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How parents keep the faith: The rock of belief is at home

Soccer games may supplant Sunday school, but parents keep the faith by making home the rock of belief more than church-going.

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Citing a meaning-making moment from his childhood, Professor Coles recalls a visit with his mother to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when he saw Paul Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" In this case, he says, art prompted discussion of these "fundamental questions." Church attendance and reading the Bible, he says, can spark the same kind of deep contemplation.

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But competing with all this, he says, is the "pull of the culture of narcissism ... that religion was meant to confront, if not diminish."

He says a child can be like an agnostic who takes long walks, looks up at the sky with questions, and finds himself speaking to God. Children "are looking up at the sky just like that man," says Coles. "Parents can join hands with them and help them as they ask these questions and help them along the path of seeking the meaning of life."

In other ways, however, new dynamics are reframing how American families approach spiritual life at home. A shifting religious landscape, coupled with new insights from sociology, is heightening awareness that spiritual formation isn't something parents can effectively outsource to religious institutions.

Ties to organized religion are loosening. The percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation nearly doubled, from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, says the American Religious Identification Survey, which regularly polls more than 54,000 respondents. The percentage of unaffiliated young adults, ages 18 to 29, is 25 percent, a February 2010 Pew Research Center poll found. By contrast, only 20 percent of adults in that same age group were religiously unaffiliated in the late 1990s, and only 13 percent were unaffiliated in the late 1970s. In this new milieu, it seems, faith increasingly gets formed at home or not at all.

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Despite tenuous ties to religious organizations, American kids aren't turning their backs on religion or spirituality – not by a long shot. About 50 percent of teens say religion is important in their lives, says the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which has tracked more than 3,000 youth since 2002, when they were in their mid-teens. A notable 40 percent say they pray at least daily, worship at least weekly, and are active in a religious youth group.

But in this age of do-it-yourself religion, NSYR researchers find teens have such vague, poorly articulated beliefs that many who come from Christian homes have effectively replaced Christianity with a "moralistic therapeutic deism" that emphasizes personal happiness as a paramount goal of religion.

Since hearing this wake-up call, scholars and religious organizations have redoubled efforts to help parents weave faith traditions into home life. Foot soldiers in these efforts say parents used to expect professionals to create religious experiences for their kids. Today, they say, parents increasingly are reclaiming that domain.

Noting this "huge shift" in religious practices, Phyllis Tickle, author and former religion editor at Publishers Weekly, says: "Congregations and denominations that are not attending to the moral formation of prepubescent and pubescent children are the most threatened because parents of that age group tend to see religious formation in terms of moral formation."

She notes that the emergence of community service as a dominant value leads, in many cases, to a deinstitutionalization of faith: the practice of a "religionless Christianity" or a "religionless Judaism." She estimates that a third of American Christians are now these deinstitutionalized "emergents."

Aware of these growing voids, parents increasingly recognize the value of leading explicitly religious activities at home, says John Roberto, president of Lifelong Faith Associates, a Connecticut-based consultancy to Roman Catholic parishes. In the process, they're recovering some forgotten ways once known to their grandparents and great-grandparents.

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