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Maturing in Faith

About this article

Leif Kehrwald offers suggestions on how parents can contribute to their child's faith formation and how can parents empower religious choice as teens approach young adulthood. Drawing on research and input from teens, this article gives some excellent strategies to share with parents.

Have you ever heard a parent say something like,"People should decide for themselves how to express their faith and what church to belong to. So we don't make our kids go to Mass on Sunday. When they get old enough, they can decide for themselves." If you haven't heard a parent say it, you've probably known some students who wished their parents would say it!

As a Catholic educator, you no doubt realize that while choice is important for growth and maturity, this logic is faulty. If we let children and youth wait to make their own choice, we actually prevent them from choosing. If parents don't nurture their children in faith, when their children reach an age to make a mature choice, religion will be the furthest thing from their heart and mind. It won't even occur to them to choose.

In responding to that hands-off parent, or to free-choice students, we might compare religion with other key parenting concerns. If there are no consequences for failing to do homework or household chores, can we fairly expect children and teens to develop a sense of responsibility on their own? If parents never talk about healthy eating and basic grooming, can we assume young people will decide to do those things when they are older? Similarly, if parents never talk about faith and religious practice, providing some faith formation for their children, then those children will arrive at the doorstep of adulthood with no foundation to choose any genuine faith expression.

So the question becomes, How do parents contribute to this important faith formation? How can parents empower religious choice in youth as they approach young adulthood? Some recent research can help.

What the Research Shows

Through a Search Institute study, over nine hundred adults and nearly the same number of teens were asked to rank the key factors that led to their faith maturity and to their choice to be active in their church. From a list of factors such as parents and family, pastor, youth group, religious education classes, friends, Sunday worship, and sermons, the top choice by far was parents and family. It is perhaps no surprise that the family is the most powerful evangelizer.

The researchers then conducted in-depth interviews with a select sample of these teens and adults. From these interviews, they pinpointed three family activities that above all else seem to empower faith maturity in young people. Can you guess what they are?

  • Family faith conversations. Hearing about their parents' faith journeys is one of the most important influences on the faith of children and teenagers.
  • Family ritual and devotion. People who regularly have family devotions, prayer, or Bible reading at home tend to have higher faith maturity.
  • Family service projects. There is no more powerful influence on faith and family unity than working together to help others.

When families engage in these faith-maturing activities, they are providing key experiences for their children's faith formation. These home-based activities won't guarantee faith formation of youth. Nothing will. Yet, in partnership with their parish and school, parents can use them to provide the best foundation for a lifelong journey of faith.

Implications for Teachers and Youth Workers

How can the Catholic high school empower families to engage in these three activities? Just think how vibrant your program or classroom would be if all the families of teens in your community regularly engaged in these practices! Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling. Let's start from the third activity and move up.

School-sponsored family outreach and service. We want to create service opportunities that are focused on the family instead of on individuals or just groups of kids. In their book Parenting for Peace and Justice (Orbis Books, 1981), Jim and Kathy McGinnis offer the following helpful advice:

  • Be invitational. Regularly invite young people and their families into works of justice and mercy. Avoid the guilt trip, but always have opportunities available.
  • Expose youth and their families to justice issues. Arrange activities that bring victims, advocates, and helpers together in a safe and mutual atmosphere. Even simple newsletter inserts with discussion questions can educate people about injustice, reduce their fear, and empower them to act.
  • Design activities that are within family capacities. Relate actions to home and family living, and build on prior experiences. Keep in mind that there may be young-er children in the family.
  • Integrate fun whenever possible. Provide activities that bring fam-ilies together to learn about is-sues in an enjoyable context. Show a good movie; provide popcorn and follow up with small-group discussion. Include an activity and involve everyone in it.
  • Do "with" instead of "for." Get families on board in the planning stages of new initiatives; let them tell you how they would like to serve.
  • School-directed family ritual and devotion. While there is no lack of resources on family prayer and ritual (check out any Catholic or Christian bookstore), the challenge here is to empower families to actually use those resources and engage in prayer and ritual at home. The Search Institute researchers found, unfortunately, that two-thirds of Christian families do not do this.

At a recent session with religious educators, we brainstormed ways that ministry programs could empower families toward prayer and ritual. Some of the ideas we generated include the following:

  • Tell parents that family ritual is a key factor in developing faith maturity. Share the research data. Regularly invite families to try simple prayers and rituals at home. Communicate to parents, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly." Few parents and families are ritual experts, but even less-than-perfect devotions will have a powerful impact on faith.
  • Offer lots of resources and ideas. Regularly and consistently introduce teens and their families to resources and activities for family ritual and devotion.
  • Do your own rituals in a homegrown way. Pledge to model simple, easy-to-replicate rituals when either kids or adults are gathered. Challenge one another to do the next group prayer without any paper or handouts, because few copiers are found at home.
  • Tell stories instead of reading them. Encourage families to tell Gospel stories from memory. Stories take on life and meaning in the telling.

School-led family faith conversations. The researchers found that more than half of teens do not talk to their fathers about faith or God. More than a third don't talk to their mothers. How do we encourage more faith conversations at home?

  • Design home "bridger" experiences into your syllabus. Develop discussion starters and homework activities that relate to your pro-gram. Consider creating a parallel program with and for adults that mirrors the topics covered with youth.
  • Consider developing father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, and mother-daughter programming. When parents have more one-on-one time with their teens, they build a stronger bond and more intimate camaraderie.
  • Offer tips and suggestions to parents on ways to engage teens in dialogue, such as the following:
  • Take time with your teen to listen and share.
  • Invite discussions on issues that are provocative and controversial, i.e., of interest to youth.
  • Allow doubts and different opinions to be expressed.
  • Be open to questions about your own views and beliefs.
  • Take opportunities to pray together.
  • Use the bible as a source for discussing an issue.
        (Note: These discussion ideas were suggested by a group of teenagers.)

So there you have it. Three key activities that research shows will double the likelihood of a young person's coming to mature faith. We should pursue these activities with vigor, even if it means redesigning some of our curriculum and programs. I don't mean to add to your workload. God knows you don't need more work. But is everything you're doing the "right" work? Perhaps something could be set aside, or (dare I say?) eliminated, for the sake of empowering families in these faith-maturing activities.

About The Research Noted

    The Search Institute conducted the "Effective Christian Education Study," and the full results are published in The Teaching Church: Moving Christian Education to Center Stage, edited by Eugene Roehlkepartian (Abingdon Press, 1994). They surveyed adults and teens from five mainline congregations. Although the Catholic denomination was not specifically represented in the study, the is no apparent reason that these results would not apply to Catholic families as well as Protestant ones. The Search Institute is well known for its research into faith and religious issues pertaining to youth and adolescence.


Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published April 1, 2001.