home where we discussed our Christian worldview in response to our day. Compassion was grow for the lost. Truth was taught when it didn’t match what was being taught in school. I don’t argue that our public school system is at all perfect or without fault. I learned to not be “afraid” of the world, but instead on how to be a light. I also see how my family was an influence in our community and a friend to children without a Christian up bringing.

  4. Wow, great blog.Much thanks again. Much obliged.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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