As a pastor’s kid, I’ve often encountered people who are surprised that I still identify as Christian.

“Aren’t pastor’s kids usually the most rebellious of them all?” seems to be the typical — or stereotypical — commonsense understanding of the character and inclination of the children of clergy.

Now there’s evidence that this assessment is exactly wrong.

Professor Vern L. Bengtson, who grew up in a highly religious family and attended an undergraduate institution sponsored by his denomination — the Evangelical Covenant Church — began wondering why “some young people adopt their families’ views, while others, especially in the ‘60s, strike out on their own?”

"Mi primera comunión." [My first communion.] Caracas, Venezuela, 1963. Photo courtesy A. Davey via Flickr Creative Commons.

“Mi primera comunión.” [My first communion.] Caracas, Venezuela, 1963. Photo courtesy A. Davey via Flickr Creative Commons.

His research project — the results of which have recently been published in Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations — involved interviewing members of 350 families from 1969 to 2008. In it Bengston examines the ways in which family dynamics shapes the religious practice of family members.

Bengtson, who is himself the son of a minister, left faith entirely during graduate school, but “by golly, I had this religious experience when I was about 67 years old,” he told Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times. At 72, he is once again attending church.

“Don’t give up on the Prodigals,” says Bengston. “Many do return.”

The “major conclusion” of Bengston’s research? Staying close to your kids matters. You can be as pious as you want, impart all the “correct” doctrines, and keep the codes of best religious practice with absolute scrupulousness, but without “warmth and affirmation,” Bengston says, kids are less likely to follow their parents in their faith.

It’s not a list of beliefs or practices that parents pass on. It’s an orientation; a relationship, and something, Bengston suspects, that can’t be accurately measured by what he now calls the “trivial” questions he asked in his research.

Recently blogger and author Rachel Held Evans wrote about some of the pain that she has endured after having been essentially cast out of Christian communities with which she once identified strongly. This ‘exile’ is one that resonates deeply with me — a subject for a future post — but in light of Bengtson’s research, it seems to raise an important question:

Are we willing to trust our children to God as we understand God? Are we willing to impart our values and o faith to them without force-feeding them? Are we willing to accept that even if we raise our kids in the faith,  “when [they are] old [they] will not depart from it” is not the ironclad guarantee we would like it to be?

Because if Bengtson’s research — nearly four decades of it! — has anything to say to parents of faith, I think it is this: we should not try to pass on a “checklist of beliefs.” We should try to model authenticity (in other words, to “practice what we preach.”) And above all, the research suggest, we should try to hold our kids close.

The greatest of these, it turns out, is not perfect doctrine, but love.

5 Comments

  1. What you call “dogma”, ALWAYS matters.

    But it’s not a mutually exclusive either-or situation (that is, either dogma or warm-affirming-encouraging-relationship.)

    Instead it’s a both-and situation. Did Jesus water down any of His teachings for anybody? Nope. Did Jesus water down the Scriptures to make people happy? Nope. But did Jesus successfully maintain warm-affirming relationships all the same? Yes.

    That’s the example. It’s a both-and example. It’s ours to follow, with His grace, His power, His provision to help us out.

    • I agree that dogma matters, but I would not equate them. The point of this research is not that dogma doesn’t matter. It is that relationship matters as we teach dogma.

      I have a some friends that want you to know the right answers. But just like I Cor 13, if you have the right dogma (or right answers) but can’t be loving in the way you relate, then that lack of love actually causes people to reject the dogma because of the improper means of communicating it.

      It is not either/or, but it can’t ever be dogma then love.

  2. “Are we willing to impart our values and o faith to them without force-feeding them? Are we willing to accept that even if we raise our kids in the faith, “when [they are] old [they] will not depart from it” is not the ironclad guarantee we would like it to be?”

    Why assume that parents want their kids to retain the imparted faith? I, for example, care not for the faith or lack thereof that my child has. If my child, using his brain and heart which has been given to him, to the fullest potential, has faith that does not mirror or even resemble mine, then I will be happy. Yet if his faith is mine only because the faith is mine, then he has been reduced to a kind of robot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.