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.

Conference on faith among Catholic emerging adults

A number of recent studies have focused on the religion of emerging adults, those who are roughly 18-29 years old and are making the transition from being teenagers to adults. Some of these findings and thoughts about Catholic emerging adults were shared at a recent conference:

Sociologist James Davidson, professor emeritus at Purdue University, said young Catholics “distinguish between the Catholic faith, which they identify with and respect, and the Catholic Church, which they are less attached to.”

Quoting a wide body of research, including his own, Davidson said eight of 10 young Catholics believe there are many ways to interpret Catholicism and they grant more authority to their individual experience than they do to the magisterium.

“They stress the importance of thinking for themselves more than obeying church leaders,” he said. “Instead of simply embracing church traditions and teachings, they tinker with them. They distinguish between abstract beliefs and principles that they think are at the core of the Catholic faith, and more concrete norms and codes of conduct that they consider optional or peripheral.”

In essence, Davidson said, “they believe that doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Mary as the mother of God, Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist and the need to be concerned about the poor are more important than teachings such as the need to limit the priesthood to men, the need for priestly celibacy, the church’s opposition to artificial birth control and its opposition to the death penalty.”

Catholic young adults are not immune to the complex encounter between the church and popular culture, said participants in a panel discussion on “Sex and the City of God.”…

There is some more interesting stuff here. These discussions sound very similar to the findings of Soul Searching and Souls in Transition: emerging adults are less interested in organized religion but are still spiritual even as this spirituality looks more like “moral therapeutic deism” and they question traditional (or conservative) stances of the church toward social issues.

Reinterpreting the actions of emerging adults: searching for discipleship?

At her.meneutics, Kristen Scharold argues that some Christian emerging adults aren’t just wasting time. Instead, they may be figuring out what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus:

Admittedly, some of us are resistant to settling into the “traditional cycle” of adulthood, but is this because we are sloughing off responsibilities, or because we are waking up to a new set of responsibilities? For 20-somethings who are committed to Jesus, it could be the latter.

We are becoming increasingly ill-fitted categorical adults, but only within the narrow definition that adulthood means settling down — that is, tethering ourselves to romantic partners or to permanent homes. But if adulthood means accepting responsibility — regardless of whether we stay in one place, with the same career, or with the same people — then some of my peers aren’t emerging but have already arrived. They are taking Jesus’ call to discipleship seriously. They are embracing an expansive vision of adulthood, one that doesn’t necessarily involve getting a spouse and a mortgage, but more importantly means following Jesus, a call that sometimes requires reckless abandon (“and immediately they left their nets and followed him”), singleness (“there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”), and financial insecurities (“sell all you have . . . and come follow me”).

Some Christian 20-somethings might look like their fellow emerging adults, but by remaining single, serving overseas, working for justice, creating cultural goods, and pursuing other unprecedented opportunities for gospel advancement and renewal, they may be responding most responsibly to the call of discipleship.

Scharold may be right: they likely are some Christians who are pursuing this. It would be frustrating to be someone who is trying to live a Godly life and instead is simply lumped in with supposedly lazy, shiftless emerging adults.

However, we don’t know how right she is – she cites no data. If this is based on anecdotal evidence (this is also the basis of many arguments against the behaviors of emerging adults), we have no idea how many Christian emerging adults are actually engaging in this behavior.

Of course, there is data to appeal to when exploring these questions. In the area of emerging adults and faith, check out Soul Searching and Souls in Transition. These books suggest while there are some emerging adults who can be classified as devoted to their faith, there are many others who are somewhere between no faith and devoted faith as they try to figure out how to make their lives their own.

Emerging adults and “the changing timetable for adulthood”

The New York Times Magazine takes a long look at emerging adulthood. Early on, the article contains a quick description of this recent phenomenon:

We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.

An interesting read. While this article focuses on the research of psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, there is a lot of recent research on this including research on emerging adulthood and religion by sociologist Christian Smith.