I grew up in Winnipeg until I was sixteen years old. I begin with two brief stories of this formative period that are illustrative of the themes we will explore at the 2024 Leadership Conference.
Story #1. One of my earliest memories – before I was ten years old – was going door to door following a typical prairie blizzard, offering to shovel people’s sidewalks in exchange for $1 (this was the late 80s!). My father, a pastor at the time, taught me that the first ten cents would go into the offering plate, the next ten cents would go into savings, and I could spend the remaining eighty cents as I wished. My parents instructed me that everything I have is from God, and thus I must return the first and best of what I receive to God. This lesson has never left me, along with many other Christian beliefs and practices that were important in our home.
Story #2. As a teenager, several young adults in our church took me under their wings and mentored me. They led some of our youth group Bible studies and social events, modeling Christian discipleship and formation. They nurtured my growing interest as a drummer in our local church. They took me to Blue Bombers football and Jets hockey games. And they provided a venue to gather with other teens as we navigated our evolving sense of self, others, and God. In these places, I was also given opportunities to lead Bible study discussions with my peers, receiving constructive feedback as a young person on my leadership and Christian (mis)understanding along the way.
I begin with these stories because they reveal some of the underlying conditions that research suggests are the most fertile for effectively passing the faith on from one generation to the next: (a) parents who model, instruct, and dialogue about matters of faith with their children, and (b) supportive peer and adult influences within one’s faith tradition. These are necessary but not sufficient causes of successful faith transmission. Passing the baton rarely, if ever, happens by accident. Faith transmission requires intentionality by parents and congregations, ideally.
Fast-forward over a quarter of a century. I’m now in my 16th year on faculty at Ambrose University in Calgary as a sociologist of religion, with a deep love for and interest in the local church. I write and speak widely about a range of topics related to religious life in Canada.
I genuinely believe that many church leaders and parents are well-intentioned when it comes to passing on the faith to younger generations. One of the things I’ve learned as a sociologist is that sometimes good intentions result in a range of attitudes and behaviours that may not yield desired results. In part, this is because people’s perceptions and thus actions may not align with reality. As a sociologist my role is fundamentally to provide people with empirical data that would help us to better describe and understand reality as it is rather than as we wish. In turn, I seek to help others grapple practically and theologically with the implications of those realities.
At the 2024 SBC Leadership Conference, we’ll draw on sociological research to ground an exploration into four themes connected to faith transmission from one generation to the next. First, we’ll explore a topic that is garnering more attention than most subjects these days among sociologists of religion, along with many church leaders and parents: those who say they have no religion. This is the fastest growing “religious group” in Canada and the modern Western world. As of 2021, more than one-third of Canadians say they have no religion, including nearly 40% in Manitoba. Who are they? Why are they growing? How do they view the world? And what difference does this make to local congregations?
Second, we’ll examine how younger generations in Canada view and experience the world. What are their values, concerns, and hopes? How are their attitudes and behaviours similar or dissimilar to their parents and grandparents? How does the social environment for young people today compare to prior generations? And how do younger people approach religion and spirituality? The research findings may surprise you. Unlike popular perceptions, in many ways young people are more alike than unalike those who are older than them. Still, some differences exist, as we’ll learn together.
Third, what social conditions positively contribute to Christian belief and practice transferring from one generation to the next? Sociological research is clear that parents are the single greatest influence over a person’s faith development over their lifetime. When parents “believe, behave, and belong,” their children are far more likely to do so (though not guaranteed). My deep Christian commitments today are largely attributable to what I learned as a child and teen in Winnipeg. But what does faith transmission look like with the growth of those who say they have no religion alongside some of the distinctive realities that young people (and older adults) confront in contemporary Canadian society?
Finally, while parents play the most influential role, they need a strong supporting cast. This is where congregations can play an integral part, as was true for me in my teen years. Churches have an opportunity to come alongside parents and equip and empower them as the primary faith development leaders for their children. Yet, congregations can also offer spaces and places for spiritual formation and discipleship, mentorship, friendship, and leadership among younger generations. Research shows that flourishing congregations tend to be younger, innovative, hospitable toward younger members, and supportive of leadership development.
I look forward to returning to my Christian roots in Manitoba in March 2024 – a personal and professional sojourn. While we’re together, my hope is that we’ll have a good combination of learning new ideas, interacting with one another’s questions and experiences, and collectively considering tangible next steps informed by the sociological research on these four topics.
Dr. Joel Thiessen is Professor of Sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary, AB
This Article was originally published in The Recorder Vol 60 no 6