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Posted June 12, 2005

In spiritual matters, kids take their cues from Dad

by David Murrow

You've heard it said that fathers are the spiritual leaders of the home. Now there's a study to prove it.

Researchers from Switzerland examined whether parents' religious habits were transmitted to their offspring. They studied different variables, but one critical factor towered above the rest: the practices of the father determine whether children grow up attending church or not. And here's the shocker: the habits of the mother have almost no influence over their kids' future devotion.

Consider these findings:

When Mom is a regular churchgoer but Dad attends infrequently, just 3 percent of their kids go on to become regular churchgoers.

When Mom is regular but Dad never attends, just 2 percent become regular attenders.

Now, let's flip the chart. What if Dad is faithful?

When both Mom and Dad attend church regularly, 33 percent of kids grow up to attend regularly.

When Dad is regular but Mom only goes once in a while, the figure jumps to 38 percent.

Here's the real bombshell: when Dad is faithful but Mom never attends, 44 percent of the kids end up as regular church attenders!

Bottom line: in spiritual matters, kids take their cues from Dad. If Papa doesn't go to church, chances are very slim that his children will become regular worshippers. If the kids see religion as "Mom's thing" they are more likely to become disenchanted. But if Dad leads by example, children are twenty-two times more likely to become lifelong churchgoers.

Swiss cheese

You may dismiss the findings of this study because it's from Switzerland, in the heart of Christianity's "dead zone." But haven't you noticed this pattern in U.S. churches as well? Curtis Burnam, a 20-year veteran of youth ministry has seen it time and again. "Kids who are taken to church by Mom but not Dad are harder to keep in church. They tend to drop out at higher rates when they reach adolescence. They are also harder to engage when they do come to youth group. This is true for girls as well as boys."

Why are these findings so alarming? Because men are dropping out of America's churches. Consider this:

In 1952, the typical U.S. protestant worship service drew an adult crowd that was 47 percent male. Today that figure is 39 percent -- and falling.

On any given Sunday there are 13 million fewer men than women in U.S. pews.

Almost a quarter of married, churchgoing women attend services without their husbands each Sunday.

According to Barna Research, men lag behind women in every area of Christian endeavor (except the senior pastorate).

Few churches can establish or maintain a viable men's ministry.

The majority of churchgoing men do nothing midweek (other than pray) to grow in faith.

Two obvious questions come to mind: why are Christian churches losing their men? And why are churchgoing men so uninvolved? Jesus enthralled men. Rival faiths such as Islam inspire fanatical allegiance from young men. What's the difference?

I studied this phenomenon for five years, and wrote my findings in a book titled, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nelson Books, 2005). If I had to summarize my conclusions in one sentence it would be this: The modern church system is not designed to do what Jesus did: reach men with the Good News.

No, today's churches, without even realizing it, create an environment where women and tots thrive, but men feel hesitant and restrained. How so? Without even realizing it, modern churches default to a feminine spirituality. For instance, we focus almost exclusively on Christ's gentle side. A good Christian is always soft, sweet, and sentimental, focused on family and relationships instead of goals and achievement. Common church practices such as handholding, sitting in a circle and sharing your feelings, public reading and singing make men feel uncomfortable or incompetent. Today's praise songs present Christ as lover rather than leader. I could go on.

So men depart (or go passive). This in itself is a tragedy. But the greater loss comes years later, when the next generation turns its back on church, despite their mothers' superhuman attempts to grow them into spiritual champions.

It's time to face the truth: if we're going to pass a lifelong faith to our children, we must re-engage men. No amount of Sunday school, VBS, or youth group will do the trick. We might as well fold up our flannelgraphs and go home. In fact, we might reach more kids by canceling the entire children's ministry and focusing our efforts on men. This strategy would, in the long run, produce more lifelong followers of Jesus.

Kids need one thing: to see their fathers following Jesus. The question is: do we have the courage to transform the local church into a place where your average guy can connect with God?