A new study examines home discipling of Canadian children and sparks discussions about how churches support parents.
Katie Nofziger shifted in her row, keeping an eye on her two children, both under eight. That Sunday, the kids insisted on sitting smack dab in the middle of the sanctuary for the first part of the church service, before their children’s program started. Nofziger was on edge, worried their play would annoy those around them. Instead, people were delighted and commented on how seeing her kids in the service brought them joy.
“That meant a lot to me. It’s that community support and other people who know you and know your kids,” she says. “It’s all these small interactions that weave the fabric of our lives.”
For Nofziger and her husband, their Vancouver church has become an extended village since they don’t have family close by. While the kids are still quite young for formal mentorship, Nofziger sees these touchpoints with church members as creating a safe, formative place. “They interact with my kids and show them love – modelling what it means to be a loving Christian person,” she says.
How churches and homes work together to help children grow in faith is the focus of a major new research study called Parenting Faith: Faith Formation of Children in the Home by a partnership of 16 Canadian denominations and ministry organizations.
Most ways parents received help are one-way content delivery channels.
Besides faith formation, parents in the study used language like growing and developing faith and discipling to get at ideas around awakening an innate sense of God in children and cultivating that.
Across the diversity of the Christian community, people have different ideas about how parents and church communities take responsibility for the faith formation of children and how to effectively do it. Most parents in the study had a lot more to say about parental responsibility (they feel they’re doing a good job) than about how the local church might be helping them.
The study interviewed ministry experts and parents to help develop a survey, which was then taken by some 1,200 parents. It found shifts in the way Christians are parenting that reflect broader cultural changes. These included the privatization of family life, parent-curated content for kids, age segregation in communal activities, and an emphasis on self-discovery and personal choice.
The study examined whether kids were adopting common faith practices such as prayer and Scripture reading. Praying table grace, volunteering and listening to Christian music have the most uptake by children. Some practices that aren’t being successfully passed on to children include listening to podcasts or sermons, talking about their personal relationship with God, spontaneous prayer, journalling and devotional reading.
Rick Hiemstra, a researcher at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) who cowrote the Parenting Faith report, notes a theme among activities that are being passed along. Activities like listening to worship music or praying table grace are more passive and don’t require conversation. Meanwhile, self-reflective practices or habits that involve expressing faith aloud are not being passed from parents to children as successfully.
… treading that line between teaching them the way of God, but also not shoving it down their throats so that they resent it.
The study also looked at where parents received help in faith formation in the last year, and it is striking how most are one-way content delivery channels. Friends are parents’ top source for support (yes, a relational one) followed by podcasts, local church preaching, books and then social media.
Why is this distinction important? Without a relational component there is no accountability or mutual exchange. Content is individually curated based on what parents want and not necessarily on what others close to them think they need. When content gets uncomfortable or challenging, it’s all too easy for kids (and possibly also parents) to turn it off or change the channel.
Both role modelling and teaching
Nofziger is typical in being an avid podcast listener, but she is perhaps not typical in that she is considering starting a group at her church where parents can connect, receive teaching and work through common issues.
“Even to have a podcast and then people meet and talk about the podcast, something like that would be easy and fun,” she says. “It’s theoretical until you really put it into practice [and] you hear true stories from your friends.”
Theo and Gloria Fumana, parents of three teenagers, also use digital resources such as their church’s RightNow Media subscription. Although their church occasionally offers parenting courses, the Fumanas generally don’t attend because they are too busy.
The support they receive from their church is more organic and relational – like sending a pastor a text to ask for input or advice on a personal problem or societal issue. This contextual and proximate support is especially important for them as they navigate the Canadian culture in their city of Edmonton as well as their Congolese and Kenyan cultural heritages.
Both role modelling and teaching can help with faith formation, and it seems logical that both are needed. Teaching alone doesn’t initiate practice or integrate faith into action. Role modelling alone leaves out important context. For example, a child can see a parent praying, yet not know why they pray or how to develop their own prayer life.
Parenting Faith found parents think mainly in terms of role modelling, especially where they felt they were denied religious choice by their parents. “Role modelling as a formation method does not impose an interpretation on what is being observed, and this can be attractive for parents who want to give their children religious choice or who see persuasion as coercion,” the study reads.
The current popularity of offering religious choice reflects a generational shift in the way Christians parent today. The study found parents want greater explanation for the religious teachings they had to follow as children.
Greater explanation and choice
When it comes to sharing her faith with her kids, one of Nofziger’s main concerns is navigating how to do so without “brainwashing vibes.” She emphasizes wanting faith to be something her kids can explore and choose on their own.
“I went to a Christian high school, and [saw] very different directions for the kids where it was always their parents’ faith – they took a hard left [away from faith]. For others of us it was an integral part of our lives,” she says. “So one of my concerns is treading that line between teaching them the way of God, but also not shoving it down their throats so that they resent it.”
As a pastor’s son Theo Fumana felt a lot of pressure to behave a certain way because others were watching. “You don’t want to make a lot of mistakes that people will know,” he says.
In response to this upbringing, the Fumanas are raising their children with more freedom to ask questions and dialogue about faith.
Describing her husband’s childhood Gloria says, “It was compulsory to wake up every day at 5 a.m. for prayers, whether you like it or not. And he hated it. So he’s giving his kids a choice. ‘I’m not going to force you to accept my God. But this is the God that I serve and this is what He can do for you.’ “
According to the survey 41 per cent of parents want to give kids exposure to other religions. Seventy-three percent agreed with the statement, “I want my children to make their own religious choices without pressure from me.”
There’s much to be said for a more invitational, less strict approach to sharing the Christian faith. In fact there’s good evidence from Parenting Faith and other studies that passing along religion from generation to generation is most successful in home environments where children feel safe to ask questions and respond freely. Experts also say emotional connection is a key element to effective faith transmission.
Fear of pressuring
However, this fear of pressuring is rooted in the idea that each person can discover their true, authentic self apart from the communities they are situated in, and that any form of influence not directed by that authentic self is ingenuine and therefore bad.
“The parents we spoke to frequently used the language of exposure. They would expose their kids to Christianity, but they would encourage their kids to be exposed to other” religions, says Hiemstra. “Their role is not to recommend.”
Parents focused on what was offered to their children in terms of programming and teaching rather than what was available to them as parents.
Dan Pyke, who directs youth and family ministries at Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, says parents can be afraid to impose limits or have hard conversations lest they hinder someone’s discovery of who they are.
“Christians say things like, ‘Discover who God made you to be.’ And I think there’s good in all of that,” he says. “But sometimes we let the pendulum swing too far. We haven’t always asked the question, ‘Who has God made you to be in the context of the community He’s placed you in, and how do you contribute back to the life of the Church?’ “
Lindsay Callaway, an EFC researcher and coauthor of Parenting Faith, hopes one of the outcomes of the growing cultural emphasis on choice is that Christians will think more about what it means to form good choosers.
“We need to think more about the person who is choosing,” she says, “rather than thinking about the array of what they’re choosing from – forming virtuous choosers rather than our culture’s vision of the virtue of choice.”
What parents want from churches
When it comes to the role of the Church in faith formation, many parents look to their local churches to provide safe, positive environments through children’s or youth programs. These programs are valued for providing Christian socialization for kids and respite for parents.
Cheryl Walsh, executive director of Converge Canada, has seen many churches successfully lean into this need.
Churches will “put all of their programming on one night for kids, teens and adults, and then those in the community can come have a meal, leave their kids” in the care of a good program, she says. “I’ve seen that work really well for community engagement, to support parents in the community who are really busy and need a break. Families are returning to the church for other events outside those weekly programs.”
The study found parents focused on what was offered to their children in terms of programming and teaching rather than what was available to them as parents. More parents attended small groups or Bible studies compared to instructional courses or parent-oriented groups. Only 16 per cent of parents surveyed said they didn’t have access to trusted resources, suggesting a strong sense among parents that they don’t have a resource problem.
Walsh thinks the emphasis on choice revealed by the Parenting Faith study can help churches and ministries make resources parents will find more appealing.
“I don’t think it has to be a negative outcome of the study, but just a recognition that parents want their kids to have more choice, more information, an ability to determine for themselves,” she says. “And so it can be okay [for churches and program leaders] to update language to appeal to the parents a little bit differently.”
“Most parents are so busy that even if they had resources, they wouldn’t know how to fit them into their lives,” says Hiemstra. “One of the things we asked parents in the interviews was how they would know their parenting was successful. And I think this is revealing in terms of what parents are shooting at – most parents would describe that they want the kids to be well educated and successful.” These parents also want their kids to be Christian, but it can sometimes be tacked on as a nice afterthought.
Parents may be finding the resources they need in more relational, less formal education spaces. In the Fumanas’ case they express no desires or needs for further resources. Their participation at church and relationships with pastors create the support networks they need. They strongly encourage their kids to volunteer in areas like tech support and Sunday school, as well as being involved in youth group. Likely through this participation their kids have formed trusting relationships with church leaders whom they can turn to for support.
Fostering intergenerational relationships is a vital way churches can come alongside parents.
It may also be that due to rarely seeing parenting resources available in their local churches, parents have learned not to expect them. “Even if the church is running an Awana program, the parents still aren’t necessarily being resourced adequately,” Walsh says. “So there’s still some sort of disconnect in the mix. The church has at their disposal resources and education training opportunities, but it still isn’t transferring to parents.”
While church leaders see faith formation as a communal process, the study found parents are more likely to selectively engage and participate in church offerings based on the perceived needs of their self-sufficient nuclear family. They see themselves as responsible for sifting and discerning what resources and teachings were trustworthy rather than deferring to their church’s teaching. This could be one reason why resources aren’t always being transferred to parents.
Intergenerational world view discernment
Another challenge to faith development is the emphasis in many churches today on grouping people based on their age. This age segregation, which is enforced in school and can also happen naturally, often leaves little room for intergenerational community to contribute to faith development.
But Dan Pyke believes fostering intergenerational relationships is a vital way churches can come alongside parents in forming the faith of their children.
“It’s a whole church effort,” he says. “I don’t think there are any easy short-term solutions [to overcoming age segregation] other than maybe doing some small groups or something like that. But I think a long-term shift to more of an intergenerational ethos will help build these cross-generational relationships that we need, not just for parents, but for our kids, for our youth and our seniors.”
The study also highlights the challenge to faith development from our culture’s emphasis on self-actualization and choice – ideas often delivered powerfully through digital technology.
According to Lesli van Milligen, who directs congregational ministries for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Christians should be taught how to sift through the themes and messages conveyed in popular culture.
Because these messages can often be subtle and absorbed unconsciously, she says, churches need to be proactive in equipping congregation members for cultural engagement, rather than trying to undo any potential damage later on.
Pyke and van Milligen both emphasize the importance of teaching the pros and cons of cultural views and ideologies in church settings, whether small groups, Bible studies or from the pulpit.
Not handing out info, but practising together
While both parents and ministry leaders recognize the role of the other in the formation process, Parenting Faith reveals some disconnects between the ways each views that partnership.
It highlights the need for parents to be equipped and empowered as faith formers, and for youth and children’s ministries to listen better to parents’ needs. It suggests parents need a more robust understanding that their kids will sustain their faith better not just through peer group activities but also through wise church guidance and intergenerational relationships.
“It’s a slower growth,” says van Milligen. “It’s not just handing out the information, and then having them go and put it into practice. It’s actually sharing these practices together.”
Ministries and denominations will apply Parenting Faith data differently in their contexts. As one example, the Christian Reformed Church is planning to facilitate regional meetings with its parents and caregivers in Canada. Parents will be able to respond to the study findings, deepening church leaders’ understandings of what resonates with families’ experiences – and why – and what they need in response.
All those involved in the study want to help parents. Lindsay Callaway says, “We really want to help practitioners understand what families need by understanding what families are doing, and then meet them in their needs to give the gospel to the next generation.
“I’m excited to see what people do with Parenting Faith. It’s really just an open door. We’re saying, ‘Here’s what we have – be creative and respond.’”
Three takeaways from Parenting Faith
- Habit building key for integrated faith environment
Habits that mix modelling and teaching strengthen faith transmission. Experts say weaving habits into family calendars creates a rhythm of spiritual practices that integrate knowledge and action. Being too busy is a barrier to forming these habits – many parents noted that during the pandemic they had more time for faith routines as a family.
Churches can encourage realistic family faith habits at home and create habits children can participate in at church (events, liturgies such as communion, etc.).
- Deeper relationships improve faith formation
Faith formation is most effective in proximate, loving relationships over time. Kids are more likely to emulate the actions of their parents if they feel close to them. The study found parents lean on friend and peer networks for support and want good friend groups for their children. Parents did not often describe the Church as an extension of their immediate families, suggesting it’s not a place many of them find intergenerational support and close relationships.
Ministry experts advocate for faith formation help to be offered in relational, discipleship contexts facilitated by church communities. Churches can create environments for parents and children to find friends who intentionally walk alongside, and mentors who can guide and share wisdom.
- Gender differences in faith formation
The study found fathers tend toward episodic teaching activities for faith formation and mothers tend toward an organic, integrated approach. Women were more involved in the day-to-day faith formation of their children regardless of theological convictions about gender roles. Despite attempts to equal ratios of respondents, 61 per cent of interview respondents and 75 per cent of survey respondents were mothers – suggesting their greater involvement in faith formation.
Recognizing the marked differences by gender in teaching and role modelling approaches creates opportunities for families to consider how to empower and celebrate these different strengths. It can also prompt churches and ministries to consider whether their programs and the demographics they serve are benefitting from the discipleship styles of both men and women. –IR
Ilana Reimer is a writer, editor of Love Is Moving and a Cardus NextGEN Fellow. She lives in Ottawa. Listen to Karen Stiller’s interview on discipling children with Lesli van Milligen at FaithToday.ca/Podcast. Listen to Karen Stiller’s interview on family faith with Rick Hiemstra and Lindsay Callaway at TheEFC.ca/FaithTrends.
Download the full Parenting Faith study, a summary of key findings and more at ParentingFaith.ca.
Article Originally Published in Faith Today.