May 6, 2003

From the Archives

Parents Accept Responsibility for Their Child’s Spiritual Development But Struggle With Effectiveness

Parents believe that they are primarily responsible for the spiritual development of their children, but few parents spend time during a typical week interacting with their children on spiritual matters. This finding, from nationwide research conducted by the Barna Research Group (Ventura, California), underscores the need for churches to help parents address the spiritual needs of their children more intentionally and effectively.

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Accepting Responsibility

The Barna study found that close to nine out of ten parents of children under age 13 (85%) believe they have the primary responsibility for teaching their children about religious beliefs and spiritual matters. Just 11% said their church is primarily responsible, and 1% said it is mostly the domain of their child’s school. Few parents assigned such responsibility to friends, society or the media.

Nearly all parents of children under the age of 13 – 96% – contend that they have the primary responsibility for teaching their children values. Just 1% said their church has that task and 1% assigned that role to the child’s school.

Related research, however, revealed that a majority of parents do not spend any time during a typical week discussing religious matters or studying religious materials with their children. However, about two out of three parents of children 12 or younger attend religious services at least once a month and generally take their children with them. Most of those parents are willing to let their church or religious center provide all of the direct religious teaching and related religious experiences that their children receive.

Churches Have An Opportunity

The survey data indicate that parents generally rely upon their church to do all of the religious training their children will receive. Parents are not so much unwilling to provide more substantive training to their children as they are ill-equipped to do such work. According to the research, parents typically have no plan for the spiritual development of their children; do not consider it a priority, have little or no training in how to nurture a child’s faith, have no related standards or goals that they are seeking to satisfy, and experience no accountability for their efforts.

This situation represents an opportunity for churches to prepare parents for a more significant role in the spiritual development of their children. However, while churches offer classes and other programs for children, they do relatively little to equip parents to be effective spiritual guides. The survey found that only one out of every five parents of children under 13 (19%) has ever been personally contacted or spoken to by a church leader to discuss the parents’ involvement in the spiritual life and development of their youngsters.

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Developmental Needs

Although parents are generally unaware of how their children are doing in terms of spiritual development, the survey indicated that the two areas that parents acknowledged as weaknesses for their children were knowing how to study the Bible and memorizing Bible verses.

Parents were confident that their children are adept at prayer and worship. While somewhat less assured, parents of children under 13 also are likely to believe that their youngsters are able to understand critical biblical principles, integrate biblical principles in their life, and clearly explain the reasons for their faith.

George Barna, who directed the research, noted that millions of parents are unaware of the breadth of spiritual needs their children have. “Of the 51 million children under the age of 18 who live in the United States, more than 40 million of them do not know Jesus Christ as their savior, which suggests that there are some basic unmet spiritual needs that parents are overlooking. This is one of the most significant and fertile mission fields in the nation, yet the very people who claim responsibility for the spiritual growth of those children are doing little about it beyond dropping their kids off at church. Churches could help more by being increasingly proactive in preparing parents to handle that responsibility wisely.”

Barna’s research also indicates that sometimes parents are not able to guide their children spiritually because the parents are struggling with their own faith development. “When it comes to raising children to be spiritually mature, the old adage, ‘you can’t give what you don’t have,’ is pertinent for millions of families. Most parents proclaim that the spiritual nurturing of their children is their job, but are very happy to let their church shape the child’s faith,” according to the researcher. “Unfortunately, no matter how hard a church tries, it is incapable of bringing a child to complete spiritual maturity: that is the job of the family. The more willing churches are to play the co-dependent role in this drama, the less likely we are to see spiritually healthy families and a generation of young people who grow into mature believers.”

The research on ministry to children included case studies of churches that have effective ministries among children. Barna indicated that those churches uniformly realize that their job is not to assume the role of spiritual development from parents but to prepare parents to excel in that role. “Churches only get one or two hours a week with these children. Parents have them for many hours each week and experience numerous opportunities to teach the kids vital principles in a range of settings and situations. The more intentional a church is about giving parents the confidence and the tools to raise up spiritual champions, the more effective we found the congregation’s parents to be as spiritual mentors.”

The data from Barna’s study were collected for his forthcoming book entitled Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions. The book addresses both the current spiritual condition of the nation’s children as well as how churches can more effectively build that faith in young people. He is currently touring the country with a seminar for church leaders describing the research findings and applications.

How the Research Was Conducted

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group from its interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The OmniPollSM survey involved interviews among 1010 adults during the last week of January and first week of February. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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