Childhood Experience Bearing Adult Fruit

New research coming out of the Barna Group sought to get some insight to a questions many of us ask. “What is the connection between childhood faith and adult religious commitment?”

From the Barna Update,

The survey asked adults to think back on their upbringing and to describe the frequency of their involvement in Sunday school or religious training. The Barna researchers then compared those reported early-life behaviors with the respondents’ current levels of faith activity and faith durability.

So, what did the research reveal? here are some quotes from the report.

More than eight out of every 10 adults remembers consistently attending Sunday school or some other religious training before the age of 12.

Adults recall their church involvement as teenagers as less frequent than their participation as children.

Among the most active as children were Catholics (86%), upscale adults (78%), Midwesterners (76%), notional Christians (75%), college graduates (75%), women (73%), political conservatives (73%), and those ages 65-plus (73%). The least likely population segments to have attended Sunday school or other religious programming as children were atheists and agnostics (35%), people associated with faiths other than Christianity (52%), Asians (53%), unchurched adults (56%), 18- to 25-year-olds (59%), never-married adults (60%), Hispanics (61%), and residents of the West (63%).

The types of Americans most likely to recall religious participation as teenagers were evangelicals (61%), those ages 65-plus (60%), born again Christians (58%), Catholics (58%), women (56%), political conservatives (56%), residents of the Midwest (56%), married adults (55%), and Protestants (54%). On the other hand, atheists and agnostics (19%), members of other faith groups (30%), unchurched adults (31%), never-married individuals (33%), economically downscale adults (40%), and men (44%) were the least likely to have frequently attended Sunday school or other religious programs during their teen years.

How did those who were plugged into Sunday School and religious instruction and children and youth remain connected to faith as adults?

The research examined four elements of adult religious commitment: attending church, having an active faith (defined as reading the Bible, praying, and attending church in the last week), being unchurched, and switching from childhood faith.

When it comes to church engagement, those who attended Sunday school or other religious programs as children or as teens were much more likely than those without such experiences to attend church and to have an active faith as adults. For instance, among those who frequently attended such programs as a child, 50% said they attended a worship service in the last week, which is slightly higher than the national average and well ahead of those who rarely or never attended children’s programs. Among those who frequently attended religious programs as teenagers, 58% said they had attended a worship service in the last week. In comparison, less frequent participation as a teenager correlated with less frequent adult participation.

David Kinnaman points out that the research uncovers a correlation, between early instruction and continued adult spiritual engagement, and not causation. Yet it does provide “clarity that the odds of one sticking with faith over a lifetime are enhanced in a positive direction by spiritual activity under the age of 18.” (Might I add that it is refreshing to see someone release research that explains the difference between correlation and causation.)

Head over to the Barna Group, read the entire article.

When we think about the mission to make disciples we obviously need to do more than provide good teaching for adults and provide a cool/fun atmosphere for the young ones. What might this mean more specifically as we consider how the church teaches children and youth, and develops parents who are capable of discipling their own children working in partnership with the church?  

by Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today’s Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at fifteen other colleges and seminaries. He also serves on the Church Services Team at the International Mission Board. Ed’s primary role is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence.
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