Parents and grandparents, this column is for you. Dads and grandpas in particular.
The Bible stresses the importance of family in transferring faith from generation to generation. Of immersing our families in God’s truths, Deuteronomy 11:18 says, “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” The home is an intergenerational incubator for cultivating God-centered lives.
A new sociological study reinforces that principle. Vern Bengtson is an eminent sociologist from the University of Southern California. Since 1970 he has conducted the Longitudinal Study of Generations, a multidisciplinary investigation of multigenerational families. The original multi-generational family units came to encompass a few thousand individuals as family trees expanded. The oldest participant was born in 1878, seven years before the founding of the Covenant Church, age ninety-two at the start of the study.
This serious body of research has resulted in 260 scholarly articles and sixteen books of solidly grounded sociological investigation. The latest volume is Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations (Oxford, 2013).
Bengtson and his team would not say there is a single factor for success or failure in a family passing along faith commitments. But their research does reveal some important themes.
One, understandably, is the priority faith plays within the family system. Parents who are satisfied with simply passing on a checklist of beliefs are likely to be disappointed with the degree of faith transference. Conversely, those whose personal practices are sincere, central, and readily observable are better positioned to see faith conveyed.
Even so, Bengtson’s team would caution that being a role model of faith may not be sufficient. Indeed, the strongest faith transference occurs when a second trait is present: familial warmth. Parental bonds matter. Modeling faith practices alone may be inadequate. Bengtson’s principal conclusion is that emotional bonding between parent and child is a critically significant variable to seeing faith passed along generationally.
And, guys, here is where it gets personal. The research also found that one parent matters more than the other. Dads, it’s you. For passing along faith, the study argues that a close bond with one’s father matters even more than with one’s mother (as vitally important as that is as well).
His general observation? “A father who is an exemplar, a pillar of the church, but doesn’t provide warmth and affirmation to his kid may not have kids who follow him in his faith.”
Let’s turn it around and state it positively. Dads, when you combine a sincere faith with a quality relationship with your children, you enhance the likelihood of your children owning their own faith.
Grandpas, you are also important contributors. When grandparents prioritize faith practices and enjoy emotional closeness with their grandchildren, the factor of religious transference also jumps, with a nod again to a grandfather’s influence.
Are there any guarantees? Of course not. Sociology identifies trends; it doesn’t determine particular individual outcomes. The single best dad I have ever known lives anguished over agonizing choices made by his children. Maybe that describes you right now.
Take heart. The research points hopefully to a trend of “returning prodigals.” This forty-year study notes a frequent life arc where those raised in the faith do indeed often return even after extended periods of wandering.
And that is where Bengtson’s own story enters. It turns out his lineage goes all the way back to Swedish immigrants who helped found the ECC. He grew up with thirty-three cousins, all of whom attended Covenant churches. His own beloved father, B.N. Bengtson, was a Covenant pastor serving in Hilmar, California, during Vern’s childhood. In graduate school, Bengtson turned his back on practicing his faith, to much family distress. For some forty years he did not set foot in a church. A few years back on an Easter morning he woke up with an urge to find a worship service. He wandered into an Episcopal church and was overwhelmed. He remains active to this day. He envisions his mom and dad, now long gone, sitting in heaven, chuckling and saying, “The prodigal has returned.” The renowned sociologist has himself become validation of his own study.
Moms, thanks for so often being the pacesetters in the spiritual formation of your children. Single moms, especially, you are amazing in how you nurture the faith of your kids. Dads, let’s make sure we are following suit and stepping into our responsibilities as partners in the process. It shouldn’t take a sociological study to convince us to practice our faith sincerely, and to love our children warmly.