I’ve previously posted that one of the books that I’ve been reading lately is Cultural Captives: The Beliefs and Behaviour of American Young Adults by Stephen Cable of Probe Ministries. The book is “a sobering look at the challenges facing evangelical leaders” and is an in-depth examination of multiple surveys on the attitudes, actions, and views of the next generation.
Another section of the book that jumped out to me was a section entitled The Impact of Parents on Spiritual Beliefs in the chapter The Primary Sources of Belief (emphasis mine):
Suzie strongly believed that sex outside of marriage was wrong before God. It had a detrimental effect on the individuals caught up in it and on society which promoted it. However, she felt that many of her friends did not view it in the same way she did. To get along, she never said much about it. What she did not realize was that her children were watching what she said. Even though she had told them she hoped they would remain pure until marriage, they did not hear her standing up for sexual purity among her friends. Without thinking about it, her children relegated sexual purity to a nice ideal but not an important belief for their lives. Suzie was instrumental in establishing their thinking on this topic. Their thinking lined up with what Suzie demonstrated was important even though it did not really line up with what she truly believed.
To what extent have parents’ played a role in shaping the spiritual views of young adults? Is the culture swamping the voice of reason expressed by their parents? Or, are their parents communicating the same mixed up beliefs as professed by their young adult children?
In 2010, we commissioned a survey to help us examine the causes in identifying potential opportunities to change the marked shift in the thinking of young adults away from a consistent biblical worldview. We surveyed over 800 born-again, young adults across America to get an understanding for what they thought about spiritual and cultural issues AND how they felt about their beliefs and actions. One area of questioning was “When you think about how you developed the religious beliefs you hold today, who do you feel had the greatest influence on you?” Did your beliefs come from your family, your friends, your church, your independent studies, your college professors, or others?
The answers we received to this question were not shocking but still sobering…Over 65% of the respondants reported that the source that had the greatest influence on their religious beliefs was a family member. With the vast majority of those saying it was parents or grandparents. Over 20% of the respondants pointed to another influential individual such as a pastor, youth leader, or college professor. Only about 11% stated that something less personal such as a youth group or the Bible was the greatest influencer of their religious beliefs. In the chart, Direct Influence refers to things such as “they taught me what to believe” or “they read the Bible to me”. Indirect Influence includes less direct methods such as “encouraged me”, “took me to church” or “showed me love”.
At this point, there is a chart in the book that I will do my best to explain. It breaks down into the 3 categories mentioned above: Childhood Family, Others, Impersonal.
65% of the respondents reported that the source that had the greatest influence on their religious beliefs was a family member. That breaks down into 50% of the respondents reporting a Direct Influence (such as “they taught me what to believe” or “they read the Bible to me”), and 15% reporting an Indirect Influence (such as “encouraged me”, “took me to church” or “showed me love”).
Of the 20% of the respondents that pointed to another influential individual such as a pastor, youth leader, or college professor, it looks like about 15% of the respondents reported a Direct Influence (such as “they taught me what to believe” or “they read the Bible to me”), and about 5% of the respondents reported an Indirect Influence (such as “encouraged me”, “took me to church” or “showed me love”).
Finally, of the around 11% of the respondents that pointed to something less personal such as a youth group or the Bible was the greatest influencer of their religious beliefs, it looks like only about 2-3% of the respondents reported a Direct Influence (such as “they taught me what to believe” or “they read the Bible to me”), with the remaining 8-9% of the respondents reporting an Indirect Influence (such as “encouraged me”, “took me to church” or “showed me love”).
The book continues:
As Christian Smith noted, “what the best empirical evidence shows…is that…when it comes to religion, parents are in fact hugely important.” In fact, “religious commitments, practices, and investments made during childhood and the teenage years, by parents and others in families and religious communities, matter – they make a difference.”
Of those who states that a family member was the primary influencer, over 7 out of 10 stated it was their mother/grandmother while less than 3 out of 10 said it was their father/grandfather. Amongst born-again young adults, the female side of the family has a greater influence in passing down religious beliefs than do the males. One can postulate this may be due to a combination of greater spiritual involvement on the female side of the family and a higher level of communication with their children. However, the rate of fatherly influence almost doubles for young adults with a biblical worldview compared to those without it. So it appears that fathers who hold a biblical worldview are much more likely to be involved in establishing the spiritual beliefs of their children. Perhaps, when a mother and father are both communicating a biblical worldview perspective, it heightens the transmission of that perspective to their children. When mother and father are communicating different perspectives, it must increase uncertainty in the minds of their children.
Less than 1 out of 10 of the respondents listed a pastor as the primary source of influence and only 3% listed a youth group. These church related functions may have an important role in helping to shape your religious beliefs, but our survey shows that it is at best a secondary role for the vast majority of people. We are mistaken if we are relying on the church to pass on the right type of beliefs to our children. Parents, what you communicate through your lives is picked up by your children. What are you communicating to them concerning religious beliefs?
I think a common scenario is as follows. When a pastor instructs them on how a Christian should view the world and make decisions that reflect Christ, it is only natural that they should look somewhere to see how this instruction is actually lived out. Perhaps they look to their parents to see if their lives are actualizing the pastor’s message or not. If not, it is not important for them to worry about trying to actualize it in their own lives. If parents appear to be ignoring the pastor’s message, either overly or through a lack of emphasis in communicating with their children, it would be very unusual for the child to actively and consistently apply the pastor’s instruction to their life. Conversely, if as seen by their child, the parent’s lives are attempting to directly apply the truths of the message, the child is very likely to see the need to apply it in their own life.