In 1994, the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland did a survey on correlations between family activity and faith practices. The conclusion of the Swiss study was that the religious practices of the father of the family most determines the future of their children’s faith practices. Robbie Low, a minister in the Church of England and an editor of that church’s New Directions magazine, summarizes the findings as follows:
If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.
If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshippers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.
What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility.
Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.
Where neither parent practices, to nobody’s very great surprise, only 4 percent of children will become regular attenders and 15 percent irregulars. Eighty percent will be lost to the faith.
The results suggest that a father’s participation in the life of worship is extremely important in predicting a child’s adherence to the faith in adulthood. Granted, this was a Swiss study, not a US study. My early childhood included both my father and mother attending worship, but as I grew older, my mother attended worship more regularly than my father. Most of us, who think back to those who had the greatest impact on our faith, will most likely recall the spiritual mentorship of a mother, grandmother or aunt. That certainly was my experience.
Our culture has long sought to meet the unique needs and desires of people through fragmenting and categorizing us in groups by gender, interests, and age. The church has been following this same paradigm for decades. Women’s groups, men’s groups, and youth groups are assumed norms of the church, yet they find no precedence in Scripture and we are beginning to discover that such divisions are having a negative impact on future generations. This was not the case in the context of either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Instructions for worship in both the Old and New Testaments assume the participation of men, women, and children in worship (see Deuteronomy 29:10-11; 1 Samuel 1; 2 Kings 22; Psalms 148:12; Joel 2:16; Luke 2:22-38). Children are influenced when they see their parents worshiping together. They watch us as we pray, assist in reading Scripture, pay attention to sermons and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In these moments, our children are witnessing the importance of faith and worship.
Many men may feel like matters of faith are best left to mothers and church staff, but after almost 50 years of increasingly absent fathers in matters of faith, our children are the ones paying the price. Children look to their parents to help them understand what is important in life. The number of men attending worship has continued to drop over the past several decades. It is time for the church to discern ways in which we may have pushed men to the background. Even the culture of the church has demanded less and less of our fathers and men, to “go easy” on them, which has pushed men out of good and right ways of spiritual leadership and service. On the other hand, placing blame isn’t helpful. My Brothers in Christ, you are essential to helping raise up the future generations of Christian men and women.