Christians who don’t have a ‘passed-down’ faith have stronger theological convictions, Barna finds

Wrestling with faith is a 'catalyst' for faith development


Christians who grew up in homes where Christianity was incorrectly modeled and those who didn’t have their faith formed by relatives in their home are more likely to have stronger “theological convictions” than Christians who say their faith was “passed down” to them, new research has found.

On Tuesday, the evangelical polling firm The Barna Group released the results of a study conducted in partnership with the Lutheran Hour Ministries that aims to inform Christian families about what it means to live in a “spiritually vibrant” household.

Titled Households of Faith, the new report is based on an extensive survey conducted last April of as many as 2,400 practicing Christian adults and teens in the United States. The term ‘practicing Christian’ is defined as people who attend church at least once per month, call themselves Christian and say their faith is very important in their life.

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While Barna is known for researching trends within churches and congregations, the new study is different in the sense that it focuses on the conversations, relationships and rituals occurring inside the home.

“This is a cool study because you might think about who influenced you in terms of your spiritual development, in terms of your faith,” Barna President David Kinnaman said during a launch event for the study held at Concordia Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas.

“This project is one of the first of its kind that I know of. And actually, I have been at Barna now for almost 25 years. The company is 35 years old and we have done a lot of research in that time.”

The survey asked the question: “Would you say you are a Christian as a result of a person you grew up with in your household?”

Of the 1,116 practicing Christian adults who responded to that question, 59 percent said that “someone passed their faith down to me.”

Meanwhile, 23 percent said they are a Christian “despite the sort of Christianity I saw in my household growing up,” and 15 percent said they are Christians as an adult not because of a person in their childhood household.

“What is interesting is that those who answered the second two options ... actually showed stronger theological convictions than those who did not,” Kinnaman said during his presentation.  “It was interesting because having a passed-down faith is almost as though they hadn’t really evaluated some of the orthodoxy, some of the beliefs.”

“So, those who have struggled with their faith actually had a richer orthodoxy,” he continued. “At the same time, those who had a passed-down faith — part of that 59 percent — were more likely to prioritize traditions.”

Although those with a passed-down faith were less likely to have stronger theological convictions, Barna found that they did have more emotional connections to Christianity and had a warmer emotional climate within their home than other respondents.

“There was this interesting balance,” Kinnaman said. “There were some positives and negatives on each side of the ledger and there are some important implications for us.”

One of the implications the data show, according to Kinnaman, is that wrestling [with] faith “is a catalyst for people’s faith development.”

“These folks who I mentioned, the 23 percent who struggled despite growing in a Christian household that maybe wasn’t a good model or the 15 percent who said they weren’t a Christian growing up but kind of came to faith, for them … [faith] is not an heirloom,” Kinnaman, the son of a pastor, argued. “It is an anchor to them. That is a really cool part of our church and recognizing some of the contributions some of those individuals can make.”

The study also found that there are benefits to growing up in what is considered a “spiritually vibrant home.”

Spiritually vibrant homes are defined by Barna as households that engage in spiritual practices (praying every one to two days and reading the Bible weekly together), spiritual conversations (talking about God and faith together at least once per week) and hospitality (welcoming non-family guests into the home several times a month.)

Through the study, Barna discovered that faith formation is deeply connected to and increases with hospitality, that spiritually vibrant households are characterized by fun and quality time, and that “faith heritage” impacts Christians' beliefs and practices in the long run.

Of a sample of 2,347 practicing Christians and teens, 25 percent said they live in spiritually vibrant households while 33 percent said they live in devotional households (engage in spiritual practices and conversations but not hospitality) and 14 percent said they are living hospitable households (engage in hospitality but not spiritual practices or conversations).

Twenty-eight percent of practicing Christians say they live in spiritually “dormant” households that don’t engage in any of those three requirements.

“When we looked at spiritually vibrant households, the differences across a whole range of factors were really, really clear and it is the kind of households that we want to be a part of,” Kinnaman said. “It is the kind of lives, as Christians, that we all aspire to. This is the vision that we want to show you today.”

People who live in spiritually vibrant households are more likely than people living in devotional and hospitable households to have someone in the home who shares their faith by either setting an example, encouraging others to go to church, talking about God’s forgiveness, teaching about traditions or teaching about the Bible.

“Imagine if we had more spiritually vibrant households in our churches,” Kinnaman wondered. “Imagine if there were more spiritually vibrant households in your neighborhood. Imagine if you became even more spiritually vibrant in what God is calling you to do.”

Barna’s study comes as the landscape of American households is rapidly changing with households today taking many diverse shapes and forms.

Additionally, Americans are increasingly falling into a post-Christian culture, according to Barna Senior Vice President of Research Brooke Hempell.

“For our team at Barna, we have been studying Gen Z, the next generation, for the last few years. And as a parent of a 12 and 8-year-old, I was looking at this going, ‘The world they are growing up in is really different from the world I experienced in my childhood,’” Hempell explained. “We are going to have to be really intentional in our home to shape their faith so they will thrive in that world.”

Along with the decline in church attendance, Hempell said that Americans are less reliant on the church to form their faiths. People are becoming more reliant on “DIY faith formation” through the internet and other forms of media like podcasts.

“For those who say they are investing in their faith, more of it is happening on their own in this kind of curated way and less of it is happening in the church, like going to worship every Sunday,” Hempell stressed. “The importance of the household in that faith formation in shaping and growing us as Christians has really increased in this context.”

Maina Mwaura, an Atlanta-based pastor and author, played the role of emcee during the launch event in San Antonio. He walked away “encouraged” by the report.

“I walked away going, ‘Man, here are some opportunities for us to grow in the body of Christ,’” Mwaura told the audience. “And I believe that when we are done with all this, you are going to walk away and go, ‘This has been something that I needed.’”   

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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