Who Is Responsible for Children's Faith Formation?
Barna’s Gen Z research demonstrates that the world in which this next generation is coming of age is one that stands apart from that of their parents and grandparents. The post-truth world they inhabit no longer shares the same moral principles or societal values, leading to a more relativistic worldview among teens and a growing religious apathy. Christianity today has less influence on Gen Z than on any previous generation. Through Barna’s other research, we see that parents—especially engaged Christian parents—are eager for their children to develop a lasting faith, yet many lack clarity on how to disciple their children well in a decidedly post-Christian context. Building on these findings, Barna, in partnership with Cardus, a faith-based think tank, recently interviewed 650 church leaders (Protestant and Catholic) about the factors influencing spiritual formation and development. We found that although they agree that spiritual formation begins in the home and continues in the church, the perceived influence of schools is often either disproportionate or unaccounted for. The study points to a possible disconnect among church, home and school relationships, as well as the need for new conversations and partnerships for addressing spiritual formation in the current context.
Read more from Ray Pennings, Cardus executive vice president, about this research partnership.
Family and Church Seen as Responsible for Spiritual Formation
Church leaders from all stripes are in agreement when it comes to where the responsibility lies for a child’s spiritual formation and development. They universally agree it should start with parents (99% of Protestant pastors, along with 96% of Catholic priests, ranked parents #1), followed by the Church (92% of Protestant leaders ranked it #2, and 77% of Catholic leaders). Seven in 10 Protestant pastors (70%) ranked the Christian community third, and a similar proportion (68%) ranks schools fourth in the chain of responsibility. Catholic priests rank the Church’s responsibility slightly lower than do Protestant leaders and place greater responsibility with schools. Catholic and Protestant clergy alike agree that government and society in general bear the least responsibility for children’s spiritual formation.
There are interesting differences not only between Catholic and Protestant views, but also specifically between mainline and non-mainline Protestant perceptions. While most church leaders rank the five potential influences in the same order, non-mainline pastors are more likely to say the Church is most responsible, behind the family, and that Christian community ranks third in its responsibility for a child’s formation and development, including spiritual formation. Mainline and Catholic leaders are more likely to believe schools have a stronger role in the formation and development of children than do non-mainline churches.
Schools Seen as a Negative Influence on Faith Formation
Clergy view parents (98% Protestant, 96% Catholic), churches (99% Protestant, 100% Catholic) and Christian communities (93% Protestant, 92% Catholic) as positive influences on a child’s spiritual formation and development. However, children are spending most of their daytime weekday hours each at school, which is perceived by many church leaders as a negative influence on a child’s spiritual formation (65% Protestant, 50% Catholic). In fact, schools are ranked alongside a child’s friends and peers as primarily negative influences—a view held by 61 percent of Protestant leaders and 65 percent of Catholic leaders. In some cases, the perceived negative influence of a child’s school or friend group outweighs a perceived positive influence by double.
Catholic priests, though still divided on the issue, are more likely than Protestant pastors to see schools as a positive influence. This denominational gap could be explained by the prevalence of Catholic school education and the possibility that Catholic priests are assessing the influence of a religious school education.
Churches Lack Adequate Training for Parents
When church leaders were asked to cite the main ways in which they prioritized children’s spiritual formation, nearly three-quarters of Protestant pastors (73%) say they address children’s spiritual formation by providing Sunday school and classes for youth. Other common programs include camps or VBS (36%), encouraging children to participate in the main worship service (37%) and offering worship services just for children (33%). Catholic leaders rely most on catechism and sacramental prep classes (71%), but also regard children’s presence in the main worship service or mass (31%) and participation in the sacraments (31%) as means of prioritizing their spiritual development. To a much lesser extent than Protestant churches, Catholic priests rely on specific Sunday school classes (31%).
Despite the fact that church leaders overwhelmingly agree that parents are most responsible for a child’s spiritual formation and development, the data demonstrate that churches place little emphasis on training and equipping said parents. In fact, only about one in five clergy (20% Protestant, 17% Catholic, though this number is higher for larger churches) says they prioritize training for parents, and even fewer provide parenting guides or other resources (15% Catholic, 10% Protestant). This lack of training persists even though many parents appear to be actively seeking guidance from church leaders on school matters; for example, nearly half of non-mainline (47%) and Catholic (42%) clergy say a parent has asked them for advice regarding schooling.
Challenges for Christian leaders include placing a greater emphasis on church-based training for parents as well as addressing the perceived negative influence of schools. Yet, despite these needs, many church leaders are reluctant to broach the topic of education, even when the church has a school on campus. Catholic priests are more likely than their Protestant peers to address school choice, either from the pulpit (25%) or in another setting (35%). Slightly less than half of non-mainline pastors (44%) has addressed the matter of school choice in the past year, whereas only one in five mainline pastors (21%) has done so. Among both Catholic and Protestant clergy who have addressed school choice, most did so outside the pulpit. More Protestant pastors who have schools on campus have mentioned this from the pulpit—but only slightly more. As expected, pastors who believe Christian schools are important are much more likely to speak about this from the pulpit.
Church leaders point to a variety of reasons for not advising parents on school choice, including individual student needs, the cost of private schooling, having a diversity of opinions on schooling represented in their pews and partnerships with public schools. Indeed, in separate, in-depth qualitative interviews, some pastors described their partnerships with schools as an intentional outreach tool to connect with parents and serve their community.
What the Research Means
“While it is great that some churches have partnered with or served at local public schools for the purposes of outreach, the decision of where a Christian parent should send their child to school should take into account the whole-person formation of the child,” Brooke Hempell, Barna’s senior vice president of research, says. “And if public schools are perceived to have a negative influence on the spiritual formation of a child, parents need guidance on how to navigate this decision.”
“In this and several other studies with Christian parents, our research has found that they crave guidance on how to educate and form their children, knowing that they are growing up in a world that is far more secular than their own childhood. Parents want to hear from their pastors on this issue,” Hempell continues. “Church leaders have the opportunity to develop a unique community for faith formation by bringing parents, school administrators and faith leaders together in partnerships for faith development. Overall, this study illustrates a disconnect between these three groups. Alignment between or relationships among church, parents and schools could be powerful in shaping faith formation in our modern, post-Christian age.”
About the Research
In partnership with Cardus, a faith-based think tank, Barna Group conducted an online survey of Protestant senior pastors and Catholic parish priests between October 5 and November 27, 2018. A total of 650 surveys were conducted, including: 132 interviews with Protestant Mainline pastors, 470 interviews with Protestant non-Mainline pastors and 48 interviews with Catholic priests. The data were minimally weighted to be representative of all U.S. churches based on denomination, region and church size. Due to the more widespread structural support for Catholic schools in parishes, Catholic and Protestant pastors were analyzed separately.
Funding for this research was made possible by the generous support of Cardus. Barna Group was solely responsible for data collection, analysis and writing of the report.