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How Do Our Kids Stay Christian?

March 13th, 2024 | 12 min read

By Cameron Shaffer

How do our kids stay Christian? Some version of this question has animated both scholarly and pastoral discussion over the last several years, especially as the great dechurching marches on unabated. This is not merely an academic question, but one that has kept younger parents anxious as they watch more and more of their peers turn away from the faith.

Of course, it is the Holy Spirit sovereignly acting as he wills that keeps people abiding in Christ. And of course, God who ordains the salvation of his children has also ordained the regular means of bringing about that salvation, specifically the word, sacraments, and prayer. But how should the church approach those gifts in regards to the discipleship of its children? And what steps can the church take to maintain its children’s faithfulness as they grow into adulthood?

Several recent works have provided invaluable insight into this dilemma, the most important of which is Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion to the Next Generation (2021) by Amy Adamczyk and Christian Smith. Adamczyk and Smith looked at the religious landscape of North America over the last few decades and came to a simple conclusion: the communities that were most effective at handing down their religion were those that prioritized faith in the family home.

That might not sound earth-shattering, but it corroborated decades of sociological research showing that things like Sunday School, youth group, VBS, Christian camps, confirmation, and youth conferences are either minimally consequential to the maintenance of a child’s faith or in some cases actually counterproductive. Sociologists of religion have known for some time that these programs, while they feel nice, are led by earnest people, and have some anecdotal success stories, are ineffective for passing along the Christian faith. The British educational reformer Charlotte Mason commented in Parents and Children (1897) that Sunday School, then a recent innovation, was a necessary evil. Sunday School was created for parents who were unable to do their “first duty” of instructing their children in the faith and needed a substitute to step into that role for them. The church embracing this model led to decline in faith transmission.

Lyman Stone at the Institute for Family Studies recently demonstrated that secularization begins at home. This was also shown in a 2017 Lifeway study, by Stephen Bullivant in Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America (2023), and by Jim Davis and Michael Graham in The Great Dechurching (2023). If kids born to Christian parents are to grow up Christian, they need to be raised as Christians by their parents. All of these books and resources provide parenting guidance. But where does this leave the church?

If secularization begins at home and parental investment is the primary indicator of a child’s future faith, what should the church do? How should it prioritize its resources, especially when many churches heavily invest in programs that, frankly, are ineffective in producing disciples?

Authoritative Parenting

Parents are far-and-away the greatest influence on children’s faith development and retention. Churches should overwhelmingly prioritize in their strategies and resource-allocation (i.e. staffing, programs, volunteer focus) reaching and discipling parents to raise godly children. This is, after all, what parenting fundamentally is: fathers and mothers teaching their children to grow in maturity as they imitate their parents who, in turn, are imitating Jesus.

It’s critical that parents teach the Bible and catechize their children in the articles of the faith, of course, but alone this is insufficient. Christianity is taught, not caught, but how it is taught affects whether kids hold onto it. Parents who successfully inculcate steadfast faith and love of God joyfully demonstrate the importance of their own faith on a daily basis.

Is the faith of parents sincere? Do they value and talk about their faith? Does it visibly inform their decisions? Does faith characterize their regular, daily behavior and conversations, or is it compartmentalized to worship services and being around church people? Do they acknowledge their shortcomings without hypocrisy? Do parents clearly love God? Do they delight in Jesus?

Adamczyk and Smith found parents whose faith is the warp and woof of their lives are the parents who pass along that faith. After all, that concept of a life of faith is what God commands in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9): The words of God will be on your heart, and you shall diligently teach them to your kids, talking about them around the house, when you’re in the car, when you’re getting ready for the day and preparing to go to bed. When kids truly believe that faith matters for their parents, they believe it should matter to them.

The danger for children is parents who believe and either don’t expect anything of their kids on the one hand, or are tyrannical and overbearing about it on the other. Adamczyk and Smith discovered that an authoritative parenting style is most effective at raising children to faithful maturity. This approach maintains high expectations for kids, but in a home and parental relationship that can be honestly described as “warm” rather than rule or discipline-oriented. Being loosie-goosey (they’ll figure out and make faith their own) or overbearing are equally damaging to a child’s faith. As Anthony Bradley is fond of pointing out, kids don’t rebel against joy.  

This is what Davis and Graham found in The Great Dechurching. The kids who held onto their faith were able to have conversations with their parents about faith that were sincere (the parents knew their faith and believed it) and humble (the parents were confident, not self-focused, defensive, or belligerent about the kids’ questions and hesitations about the faith). Parents don’t need to be geniuses or theologians, but should know what they believe, believe it, and be confidently humble.

The church can prioritize childhood discipleship first by encouraging parents to take the airplane-oxygen mask approach. Are parents being taught the faith so that they may have something to believe in themselves? Are parents being encouraged to be diligent in their own discipleship? Are they being given tools to teach and catechize their own children? Are they showing their kids that faith and worship matter into adulthood, not just as concepts, but as committed practices?

Second, is the church providing not only content to parents, but models? Throughout the New Testament the leaders of the church are exhorted to model following Jesus to their congregations. Parenting style is a non-negotiable requirement on pastoral and elder job descriptions. Are the leaders of the church modeling sincere, confident, and humble discussions of the faith? A joyous approach to kids? If the pastors and elders of the church are not doing this, the parents in the church will struggle to as well. Leaders need to model to parents, especially to fathers, warmth, firmness, joy, and patience and take proactive steps to teach that.

Third, is the church encouraging the formation of community and friendships among the adults of the church? Doing this helps ensure that faith is seen as a joyous (friendship!) part of life, not a burden. It provides a community to help encourage one another (keep that oxygen mask on) and communicates to kids that their parents take their own discipleship seriously. If parents take their own discipleship seriously, their kids will as well.

The church’s message and service to parents should be: Don’t outsource teaching the faith, take this up yourself. Take your own faith seriously, hold your kids to a high standard, and be warm and open with them.

Incorporation, not Accommodation.

If you want kids in your church to grow up Christian, then include them in the church’s corporate worship.

This is one of the greatest influences on faith retention, though not nearly as high as direct parental and family influence. But these two things go hand-in-hand: if children are segregated from the rest of the church in worship, including their parents, the value of worship to their parents is hidden from kids in their formative stages. Rather than accommodating children, churches ought to strive for their incorporation.

Parents prioritizing corporate worship with and in front of their kids communicates the value of faith to their children. A common example that makes this point: Parents have no problem passing down their sport loyalty. Their kids become fans of teams or schools long before they ever have a chance to reason through which team they should support. The love of the team is taught by their parent’s enthusiasm and caught by the children. And when parents watch games they don’t send the kids out of the room or to a different, segregated section of the stadium: they watch together. And just because the kids don’t understand all the rules doesn’t mean they’re not really rooting for their team.

Worship is the same. When children witness their parents worshiping, and worship God alongside them, the gospel is taught and kids catch the love of God. Fathers and mothers worshiping God with their children is the demonstration that what is said the rest of the week has merit, that it really is believed. Otherwise it’s like talking up a team but never watching the game.

And of course this is what we see in scripture. The youngest kids, even the nursing infants, are present for the corporate worship of God, including the exposition of God’s word. This is both an Old Testament and New Testament reality and expectation. When worship is first thought of as the transferal of information, then having young children present runs counter to our programmatic age. But when worship is properly understood as a covenantal encounter between God and his people, then including his youngest saints in worship makes complete sense. After all, to such belong the kingdom of heaven, and in meeting Jesus in kingdom worship alongside their parents, the children of the church receive his blessing and are transformed as they grow more and more into his image.

So how should churches approach this? First, churches need to make it abundantly and enthusiastically clear that children of all ages are welcomed and wanted in worship. The cries of infants and fidgeting toddlers are the sounds of God building his church. Pastors need to make clear to the congregation that these noises are not a distraction from corporate worship, but part of it, even during the sermon.

Parents should be encouraged and supported when their kids are in the service with them. Beyond the explicit affirmation that children are welcome in worship, the church can provide practical things to help children grow in attentiveness and discipline, like pew cards for parents, coloring pages related to the sermon, teaching aids for children and their parents, occasional direct addresses to the children from the pulpit, and regular encouragement to parents to keep at it. Fussy and wiggly kids in worship are not a failure, but part of the family of God growing together.

Christianity is caught because it’s taught, and should be taught clearly in the worship service. The instinct is to dumb down the service or sermon to accommodate kids, but pastors should not talk down to the children. They are being invited into something meaningful and deep, where they meet God, and they are expected to exercise their minds and spiritual muscles alongside their parents. Nor should churches underestimate what is grasped as kids learn the rhythms of the gospel and the words of scripture; kids are sponges, after all, and the amount they learn from an “adult” sermon is often surprising. But most of all, worship of God in the church is an act of faith. Worship and faith belong to children, and when these characterize their lives, starting at the smallest age, it is theirs for life. Worship of God in the church is not something that you graduate into once you mature, but the place where God forms the spiritual habits of even his littlest saints.

The Church is a Family

A high school student in my church once approached me because she wanted to invest more deeply in the church and grow in her faith. Unfortunately, her parents were completely uninterested in anything more than a superficial religiosity and she felt unsupported in her Christian walk. Every pastor has had some version of this experience, which is both exciting (she wants to grow in faith!) and frustrating (her parents are disengaged). In light of what we know about how faith is passed on, what should the church do now?

The most important biblical metaphor for the church – a family – is not actually a metaphor. The church is the family and household of God, and our call is to act as a surrogate family (e.g. Mark 10:28-31) to those who come through our doors who are without their own natural family. This is the third meaningful characteristic of children who hold onto faith: participating in a community of faith that interacts with and supports one another throughout the week.

The people of the church spending time together is essential for forming a community of faith that has lasting effects. For kids, teenagers especially, the best way the church can leverage this is by having faithful parents of the church hosting the children of the church in their homes. Simply spending time with them is huge, and is a way for children with absent parents to mature in the faith. Do the children of the church know the family of fathers and mothers? Do they know they’re loved? The adults of the church acting as surrogate parents to kids is the best way to cultivate and protect the faith of kids whose parents are not invested in Christianity. This is a critical way that older adults – whether they still have their own kids at home or not, whether they are childless or not – can invest in the teens and kids of the church.

The church’s mission and purpose are familial: gathering together in communion and fellowship. In worship the greatest expression of this is the Christians’ family dinner, the Lord’s Supper. But the mission and purpose of God’s family is also found in living life together before the face of God. The fellowship of the saints is an essential article of the Christian faith, and a simple way of having saintly-family fellowship is sharing meals and time together.

In practice, what this means is that having kids present at a vibrant fellowship hour is more effective in passing down the faith than either Sunday School or youth group programs. Being together, and enjoying being together, in worship and throughout the week forms kids into this community of faith.

So, what should churches do? Encourage faithful parents and adults to know the children of the church. Interact with the kids of the church, especially outside of classrooms. Adults and parents and families of the church should open up their homes throughout the week and host the kids there.

What about classes and youth groups? Every congregation should be grateful to the faithful people who have volunteered to teach and serve the kids of the church. That is a godly and virtuous commitment and should be honored. However, there is a spiritual danger in these kinds of programs. Adamczyk and Smith found that when classes, like confirmation, Sunday School, or youth group, are treated like something from which you need to progress and graduate, then children are likely to “graduate” from the church as a whole. Similar to how once a student completes driver’s education and receives a license they don’t keep going back to driver’s ed, classes like these can implicitly teach kids and families that once they’ve completed them and received their basic spiritual skillset there’s really no more need for the church.

How is this danger avoided? Primarily through incorporating kids into the greater life of the church and stressing that the whole life of the church is for formation.

Sunday School and youth groups still have some uses. The first is what sociologists call “channeling”: parents who are committed to the faith of their kids use classes as channels to invest and build up the faith of their kids. To be clear then, the value of these classes is downstream of and effective because of parents who are already committed to their kids’ faith.

Second, as Charlotte Mason put it, Sunday School (or its equivalent) may be a necessary evil. Kids may not stay in worship or be incorporated into the greater life of the church and parents may not be teaching their kids. And we live in a matrilineal society; families may not come to churches without classes or youth groups, and sometimes these programs can be useful on-ramps, like missionary outposts. In this case the value of the classes is for the church to have an initial contact point in order to better direct families and kids to more effective routes for faith transmission.

For the church there are several principles that should be followed: First, fight to keep the cart and horse properly arranged. Parental guidance at home, kids present in worship, and the greater church as God’s surrogate family, not programs, are indispensable tools for passing along the faith. Programs are easy and expected in American evangelicalism, life and fussy kids are hard, and congregants and parents default to taking the easy and known way. Programs can become political and sacred cows, yet are unnecessary, ineffective on their own terms, and potentially counterproductive. If your church wants them to be helpful at all, it needs to prioritize these other areas. The church needs to keep its messaging about faith transmission on point and hold the programs as dispensable.

Second, get parents and seasoned, godly adults to lead in Sunday School, catechetical classes, and youth group. Regardless of content (and youth groups should give up gimmicks), having spiritually mature parents and adults forming relationships with youth is the most important contribution of these programs. Peer-to-peer friendships are good and fine, but passing down the faith happens best in a family context. Encourage gatherings to take place in homes around meals. The ministry framework for youth group should not be about teens having their own niche, but about greater incorporation into the family of the church.

Cameron Shaffer

Cameron Shaffer (PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is the Senior Pastor of Langhorne Presbyterian Church in Langhorne, Pennsylvania and serves on the Board of Directors for the World Reformed Fellowship.