What does the most recent research show about how parents, teachers, youth pastors and concerned adults can pass on their faith to younger generations? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with Dr. Christian Smith about his latest book Handing Down the Faith (Oxford Press, 2021). They explore the power of parental relationships and also common reasons that prevent faith transmission.

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Smith is well known for his research focused on religion, adolescents and emerging adults, and social theory. Smith received his MA and PhD from Harvard University in 1990 and his BA from Gordon College in 1983.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.

Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: Today we have with us a return guest speaking about a new book he's written called, Handing Down The Faith. His name is Dr. Christian Smith, and he's a Professor of Sociology, at the University of Notre Dame. He's written more than 20 books, many on the topic we're discussing today, which is about passing on the faith to the next generation. Dr. Smith, we really appreciate you coming back. I've been a huge fan of your work, Soul Searching, Souls In Transition, As A Youth Worker, Your Insights, and As A Parent, have been so helpful. But for starters, tell us what makes this book, Handing Down The Faith, unique?

Christian Smith: Well, thanks for having me on. In the past, I've spent many years studying the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers and 20 year olds. But this book is focused on their parents instead. So we learned from the earlier studies in a way we hadn't fully appreciated. How very important parents are in forming their children, even their teenage children, even when the children and the parents don't realize that. So we went ahead and said, "Well, there's not a lot of study on religious parents." So we did a big study on religious parents. How they approach passing on faith to the children, their hopes, their assumptions, their feelings, their experiences. So this is focused on the parents, not the youth.

Scott Rae: Dr. Smith, teenagers, young adults, they have a lot of different influences in their lives that are very powerful. Their teachers, their church, their social media. How much do the spiritual lives and the impact the parents have on kids, compared to these other influences, which I think, generally culturally take to be really powerful influences that I know in a lot of cases, the parents feel like they just have no chance against some of these other sources of influence in their kids lives?

Christian Smith: Right. And the other influences really are powerful. But when you look at the specific question of, what influences the religious and spiritual outcome of young people's lives? From everything we looked at sociologically, the most important influence is their parents. At one level that's sort of common sense, should be obvious. At another level, implicit. And your question is, that's not obvious. A lot of parents feel like their kids aren't listening to them or beyond their control anymore.

Christian Smith: But really the long-term formation of children by parents, from very early on, all the way through, and even in the teenage years. Teenagers listen, or paying attention, or being shaped by their parents a lot more than any of them oftentimes realize. And that effect is much more powerful than anything else the church generally offers. Youth group, mission trips, sermon Sunday school, you name it. The parents is the really important thing. That's not to say that parents are determinative. It's this is not determinism, but in terms of probable influences, the parents are really the most important thing.

Sean McDowell: It surprised me on one level, but not another that you wrote that, "This has not changed really since the 70s. It's been consistent for at least about five decades." But one aspect I want you to comment on is, yes, the parents are the primary influence of the spiritual lives of students. How important is a warm affirming relationship with the parents and the kids in passing on that faith?

Christian Smith: Yeah. That's a great question. What we found is that it's not just that the parents practice their own religion and teach the right things. It's also very important that the parents have good relationships with their children. You could imagine the more parents try to shape their children in the faith, if they have a bad relationship that could end up being a push away. That could end up being a negative effect. So parents need to do the right things religiously, so to speak, but it really matters that parents have warm, close, open relationships where they can talk with kids. Where they don't have built up anger or unresolved problems. All of that creates static and noise and really gets in the way.

Scott Rae: Christian, one of the questions I suspect many of our listeners will have as parents is the question that, how do you know if you have passed on the faith to your children? How will you know if you've actually done that successfully? Because I think a lot of parents, they say, "We do the best we can. We pray hard and hope for the best." But what signs are worth looking for that help parents know that they have done this successfully?

Christian Smith: Well, sociologists obviously are not in a position to say, "Here's what a vibrant faith looks like. Here's what it should be." So we basically take what a faith tradition or what, even in a family parents would hope for their own children to look like. But the kind of things we look at are, do the kids still sort of embrace the faith of their parents' tradition. Is it part of their identity? Do they practice it? So for example, do they attend church? Do they read scripture or even if they don't, are they still wrestling with the role of faith? Is it important enough for them to wrestle with? What does this mean for me? Is this important to me? Am I making decisions in my life around this? And then it's consequences for the kind of relationships they form, who they want to marry, the kind of lifestyles they lead.

Christian Smith: So I think most parents out there who are religiously committed will have a sense for themselves. Ideally, what would they like to see their children to grow up, to look like? And of course that can change between age 17, and 23, and 28, and 35. Parents stay in touch with how their kids are doing, but I think religious traditions themselves Christianity would say, "Here's what a strong Christian looks like." And parents generally know enough about that to sort of hope what they hope the outcome of their own children will be.

Sean McDowell: Your book, Handing Down The Faith, again, focuses on the role of parents and passing on the faith. But does the data you revealed sociologically speaking indicate anything about the father having an equal or potentially even more significant impact? And again, I mean, statistically or sociologically in comparison to the mother.

Christian Smith: Yes. So first of all, parents are going to be on the whole. As a generalization, parents are going to be much more effective in passing down faith and practice to their children. If both parents, assuming there are two parents in the household, both parents are involved in this. When a mother and a father have sort of quote, unquote, a United front on this and the children know, "Hey, mom and dad are both this. They both care about this. They're both invested in this." That has a much more powerful impact on children than if it's just mom. And it typically would be just mom, if it was just one parent, which is to say the role of the father is really crucial. Mom, of course is crucial, but the cultural inheritance we have even from the Victorian era says that, "Mothers are in charge of hearth and home. Morality is kind of their specialization."

Christian Smith: So, if it's just a mother that's not too hard to say whatever. But if the father's involved that really sends a strong message, "Hey, this is important in our family. Both my parents care about this." And so I would say there's in some senses, an extra burden on fathers to kind of step up, decide sort of what kind of priority this is in their lives and live it and model it and be it for their children. So the short answer is, mothers are necessary, but fathers are also really important. Maybe even more important in some sense in all of this.

Scott Rae: Dr. Smith, what are some of the most significant reasons why kids do not embrace the faith of their parents? What are some of the factors that you've found to be highly influential when it doesn't work?

Christian Smith: Yeah. So we can divide this into the larger culture in society and then what happens in the family. And larger in culture society, as you said earlier, like there are a lot of forces that are not exactly supporting households that would like to be faithful Christians. So there's a lot pulling it away in the media, in social media and music, all sorts of influences. But focusing on families, I would say when parents have an unrealistic view of, "Well, hopefully my kid will turn out to be stronger than I am. I would like them to be a good Christian, but I kind of compromise myself." So when parents are not practicing or it's really not that important to them, their children are not going to turn out to be more religious or more committed on average. On occasion that'll happen but when parents don't talk.

Christian Smith: A huge factor is whether families talk about religious matters during the week, so that really makes a big difference. So if parents just sort of have their Sunday morning hour of religion or two hours, they go. And then when they're driving home, that's over. That's done. That's put away. What that tells the children is faith is compartmentalized. It's not part of our real lives. It's just something we do like a club on Sunday morning. It's another association we belong to. So when parents just don't talk about at this stuff, when it's not just part of a natural conversation of the family where children learn, "Oh yeah, I can think about my life and the world from a Christian perspective." That's a really big thing.

Christian Smith: It makes another big difference if parents are actually involved in the congregation. The difference between parents who just show up on for a worship service and that's it, period. Versus those parents who have other involvements, I don't know, Bible study or even potlucks. Children see, "Oh, my parents are part of this community." They want to be involved. And that helps to actually build a community. And so the children see, "Oh, I know people here. This is kind of a fun place to be." That makes another huge difference.

Sean McDowell: Christian, want to think it jumped out from your book. To me, that was interesting is how you talk about, kids influence the religious beliefs and practices of their parents. And that jumped out to me because I've written a book on Passing on the Faith, I've read all your stuff and so much data over the past couple decades. I had not given that a lot of thought. So what did you find about the spiritual practice of kids influencing the beliefs and the practices of their parents?

Christian Smith: Yeah. So it used to be in the old model, in social sciences that it was all top down. The parents are the teachers, are the modelers and the kids just absorb. But what's called the sociology of childhood, we realize, and again it makes sense, parents are going through life, learning themselves. And as they have children and the children grow up, they can be influenced a lot by their children. So for example, children can complexify the faith of their parents. If the parents had one experience as Christians say. But their children have other challenges, or other difficulties, or other questions. If they're able to talk about that and the parent is tuned in and realize that the parent's faith can be stretched, it can be complexified, it can be questioned sometimes. So, or if parents can get insights from their children that they haven't realized in their own life.

Christian Smith: If children ask interesting questions, or have ideas about how things go, or press the parents on why does it work this way, or what's that about. If children are really inquisitive, they can actually prompt parents to learn more themselves. To delve deeper into what they believe, and why they do, and do what they do. So, it's really a two way street, which is important because that opens up these conversations that are so important in terms of families creating context in which children learn how to think and live as Christians.

Scott Rae: Christian, I've got a scenario that I'd like you to comment on. A very close friend when their oldest child was getting ready to go to high school offered to, I think it was either read through one of Rick Warren's books or do some sort of Bible study together sort of as a precursor to getting into high school. And their son said to them, they said, "Dad, you're done. I've kind of heard it all from you. I need to figure this out for myself." And I say, overtly spurned any other direct efforts of the parent to provide any sort of direct spiritual input into their lives. To say the least, that was a bit deflating for my friend. But how would you encourage someone like that to respond to their son or daughter? And the child may not that directly, but may say it in more of a passive aggressive way. But essentially for the young adolescent that says, "Hey, I appreciate all you've tried to input into my life. Thank you. But I'm done with that."

Christian Smith: Yeah. That's a really interesting question. Yeah. I mean, for of all I have to say, I'm a sociologist. I'm not a pastoral advisor or anything like that. But from what I know, sociologically, what I would suggest are to is a perspective. It's not advice but perspective. And that the perspective is, A. Most people don't know all the truth about what's going on. So that son or daughter might say, "I'm done." But the fact is they're not done. Their parents are still going to influence them through high school and into their 20s. That's just the reality, for better or worse. B, I would say, it's probably a good idea to... Again, what I've tried to say is it's important to have positive, warm, respectful, interactive relationships with young people. So it might be a good idea to say, "Okay, if that's where you are right now, we won't do this book." But that doesn't mean, "Okay, we check out now, now we'll just go do whatever it's all over."

Christian Smith: The parents need to have faith and believe the sociological truth that they still do matter. So even if they back away from the, "Let's read this book together." They still can in a way that respects their children, and again, with teenagers you're constantly renegotiating sort of the type of relationship, the decision making and so on. But the parents shouldn't say, "Okay, we're done." They should think of new ways to encourage, to model, maybe take a break from a direct formation, but they're obviously going to say, "We as a family go to church together." They may ask questions. They may raise conversations. In other words, there are many, many, many ways that parents can proactively and intentionally try to be the right kind of influences with their children, even if what they propose like, "Let's read this book together." Isn't going to fly at the moment.

Christian Smith: The key is the parents are committed. The parents are proactive, intentional, do their best, leave the doors open, try to create relationships where things can develop in positive directions. And maybe a couple years down the line that same child will start asking questions. Will start complaining about something that'll create an opportunity for further discussion. I wouldn't say to just say, no. You're our child. You're in our household. We're doing this book come hell or high water. I wouldn't say that. But it would be naive for the parents to think, "Well, I guess that's it." Our child gets to decide when we're done. That doesn't work that way, in any sense.

Sean McDowell: Christian, I know you're familiar with the work by Verne Bengtson on Faith And Families. And he sites grandparents as having a very significant role in faith transmission. You also talk about that in your research. So what does your research show about handing down the faith and the role of grandparents?

Christian Smith: Yeah. Our research was really focused on parents, but that is not intended to exclude others. Either enough that a kinship at network or other close mature adults around the family. Grandparents can play, not necessarily, sometimes there are trouble for parents and families. But grandparents can play really important reinforcement roles. If the parents are doing good things, the parents can reinforce that. Or if the parents are not fully doing everything that you might think they should, grandparents can try carefully to step in and pick up some of the slack. And uncles and aunts can do the same thing, more older cousins can do the same thing. And even as I said, even other adults that are close to the family that aren't necessarily blood related, can intentionally proactively try to build relationships with and be good influences on children, whether parents are doing that or whether parents are absent.

Christian Smith: Again, I think in this discussion, it's really important to recall that a lot of families don't have both parents present. Some may be in jail. Some may be mentally ill. They may be divorced. There's all kinds of reasons why we don't have two biological parents in the same household. And so people have to deal with the realities that they're in. And a lot of that can't be controlled. So, in which case a single parent, functionally or actually a single parent can really use the help and input and support of other adults who are around if the parents are crucial. But in general, mature, responsible, role model relationship based adults can really matter, including grandparents.

Scott Rae: Christian. I know one of the things that culturally in the realm of ideas, that is a pretty significant headwind for parents that they face as they try to transmit their faith to their children. And that is the whole place of how culture regards truth and claims today, particularly religious ones. So can you give us a little insight on what your research shows about how in the broader culture we tend to approach the whole notion of religious truth claims. And how parents can, I guess, maybe inoculate their kids as best they can against some of these cultural trends?

Christian Smith: Yeah. As we all know, there's a lot of skepticism in the broader culture that any given truth claim could really be true. That capital-T Truth could it possibly exist. This is rooted sociologically in the fact that we live in a highly diverse world. Highly diverse society. It's multicultural. There's a lot of pluralism and we've all been trained not to step on each other's toes. Not to offend each other. That's kind of become a hyper imperative lately. And kids are even trained in school. Don't make trouble. Don't be disruptive. Don't challenge somebody else release badly about their personal beliefs. That all translates into, "Well, let's see. My church teaches this is the truth, or the scripture teaches this is the truth." And kids can be caught between those positions intentions.

Christian Smith: So at the same time, if you talk to young people, even the most seemingly relativistic teenager. If you really press them, it's very hard for them to say, "Nothing is true, or anything could be true, or it's total relativism." Especially morally you say, "Well, is slavery not a moral evil. There some cases where slavery's fine." Almost everyone will have to admit. Now there are certain things that are true. We're not very good as a society helping people sort of to reason through, well, what are the implicate of that? Why would something be true? But anyway, to bring this all back home to your question, I think a good starting point is maybe not a presuppositionalism about the scriptures or something.

Christian Smith: But to start off saying, "Look, what are the implications of the claim that nothing is really true." It's all relative. It just doesn't work. It's crazy. We couldn't have lives. We couldn't have society. We all do believe some things are true, even if they can't be quote, unquote proven. And so to help... I don't know if parents have this kind of sophistication, but to help children think through to realize, I really do believe some things are true.

Christian Smith: Okay. Why are they true? What does that mean? And what other things might be true? And therefore, how do we discern between truths and falsehoods between beliefs that make sense in beliefs that are questionable. So, I think there's a grounding and reality of this. And at least keep on children's radar screens this idea. The idea of total relativism is impossible basically. And so what makes for a believable truth? What makes for credible truth and are religious claims or are spiritual claims? What makes them uniquely susceptible to being doubted? There's a lot in the culture that does this. It says, "If science says something although science is becoming under attack more, but science says something, we believe that. But if religion says something that's dubious." Those kind of distinct don't really make sense at an intellectual level philosophically.

Christian Smith: But so I think the more parents can really press the idea. No, all of us believe in truth in some rock, bottom truths. What about that? That's important. All that said, I would say the skepticism of about truth is really a challenge in the culture. But in the end, I don't think young people are kept in the church, are brought to the church through philosophical arguments. It's through relationships. It's through them seeing ways of lives that are compelling. It's them seeing communities of faith that they say, "Hey, I want to be part of that." Even if they can't work out all the philosophical implications, that's what really matters. And that's why parents being and doing a faithful Christian lives is what really makes a big difference.

Scott Rae: That's re that's really insightful. And I think especially the starting place where you enter the conversation about what are the implications of the fact that you claim that everything is relative morally, for example. Because I know we've shared a lot of experience with adolescence and college students who I think have adopted some of the mainstream cultural notion that, why can't we make up our own moral rules for ourselves. And what's wrong with me having my own moral rules that I own and that I follow myself. And then pointing out that kind of moral relativism actually leads to chaos and that actually [crosstalk 00:23:46].

Christian Smith: Yeah. Do they really want to live in a world where anybody and everybody can make up whatever they want, but probably not.

Scott Rae: I was speaking at a group of high school students and was challenged on that particular question. It turned out it was a young, probably high school senior sitting in the front. Well, she had a brand new sparkly iPhone sitting on her desk. And I sort of just, as she was making her point, I casually walked by and picked up her iPhone and put it in my pocket. And she didn't know quite what to say, but was polite enough to wait till the end of the session to ask for her iPhone back. And I said, "No, you can't have it back because in my moral rules say people who are older and wiser are entitled to the stuff of people who are younger and more experienced." And she immediately blurted out, "Well, that's not fair."

Christian Smith: Of course.

Scott Rae: And I Said, "So you really do believe that there are moral absolutes." Regardless of how you want to make up your own moral rules for yourself, I don't recommend doing that out with your own kids. But it was, I think, just a really clear example of how that spells out your point. That nobody really can live with this in a world. And nobody really wants to live in a world where there is no such thing as truth, and everything's relative.

Christian Smith: Yeah. I would say there's some crucial distinctions that are lost on most people, maybe, especially teenagers. For example, most of us would say, even if we're not moral relatives, we would say it is important for people to sort through what they believe and to have good reasons for their commitments and to personally embrace their moral worldview. I got it. We would agree with that.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Christian Smith: But that doesn't mean that anybody can make up anything they want, right? So if, I would say, there's something truthful in what teenagers are trying to express. Which is, don't just impose something inauthentic from outside of me. I need to work this through and really believe it for myself. There's truth in that. That's totally different though from anybody make up whatever moral truths they want. And that distinction it's easy for that to get mixed up in the kind of mess of our culture and our inability to think through things carefully. So, in some sense, the other thing I would say again even though I don't think people are going to be argued philosophically into Christianity. The other thing I would say is, if we think more clearly, it's not that Christianity is anti-intellectual. So, if we think more clearly, if we're less sort of dense about how we reason through things, we'll actually come out in a way that makes sort of traditional approaches to things. Make more sense.

Sean McDowell: Christian. One of the questions that I have for you is this distinction you make, that's so helpful between a community solidarity project and personal identity accessory in terms of how people approach religion today. So from a community solidarity project to a personal identity accessory, what is that distinction?

Christian Smith: Yeah. So I came up with this interpretation. It's an historical interpretation and it's more than speculation, but it's not super supported by a data exactly. I started off with the question, why is all the burden on the shoulders of parents? How is it that youth group doesn't matter, congregations hardly matter if relative to parents, or the parents have got to be reinforcing that. And I thought it hasn't always been this way. In the early 20th century, community settings were more important. Catholic, inner city, urban working class communities around the parish were much more important. It didn't all fall to parents, shoulders that have to take care of these things. So my idea is over the course of the 20th century, because of a whole lot of complex technological economic change, social change, the nature of religion has been defined more and more as an individualistic thing, not a community thing.

Christian Smith: So, a parish or a church congregation would not be the main setting where young people would be formed, whereas earlier I think it would've been. And so increasingly our culture, I think, and religions themselves, even churches, themselves participate in this sort of redefinition of Christian faith, or religious faith as a personal identity accessory. It's me as an individual will choose this or not. It's another little piece of my life that I can plug in and out. It's an accessory. It's not the center of my life. It's something I might add. Like you might add an accessory to your car. And so a church becomes in effect and like another version of a religious or spiritual version of the tennis club or the YMCA or the sports league. It's something you may or may not plug into and out of.

Christian Smith: That's a transformation of what religion is, of what faith and practice are. And I think if that's true, that helps to explain why so much of the burden now falls on parents instead of the community. A community of a people together living a certain way. It doesn't feel that way to me anymore. It feels much more like drive in church, so to speak drop. Plug in, plug out. And it's much more individualistic. And again that's why parents have become relatively, I think compared to the past, so much more important.

Scott Rae: Christian. I know with this question, I'm asking you to be more of a pastor than a sociologist. But I'm going to go ahead and ask it anyway and see what you're research has found for this. As you're aware, sometimes the process by which students, young adults own their faith for themselves. That process is not always pretty. And there are sometimes some pretty significant bumps in the road that parents oftentimes tend to freak out when it doesn't look like children are in a trajectory toward owning their faith for themselves, when in reality, they may be going through part of a process real that's really necessary for them to do that. How should we encourage parents to sort of hang in there when the process looks like it has some pretty significant bumps in the road?

Christian Smith: Yeah. Yeah. It certainly can work that way. And let me say, as a preface to my attempted answer that by putting so much focus on parents, my goal was not to make them feel guilty. Because a lot of children don't turn out the way their parents would like them to.

Scott Rae: Sure.

Christian Smith: The purpose here is to empower parents. If anything is to give them a sense of, "Oh, we still matter. We're not being pushed aside." So a lot of parents can beat themselves up if their kids don't believe or aren't practicing Christian faith, that's not the goal here. And of course we know in any given family, parents can consistently be one thing and child one, turns out one way, child two turns out a totally different way and child three is doing something else again. So again, this is not deterministic.

Christian Smith: This is a probabilities and general tendencies. Okay. So with that said, I mean, I think it goes back to a general, what you might think of as a Christian view. Which is parents have a big responsibility, but they're not God. They're not in charge of everything. They can't control the world. They certainly can't control their children. All they can do is be faithful in their own lives, practice as authentic as they can for themselves. It's not just raising children. It's parents have their own lives to live too, right? So, and in the end just have to, using theological language here, essentially just have to trust God for the outcome and not to beat themselves up as if they failed at something that was really all in shoulders. But at the same time, take responsibility while they still have a chance to do this.

Christian Smith: So in some sense, I think it's really just a matter of... Yeah, none of us when we have babies are like, "I know what's going to happen." I mean, having a baby is in some sense a wonderful, but also a terrifying thing. It's like anything could happen. So I think sticking with that realization throughout into your kids, whatever age and simply doing one's best, so to speak, and having faith that the parents do what they do, but it's in larger hands than that. What the final outcome would be. Yeah, the other thing I would say is a as a general context for... It's very easy for all the sociological language to turn Christianity into a language of performance and perfection. Like, "Okay, all your parents, now you have to be perfect. Here's the recipe. You have to do all this great stuff. And if you don't, you're a failure."

Christian Smith: That's not Christianity to begin with, right? So let's back up and put this in context. I think for parents, the word I would give is much more important. Not that parents be perfect, but that parents be authentic. That they be real with their children. That they're not pretending something in their own faith or performing something for their children as Christian. And I think in the end, authenticity is what comes out to children. Children are not stupid. They see what's going on and even authentically relating to their own children in conversations and being honest about parents own struggles. Parents aren't perfect. Parents have problems. They have their own bumps.

Christian Smith: So yeah, it's hard to be a good parent. But I think it's important to keep all this, to use theological language. Again, it's important to keep all this in the context of grace and sort of divine sovereignty, you might say. Whatever you think about that theologically, that it doesn't all fall on parents. And it's not all about being perfect and being great and good. There's something larger than that coming on.

Scott Rae: You're a better pastor than you give yourself credit for.

Christian Smith: Well.

Sean McDowell: Dr. Smith, your research is empowering. It's empowering that parents can make a difference. They don't have to be perfect. But you give some practical things at the end of some simple steps, building relationships, having conversations, passing on faith that I just find super, super valuable. So thanks for continuing to do research on the next generation and giving us some insightful and practical tools. And thanks for coming back on the podcast.

Christian Smith: No, you're very welcome. It's fun talking. Hope it's useful.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot school of theology at Biola university. Offering programs in Southern California and online, including the Institute for spiritual formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rated on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, Think Biblically about everything.