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Children's future in church depends on parents nowcomment (0)

January 4, 2001

The best way for parents to ensure their children will attend church once they leave home is to make a practice of attending church as a family while the kids live at home.

That’s the conclusion of a yearlong study by Carol Lytch, coordinator of Lilly Endowment programs for strengthening congregational leadership at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. She presented her findings during the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Houston this fall.

“Families who cultivate the collective understanding that ‘our family attends church’ tend to produce teens who believe they should be there,” she said.

Over a year’s time, Lytch followed the lives of 41 high school seniors in Louisville, Ky. The teens were at least loosely affiliated with Catholic, evangelical Protestant or mainline Protestant churches. She interviewed both the teens and their parents, and she attended school and church functions to observe their lives.

Issues of race, class and social status were dismissed, with the study focusing strictly on how faith values are transmitted to teens in a particular sample. The sample was almost all white, middle class and suburban.

The focal question she asked the high school seniors was, “Do you intend to be active in the church after you leave home?”

While admittedly a premature indicator of what the young adults actually will do after high school, this question provides a window into the motivation they carry, Lytch said. And it is a question she cross-tabulated with responses from teens and parents alike to create a picture of what factors most influence teens toward a lifestyle of church attendance.

Teen responses about future church attendance fell into three broad categories, which she labeled “loyalty,” “provisional loyalty“ and “unlikely loyalty.”

Lytch found the No. 1 factor influencing older teens’ commitment to church attendance is the personal behavior of their parents. This is true for church attendance while living at home and predicted church attendance after leaving home.

Regarding current church attendance, nearly 93 percent of the teens she studied equaled the pattern of church attendance lived out by one or both parents. “If parental frequencies differed, in all cases the teen equaled the pattern of the less-frequently attending parent,” she noted.

Likewise, “if parents living in the teens’ household both attended church weekly, teens tended to predict they would be active in the church after they left home. If just one of the parents attended less than weekly, teen religious loyalty plummeted.”

Parenting style also plays a predictable role in this finding, she reported. Teens from families with the most permissive parenting styles were less likely to attend church regularly as teenagers and said they would be unlikely to attend church regularly once they left home.

Teen commitment to church attendance was shaped more positively by every other style of parenting.

More than half the families in Lytch’s study maintained a rule that “in our family, we attend church.” Among these families, all but one teen predicted they would attend church after they left home.

In contrast, only two teens from homes where one or both parents did not attend church regularly were in the habit of attending church regularly themselves now.

“Teens, in and of themselves, cannot be expected to have the inner strength to keep participating in church on their own unless their parents urge them to do so,” Lytch said.

“After young teens are confirmed and/or baptized and become active members of the church, they still are not mature enough to be committed to their community of faith,” she added.

“If they are going to continue in their religious tradition in the late teen years, they benefit from the help of their parents or other adults who are close to them,” Lytch continued. “The religious individualist stance that emphasizes choice actually hinders the teens’ choice for religious participation unless the adults in the family have exercised their choice in favor of regular church participation.”

Further, teens living in families where church attendance is required told Lytch this rule is a supportive push rather than a dreaded requirement.

The bottom line, Lytch said, is that the transmission of faith values is primarily influenced by parental role modeling, mixed with lesser influences from other variables.

“When the link between home and church is strong, when teens assess their relationship with the parents as warm, and when there is a parent/teen social network in place, there is a higher level of religious loyalty exhibited by the teen,” Lytch said. (ABP)

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