A new study from the University of Georgia (UGA) has underlined the important role that engaged congregations and strong faith communities play in helping with the spiritual development of children.
However, it has also shown that the sense of belonging these foster could play a vital role in helping determine whether they will continue on their faith journey as they grow older instead of drifting away from the church.
"It used to be just a truism that people stop attending religious services in college and then they came back when they had kids," Bill Stanford, lead author of the study and a doctoral graduate of UGA's College of Family and Consumer Sciences, told UGA Today.
"But more recent studies have pointed out people aren't coming back after they have kids. The million-dollar question is 'why?'."
In interviews spanning several years as part of the National Study of Youth and Religion, researchers collected responses from more than 1,700 young people and their caregivers, creating a detailed picture of their thoughts and feelings around religion and spirituality.
The study found that while parents remain the biggest influence in passing on faith, congregations play an integral role/
It also found that young people who took part in youth groups and religious education, and who attended churches where they were expected to regularly attend services, were more likely to report higher levels of personal religious practice.
"Specifically, findings indicate that while parental transmission efforts significantly predict subsequent religiosity in every dimension, engagement with a religious congregation also predicts future levels of external religious practice, religious exclusivity, and belief in the supernatural," said the study.
"Furthermore, affiliation with a faith tradition that more highly prioritises youth integration predicts future levels of personal religious practice."
While more than three-quarters of the parents interviewed said that their faith played an important role in their daily lives and decision-making processes, with more than half attending church weekly, less than half of their children said that they discussed religion with their parents on a regular basis—with some saying they had never done so.
Ted Futris, co-author of the study and a professor of human development and family science, told UGA Today that educating parents on how to address spirituality with their children needed to be discussed more.
"It's often seen as something personal ... What Bill's work is showing is that building spirituality in youth is a community process. It's both parents and the faith-based community working together to help foster that religiosity and spirituality among our young people," he said.
The study showed that young people in faith communities that prioritised youth groups and religious instruction, as well as emphasising regular attendance of worship services, were more likely to see greater engagement from young people in personal religious practices such as fasting and independent study.
With the number of people identifying as non-religious continuing to grow, the researchers believe that ensuring young people are encouraged in their faith through their communities is more important than ever.
"The role of parents is incredibly powerful in shaping future religiosity in children, but engagement matters," said Stanford, who is now an associate priest at St. Thomas Anglican Church in Athens, Georgia, told UGA Today.
"Integrating youth into the community and connecting them with religious education and the rites of passage—the congregation has an important role to play in helping pass down religious tradition."