Evangelical Culture Gets Christian Parenting Wrong

The data is in: it takes Christians to raise Christians.

In the new issue of First Things, sociologist Christian Smith has written a compelling summary of his research into transmission of religious beliefs from parents to children. I’d highly recommend it to all but especially to readers with young children. What makes Smith’s points especially worth taking seriously is that they are distillations of data, not merely opinion. Smith is describing what families who transmit religion actually do, not only proposing what they should do.

As a parent of two children under five, I read Smith’s piece with great appreciation. Its content did not surprise me, but the more I reflected on his findings, the more I realized how significantly out of step much of evangelicalism is with these points. It’s not hard to convince Christian parents that their role matters, and certainly religious families will automatically gravitate toward some of what Smith writes about more than irreligious families. But Smith’s research indicates some serious discontinuity between popular Christian parenting and data on religious transmission: a discontinuity that I have seen confirmed again and again in my evangelical church culture.

The first and perhaps most important thing Smith’s research indicates is that parents are overwhelmingly the decisive factor in children’s spiritual formation. Smith writes, “The good news is that, among all possible influences, parents exert far and away the greatest influence on their children’s religious outcomes. Stated differently, the bad news is that nearly all human responsibility for the religious trajectories of children’s lives falls on their parents’ shoulders.” Smith writes that, while parenting methods and styles may differ—what “works” in one family or with one child may not “work” for others—parental influence is the unmovable foundation.

Everything Smith goes on to note in his piece is downstream from the irreplaceable role of parents in shaping children spiritually. Children who retain religious belief as they get older, according to Smith, are close to their parents, disciplined by their parents, talked to by their parents, and supported by their parents. Other relationships and experiences matter, of course, but nothing and no one even comes close to approximating the consequence of parental relationship.

This is not controversial within evangelical culture—in theory. In practice, however, there is a significant current of parenting-by-proxy. Many Christian parents functionally act as facilitators for their children to encounter positive influences or religious teaching. There’s a place for this, as Smith notes in his section on “channeling,” but too many times I have seen evangelical parents whose own personal lives are spiritually apathetic. The want their children to be Christian, but they lack a personal sense of devotion, so they facilitate Christian experiences for the kids without cultivating a consciously Christian relationship with them.

Youth ministry is without a doubt the single biggest monument to this dynamic that I know of. This topic can get touchy really fast, partly because there are legitimate differences of perspective about the responsibility that local churches have to disciple individual members of family units. But without even coming close to stepping into those waters, it’s been inarguably true in my experience that youth ministries function as facilitations of Christian experience in lieu of personal, spiritually dynamic relationships between parents and teens.

Another facilitator is Christian schooling. It might be surprising to hear that there are families that pay premium prices for their kids get to attend private Christian schools but who basically punt on any kind of spiritual formation inside the home. What’s even more surprising is that this happens with homeschooling families as well. And this brings to me an important point: evangelical urgency to pull children from public schools does not by itself show awareness of where Christian spiritual formation comes from. Many parents who passionately insist that they do not want “the secular state” shaping their children vastly overestimate the formative power of public schools even as they underestimate the formative power of family devotions, intentional 1-on-1 spiritual conversation, and attending church regularly as a family.

Again: Smith’s most important insight is that children are shaped by their parents and by the rituals of their home more than any other human institution or habit. It is a failure of evangelical imagination to hear this point, to agree with it, and then to interpret it largely as a negative or prohibitive mandate. Parental influence does not foremost mean that children must be kept away from certain places, people, or pop culture artifacts (though this is true in some cases!). Parental influence is first and foremost a positive mandate, a call for proactive, self-sacrificial relationship, intentionality, and personal spiritual discipline.

A while back ago I argued that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind is a book about parenting before it’s a book about politics. Cancel culture mobs, “trigger warnings,” us vs. them polarization: these are problems expressed politically but are created parentally. The decrepit state of the American public square is a showcase for people who were parented poorly or not at all.

But what’s worse is that this criticism too often sticks when discussing the decrepit state of Christian public witness. Nothing is easier than getting an endorsement for a conservative evangelical parenting book that argues for spanking, homeschooling, and watchful monitoring of movies and music. What’s much harder is getting people to applaud when you ask why so many pastors and church leaders with young children spend half the year or more traveling away from their family. If you want to shame Christian parents for not putting their kids through a worldview academy, you can be very successful at that. You probably won’t be as successful if you suggest that a weekly daddy date is infinitely better than handing a teenager a book.

Yet, in many churches and theological cultures, we are staring down the consequences for getting this wrong so often. Idolizing politics is easier when you’ve seen Mom and Dad do it for 18+ years. Deconstructing your faith is easier when the parents who sent you to VBS and Bible drills treated customer service workers and racial minorities like the Pharisees treated Jesus. No wants to believe in something that wasn’t even real to the first people they ever knew who claimed to believe it, and the people who will themselves to believe it often do so not out of a conviction of eternal truth, but of hereditary or sociopolitical solidarity.

It takes Christians to raise Christians. Making peace with performative piety or with sub-Christian cultures and practices can appear to be worth it for short-term political gain, but the cost is literally human. If Christian Smith is right, then what children need far more than a religious legislature is a religious home.

But that won’t sell as many books.