As I'm thinking about family faith formation, and meeting with many of you who live in households with children, I've been casting back to the work of Christian Smith, who's research over a decade ago showed that adolescents overwhelmingly mirror the religiosity of their parents. At that time he coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD) to describe what he saw as a kind of functional religion he saw in many of the teens that he interviewed. It can be briefly summed up as a belief that a creator God exists who wants people to be good and nice and good people will go to heaven. There's no need for God to be involved in one’s life except if there's a particular problem. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Smith reflects in an interview at Crux, "there is obviously no Jesus here, no Gospel here, no transformation here. It is all about behaving well and feeling happy." He comes from a Catholic background but from a Mennonite perspective, there's also no discipleship, no justice, no servanthood.
Recently Smith's current research and his book, Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America has shifted away from the teens, who are absorbing MTD from what they observe in their parents, to the parents themselves. In the short interview with Smith, he talks about the just how parents can effectively create an environment and relationship that fosters faith formation in their children. I was particularly struck by this:
"Absolutely essential [is that] parents need to talk with their children about religion, not just once a week but regularly, during the week. Talking or not talking with children about religious matters during the week is one of the most powerful mechanisms for the success or failure of religious transmission to children. When parents never or rarely talk about their religion in personal terms, that sends a strong message to their kids that it’s really not that important."I think this was especially resonant because I talked last week about modeling a life of faith and discipleship. Smith notes that practices alone are not enough. We also need to talk about the whys and hows of what we do when we go to church, pray, read scripture, gather in community, serve our neighbours and seek equity and justice. This, of course means figuring out for ourselves why we do it!
It is both terrifying and comforting to realize that our kids' formation is in our hands. I'm looking forward to reading Smith's book and (hopefully) feeling empowered to faith formation in my own family, and to pass along tools and information to y'all.