Religious parents, congregations, and passing on faith

Sociologists Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk have a new book where they look at parents and passing down religion to children. In an interview, here is how Smith describes some of the findings:

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The other big surprise was parents’ views of their religious congregations. The common story is that laypeople just want to dump their kids off at church and have religion taken care of by youth ministers. But we found parents just want church to be friendly and a good environment, but they think it’s their job to take care of religious things. That seemed to be kind of a mismatch in how clergy and youth ministers think about parental involvement and the way parents described that involvement…

In the book, you say that a central part of your argument is that what religion is has fundamentally changed from a “communal solidarity project” to a “personal identity accessory.” Can you elaborate briefly on what that means?

This is my historical interpretation of our findings, trying to make the best theoretical sense I can of what’s going on. The idea of a communal solidarity project is that in a former time in American history, religion would have been much more of a collective, community-based experience. It would have been something people shared in common and that had much more of a social dynamic to it. The parents wouldn’t have had so much burden to promote religion because it would’ve just been living in the community. Over time, that world has dissolved…

And you raised the question of mismatch earlier, but I would say this is the real mismatch. Not so much strategy differences between parents and youth ministers, but what church is for. I think some of the main actors that are gathered in congregations have very different ideas of what they’re even doing there. What’s fascinating, sociologically, is how they can continue that mismatch for years and not really figure out the differences between each other—like not really have it dawn on them, “Oh, we have totally different realities going on here.”

These are big picture issues regarding religion in the United States: what is the role or place for parents even alongside the common idea that children should be able to make their own choices? What are religious congregations about: places of religious community and solidarity or places for individual consumers to take what they can get? How do parents and churches interact when their goals might be similar but their means and/or expectations differ?

One notable feature in the books Smith and his colleagues have written about the faith of teenagers and emerging adults is how these patterns among younger adults help shed light on broader patterns in American society. What teenagers take in and how they act does not come out of nowhere. They may be exacerbating existing trends or remixing elements of culture, but they are building on what is already happening with adults, institutions, families, and others.

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