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You get what you are
Modeling Sticky Faith
This article is adapted from chapter two of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. To find out more about this book or our new video curriculum for parents, please visit stickyfaith.org.
“I’m Kah-wa Powell.”
What our youngest child, Jessica, lacked in pronunciation of the letter r, she made up for in her gusto for pretending to be me. Every day for two months, she plunged into my bedroom closet, grabbed as many items as her five-year-old fists could carry, and then wore them over her own clothing. Her favorite items were my black leather boots, an orange blouse, a turquoise scarf (trust me, it isn’t as eighties as it sounds), a gold linen dinner jacket (okay, that is as eighties as it sounds), and a wool hat.
Regardless of how you evaluate her fashion sense, if you saw her walk around our house, you’d see that she had a sixth sense for imitating me. Stumbling awkwardly in boots that were twice her size, she’d grab my briefcase on wheels and stride across our wood floors, proclaiming to all other family members, “I’m Kah-wa Powell.”
It was even more adorable than it sounds.
It got less adorable when Jessica started imitating facets of my parenting. She’d stand in our living room, wag her finger at an invisible daughter and sternly warn, “Jessica, you need a better attitude.”
Imaginary Jessica didn’t seem to improve. My daughter’s remedy? More wagging of the finger, mixed with, “Jessica, go to your room.”
Sometimes she’d invite friends to join in the dress-up play. Jessica was always “Kah-wa Powell,” and the friend was usually talked into being “Jessica.” What did they do together? Play cards? Color at the kitchen table?
Nope. “Jessica” usually spent most of her time on the couch, receiving a lecture from “Kah-wa Powell”.
One Friday afternoon, another mom and I were invited to watch a “play” that the two five-year-olds had created. In this play, there were no fairies, doggies, or princesses. The “story” (if you’ve watched your five-year-old child’s plays, you know that the quotes are warranted) revolved around my daughter playing me and giving her “daughter” a grim lecture.
The other mom and I laughed (somewhat awkwardly) at the scene. But long after the other family walked down our driveway, one question sat on the front steps of my heart: Was that my daughter’s primary picture of me?
Jessica mirrored to me a posture and a tone of voice that was everything I didn’t want to be as a mom. As she acted out her version of how I corrected her, I knew I was the one who needed correcting.
3 Sticky Findings
As our team has surveyed others’ research on family faith as well as analyzed our own studies of over 500 teenagers and 50 parents, we have identified three “Sticky findings” that are important for parents who want to model vibrant faith in front of their children and teenagers.
Finding #1: We Will Get What We Are
After studying the faith development of more than three thousand young people nationwide from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon families, Christian Smith and his team concluded, “The best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children’s most likely religious outcomes is this: ‘We’ll get what we are.’”[[Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), 57. The importance of parental example is confirmed in a number of studies, including Pam E. King and Ross A. Mueller, “Parental Influence on Adolescent Religiousness: Exploring the Roles of Spiritual Modeling and Social Capital,” Marriage and Family: A Christian Journal 6:3 (2003): 401–13.]] As important as this guide’s other ten factors are in building Sticky Faith families, the reality is that in general, the primary influence in a child’s faith trajectory is his or her parents.
As with all research, please take this with a grain of salt. Or even a mountain of grains of salt. You might have a very different faith journey than your parents’. You might have multiple kids who are choosing different faith paths themselves.
While there is no foolproof formula, in integrity as a researcher I need to be clear: your strategy for developing a Sticky Faith family starts by assessing the vibrancy of your own faith.
Finding #2: We Will Get What Our Kids Think We Are
Here’s something fascinating. As important as our faith lives are in influencing our kids, multiple studies of teenagers indicate that more important than what parents believe is what teenagers perceive they believe.[[W-N. Bao, D. H. Whitbeck, D. Hoyt, and R. C. Conger, “Perceived Parental Acceptance as a Moderator of Religious Transmission among Adolescent Boys and Girls,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 362–74.]][[L. Okagaki and C. Bevis, “Transmission of Religious Values: Relations between Parents’ and Daughters’ Beliefs,” Journal of Genetic Psychology 160 (1999): 303–18.]]
When I was a high school student, our youth pastor decided to make the focus of one of our Wednesday night meetings this question: If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
To my surprise (and dismay), I was one of the three students picked to be on trial. Friends of mine from youth group then gave testimonies about both my character and my behaviors. I remember sitting on a grey plastic chair in the front of our youth room, palms sweating and heart pounding, wondering if there was going to be enough evidence to convict me.
There was. In my opinion, barely.
Because that sort of mock trial can easily become emotionally manipulative and guilt producing, I don’t recommend trying this at your home church. But given the research on Sticky Faith families, I hope you reflect on this question: If I were on trial for being a Christian, what evidence could my kids offer to convict me?
Finding #3: There Are Many Ways to Build and Model Sticky Faith in Front of Your Kids
As we interviewed parents who had developed enduring faith in their kids, this theme emerged: they made the cultivation of their own faith a priority.
While that was a nearly universal goal, there were no universal steps parents took to make that goal a reality. Each parent seems to find their own channel to stay in tune with Jesus.
Some hold traditional “quiet times,” often in the morning before children are looking for breakfasts and backpacks.
Others prefer to journal in the evenings while kids are sleeping or studying.
Some like to sit.
Others feel closer to God while moving—while jogging, walking, gardening, or even driving.
Some need quiet.
Others prefer the stimulation of a good sermon or great worship music, or even the background noise of a coffee house or the morning bus commute.
The length, location, and posture of parents’ time with God varies. What is constant is their recognition that regular (generally daily) time with God needs to be a priority in their schedules.
In order to understand how creative families are embodying these three findings, we interviewed 50 amazing parents nationwide. Their ideas inspired and encouraged us, and we hope they do the same for you. Here are just a few:
Same Time, Same Place
Of the parents we interviewed, the majority were most successful in carving out time with the Lord when they found a consistent rhythm.
Every day. Or at least most days.
Even if it wasn’t daily, it was consistent. One busy executive found it challenging to carve out time with the Lord on weekdays, so he spent an hour reading the Bible and praying first thing every Saturday morning. While he wished he spent such focused time with God more frequently, he rarely missed his Saturday routine.
Personally, I double my chances of working out if I plan the day before when I’ll make it to the gym. I triple those chances if I put on workout clothes as soon as I get out of bed.
For many Sticky Faith parents, identifying a consistent time and place similarly increases the likelihood of developing their spiritual muscles.
A Running Conversation with Jesus
While regularly scheduling time to pray, read Scripture, and meditate is hard, I find a second practice of some parents even more challenging. And convicting.
Several parents we interviewed found great spiritual strength by maintaining a regular conversation with Jesus. They would comment that they “pray all the time” and maintain a “regular conversation with Jesus” in the midst of work and family responsibilities.
As one parent described, “Whatever happens during my day, I keep my conversation going with the Lord.”
Some parents find that praying some or all of the “daily office” of fixed-hour prayer (common in Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions) helps pace their day with “God pauses.” Whether on their smartphone or in a book, these excerpts from scripture and the prayers of others can be a catalyst for ongoing conversation with God.
In talking with these parents, I don’t sense that they do this because it’s merely a good idea. To them, it’s like a spiritual oxygen mask, helping them stay calm and breathe when they hit turbulence.
A Day a Quarter
Cliff, a dad of two teenagers, has found he connects with God best when he isn’t rushed or preoccupied with his next meeting. So Cliff sets aside a day each quarter as his time away with God. Grabbing his Bible, a few books, and a lunch, he heads to a nearby park, lake, restaurant, or friend’s vacant house for the day. (Cliff lives in Minnesota, so the time of year makes a big difference in where he holes up.) These quarterly days are Cliff’s lifeline, enabling him for the next three months to be the disciple, leader, husband, and dad that he longs to be.
Praying with Your Calendar
If your calendar seems too full for any of these ideas, perhaps prayer itself is the solution. Abigail, a mom with college-age sons, has found that taking time to pray actually gives her more time to pray. How does that time-math work?
When Abigail prays with her calendar in front of her, the Lord often gives her a sense of what is most important. As a result, she inevitably eliminates some of the items crowding her to-do list. Prayer helps Abigail become more able to identify those tasks that can wait, or even better, don’t need to be done at all.
Community as a Portal for Spiritual Growth
Many parents we interviewed mentioned the catalytic role of others in their own spiritual growth—particularly close friends, mentors, and fellow members of Bible studies or small groups. When parents’ frustration or fatigue makes them blind to God’s vision for their lives or families, it’s often others who show them the way.
As with other ideas that further spiritual growth, these relationships almost always take planning. One single parent makes double dinner every Wednesday night, carefully placing extra plates in the refrigerator with her kids’ names on them, so she can make it to her Thursday night small group. That additional work is worth the payoff that comes from spiritually rubbing shoulders with other women every week.
Our Family’s Steps toward Sticky Faith
Take a few moments on your own, or with your spouse, your friends, or your small group, to reflect on some potential next steps toward Sticky Faith.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being “we stink at this” and 5 being “we rock at this”), rate your family on the research findings shared above.
1. I myself have the vibrant faith I hope my kids will have as adults.
1 2 3 4 5
2. My kids observe me living out my faith in our home and community.
1 2 3 4 5
3. I make the cultivation of my faith a priority in my schedule.
1 2 3 4 5
1. What are you already doing that is helping you model faith in front of your kids?
2. Given your ranking of the findings in the previous section, as well as the ideas you’ve read in this chapter, what one or two changes might you want to make in your family?
3. What can you do in the next few weeks or month to move toward these changes?
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