Sticky Faith & Partnering with Parents

Jen Bradbury
Aug 14 · 5 min read

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of writing a piece on Sticky Faith – research that I very much admire and respect from Kara Powell and the folks at the College Transition Project - for The Christian Century.

A few weeks ago, Christian Century published the letters to the editor about my piece. One of those letters said this: 

I appreciate “Sticky Faith” but find the fact that parents & family were missing in it to be problematic and unfortunately typical of youth ministry conversations. If parents are the primary spiritual influence on a young person (which they are – it's not the church or the Christian education program), then youth ministry cannot ignore parents. This article is great in lifting up caring adults and theological reflection for mission, but it missed the heart of where youth ministry needs to be: helping families together meet Jesus and be followers of him. - Wade Zick

Wade's criticism is legitimate. Though I talked in this article about the importance of adults in developing Sticky Faith in young people, I did not specifically address the role of parents in this process. 

To be clear, however, the research from the College Transition Project published in Sticky Faith certainly deals with the importance of parents in the faith formation of their children. It reiterates the finding from the National Study of Youth and Religion that “the most important social influence in shaping young people's religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents... When it comes to kids' faith, parents get what they are.”

I don't dispute this. 

I know it. I believe it. And I believe most youth workers today know & believe this as well.

The problem is, we haven't yet figured out what this means for us.

Sure, we like to toss around the idea of partnering with parents. What I've learned, however – both from my own experience and from hearing others repeatedly use this phrase - is that most often, when we say this, we're referring to how we need to

1. Communicate often and well with parents about what goes on in our youth ministries
2. Support and affirm parents  
3. Respect parents' time with their kids by not over scheduling youth ministry events.

No doubt, all three of these things are important. Each is invaluable in cultivating good relationships with parents.

But do any of these things really enable and empower parents to pass on Sticky Faith to their kids?

I'm not sure they do.

That's why I appreciate the practical steps Kara Powell, Brad Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford give youth workers for helping parents to impart Sticky Faith to their kids. Those steps include helping parents talk about their own Sticky Faith & helping parents learn to listen & ask questions instead of lecturing.

Even so, I confess that as a youth worker, these two things often feel daunting to me. How can I do even these two things when parents are already so over-scheduled and overwhelmed?

This is a question I constantly wrestle with.

Perhaps it's because I'm constantly wrestling with this question that I've found the books of Moses to be so enjoyable this summer as I've dug into Scripture by participating in Margaret Feinberg's 40 Day Bible Reading Challenge.

What's jumped out at me about these books – especially Exodus and Deuteronomy – is their emphasis on the faith formation of children.

Of course, most youth workers are familiar with Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

What I think we are less familiar with, however, is the way in which this commandment is repeated throughout the books of Moses. I was particularly taken with how this idea is connected to how the Israelites were to explain the Passover to their children. Exodus 13:8 says, 

Tell your child on that day: This is because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.

Throughout Deuteronomy, God's people are told often to remember. 

And it seems that throughout much of the Old Testament, life is good as long as God's people remember. Trouble strikes, however, when they forget.

In light of this, I wonder: Could it really be that simple? Might a key component of helping people form Sticky Faith simply be training them to stop, notice, and remember what God has and is doing in their lives?   

Recently, a mom shared with me some of the struggles she's having with her child. I listened for quite a while before asking her how she's experienced God's presence during this ongoing struggle.

She paused for a moment and then proceeded to recount, in elaborate detail, the times in which God's presence has been palpable to her. 

Without a doubt, it was a holy moment for the two of us. 

It was also in some ways, a stolen moment - a moment that happened not because of an elaborate program but because I took time to talk with this parent and ask her a few questions about her life. 

It seems to me that much of life - especially for busy families - actually happens in similar unplanned, stolen moments. In some ways, I hope that because this conversation happened as it did, it will equip this mom to do as Deuteronomy 6 commands: To stop, notice, and remember the ways in which God is working in her family's life with her kids "wherever they are, sitting at home or walking in the street". I hope that as they talk, she will confidently share with them,This is what God's doing for me and for us.”

Maybe if students hear this from their parents, they, too, will learn to stop, notice, and remember what God is doing in their lives. 

Like Wade, I want families to "together meet Jesus and be followers of him." 

Like so many youth workers, I want to partner with parents. 

Maybe the key to both is helping us all to remember what God has and is doing in our lives.