3 Things I Learned: 'Helping Parents Pass on Their Faith'
By Kevin Johnson
What did you learn in 2021? This past year, there were many ways to participate in continuing education. Children’s ministry was no exception. This is the first of a series of articles that reflect on three big things that I learned while participating in virtual conferences and workshops this past year.
Three Big Things I Learned from…
Vibrant Faith's Master Class, Helping Parents Pass on Their Faith, facilitated by Dr. Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. Smith has done extensive research on parenting and church participation. In this class, he shared a recipe for success. He asserts that passing on religious faith and practice to children is like a recipe that requires the right amounts of different ingredients.
First, Smith’s research tells us that within a religious tradition, the single most important influence on the religious “outcomes” of children is the religious lives of their parents.
1. Only one kind of parent
According to Dr. Smith’s research, parents must exercise “authoritative" but not authoritarian, permissive, or unengaged parenting styles. An authoritative parent can maintain high expectations, standards, demands with consequences AND be a person who is warm, open, caring, responsive, and bonded.
Dr. Smith notes that this authoritative parenting style was only viewed in faith development in the home. In many cases, a child needs to have a parental relationship that sets high expectations and standards while still showing care and concern for the child. Faith development requires high expectations from both children and their parents, while demonstrating a significant response of the incorporation of faith into the family’s daily life.
An authoritative parent can maintain high expectations, standards, demands with consequences AND be a person who is warm, open, caring, responsive, and bonded.
Church leaders must help parents employ this authoritative style to understand and balance these vital standards with a caring response. Parents must differentiate between being too permissive, unengaged, or too demanding and learn the balance that will allow faith development in the household to grow.
Children ministry leaders can help parents and caregivers in the church by offering parenting discussion groups. By inviting parents and their children together to reflect and discuss parenting styles and the implementation of such styles will help the entire congregation shift to understanding this authoritative approach. Provide discussion and conversation for parents and children to nurture change and share the faith communities’ expectations of this new approach to family ministry.
2. Start Early
The best time to begin faith development is when the kids are babies and toddlers. It is usually impossible for most parents to begin working on the “ideal recipe” when their children are already teenagers—that is way too late. Parents need to get these crucial commitments, practices, and relationships in place way before the teenage years. There is no better time to begin than while children are still in the nursery.
This is significant for our church leaders—especially children’s ministry leaders. Nursery and children’s ministries should be prepared to have a faith development conversation with parents and caregivers. These areas could become the major entry points to the church for the entire family.
Nurseries and their leaders should be prepared and equipped to provide faith development with the children that they encounter. Reading Bible stories, singing classic children’s hymns, piping in the worship service to provide an audio background for the nursery are all excellent ways to nurture this time with young children.
Each family may have its own individual “on-ramp” of involvement in the life of the church. Dr. Smith points out that for significant family faith development to occur, the “on-ramp” should be found in the nursery. For many parents attending church, their immediate need is the use of a nursery. Parents will feel much more comfortable and welcomed to your church when they see their children respond to positive simple interactions with nursery caregivers as they plant the seedlings of faith development.
3. It’s personally important
Often, you will meet parents who bring their children to church because the faith for the child is more important than faith developed and modeled in the adult. Dr. Smith suggests that faith must first be important to the adult. Then, the importance of faith can be taught to and caught by the child.
Parents’ religious faith and practice are genuinely, personally important to them. Faith matters in their lives and within their identities. Parents and caregivers establish beliefs that they truly value and are consistent in the practice of their religious faith. In other words, parents must model their faith in their daily lives.
Children look for role models in every aspect of their young lives. They watch professional athletes and wear the same shoes, uniform number, or demonstrate the same mannerisms on the field or court as their heroes. Children admire those influencers in their lives such as teachers. They might mimic being a teacher while using their stuffed animals as their students. Church leaders should help parents and caregivers clarify and claim faith as personally important to them. When adults claim that their faith is important, children will then look to them as role models, just as they look to athletes and teachers in other areas of life.
Dr. Smith says that a “recipe” includes parents who live out their faith because it is important to them. Children “catch” what is important from seeing what is important to their caregivers. Modeling faith development for children is vital for growing children in the faith.
I wonder how church leaders can make faith development personal to the parents and caregivers in the church.
Perhaps a change in thinking within the church is needed that will allow a family’s faith to be practiced together. Offer family-oriented small groups rather than segregated men’s and women's Bible studies alongside childcare. That way, children will witness adults modeling their faith and making faith a personal priority. Parents can practice living their testimony in front of their children and other church families.
Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.