After reviewing what was said at their Baptisms, LCMS confirmands affirm their intention “to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it” (LSB p. 273). Nevertheless, confirmation is often the last time we see some of these young people in church. When they become adults, some children return, but many do not.
How do we keep young people in the church after they grow up and are on their own? This has become an urgent question, not only for congregations and denominations, but for parents who worry about their children’s spiritual lives.
Some research is confirming what many pastors have long observed: When both parents take their children to church and are active in teaching their children about the Christian faith, their children tend to hold onto that faith when they grow up.
Finnish scholars did a 10-year follow-up study on a set of young people who were confirmed — when they were 14 or 15 years old — in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, to find out what they said about their faith now.
“In roughly half of the young people studied, their faith remained fairly stable from the age of 15 to the age of 25,” reported one of the researchers. “However, one in three became more distant from faith, both according to their own assessment and a longitudinal analysis. One in seven felt they had become closer to God or that their faith had become stronger.”
Parental involvement makes the difference. “Children who receive a religious upbringing from both parents have stronger faith throughout adolescence and are less likely to move away from religion as they grow up,” according to a journalist’s account of the research. “In summation, the study’s authors concluded that children receiving religious instruction from both mom and dad are flat out different, from a religious perspective, than their peers.”
What about children who get religious input from just one parent? Overall, according to the study, they tend to be closer to the pattern of those who grow up without any parental involvement.
But the researchers hasten to cite the exceptions. “Young people who have not been given a religious upbringing at home aren’t necessarily destined to become distant or estranged from faith: other factors outside the home environment can contribute to the growth of their faith,” said researcher Kati Tervo-Niemelä.
The study found other important influences: grandparents, the personal context of their confirmation, education environments, and pastors and other parish workers. The research team concluded, “Overall, the findings strongly indicate that a young person’s faith isn’t born and doesn’t grow in a vacuum: it needs supporting experiences and people who give an example of what it is like to have faith. The influence of just one person can be course-altering.”
Of course, this is a study of Finland. It would be good to see similar research studying 14- to 25-year-old Americans. Finland, though culturally Lutheran, has become highly secularized. While Finland has significant outposts of strong Christian faith, churchgoing is no longer the norm.
So, despite all of the obstacles in a secularist society, a mother and a father can still effectively pass on their faith to their children. This research confirms what the Bible says: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).