03 Church Families

Church Families


For engaged Christian parents, church is a family affair. And even though children may be small, they carry big weight when it comes to family decisions about where to worship. Nearly six in 10 highly engaged Christian parents say children’s programming is the primary reason they chose their current church (58%). As we might expect, church-guided parents—who look to church leaders for faith formation guidance—are more likely to highly prioritize the children’s ministry when selecting a church home (64% say this is their primary reason for choosing where to attend vs. 52% of self-guided parents).

For churches to attract and retain strong Christian families, children’s programming must be a key part of holistic family ministry.

Children's program is the primary reason for church choicechildren's church activity involvement by childs age

As any parent can confirm, regular church attendance with a kid can be a challenge. So how often are families making it to church?

In general, more than one might think. Regardless of what region you’re in, about three in five engaged Christians’ children attend church every week. This is as true in the West and Northeast (generally speaking, more unchurched) as it is in the South.

Attendance at Sunday worship appears quite consistent across age groups, hovering in the 80- to 88-percent range across the span of childhood years. Sunday school attendance trails by only a few percentage points across these years. The dedicated truly are dedicated.

That said, various factors appear to impact the likelihood of a family attending church on a regular basis. As one example, two-thirds of married people’s children (64%) attend church every week, compared to half of single parents’ kids (51%). For some, the weeklong work and parenting demands of a typical single parent means less time and energy even for a family activity that’s very important to them, such as attending church. For others, it may be a logistical issue having to do with weekend custody.

churched level by household income

In a similar (and often related) vein, household income is also a predictor for how often a family attends. Families with lower household income are more likely than others to miss one Sunday a month. The percentage differences between economic groups for church-engaged are not statistically significant; those who attend every week are dedicated, regardless of financial situation. But families who miss a week here and there are more likely to have less income, perhaps due to inconsistent work schedules.

No matter how committed they are, there are days when parents just can’t make it to church. It might be easy for ministry leaders to feel, when they see empty seats, that attendance is a low priority for parents—but that’s not usually the case. Researchers asked parents two related questions: What prevented them from making it to church, and how often they participated in online services. The good news? When engaged Christian families miss church, they typically have a good reason.

About two out of three report that illness (33%) or travel (29%) were the cause of their last absence. Half of young parents ages 24 to 34 say they missed church because someone was sick (52%). Young families, especially, are doing their best to be there. (But sometimes the flu says otherwise!)

Fewer report they were “too tired” (6%) or they “didn’t feel like going” (9%). In a noticeable jump, older parents are more willing than younger ones to say they simply “didn’t feel like going” (31% vs. 5%). Could this point to disengagement or a diminished value of church in the minds of older parents? (Alternately, some may just be tired!)

reasons for missing church

Parents in the Northeast are more likely to say they skipped church due to an activity compared to parents living in other regions. Given that the Northeast is a highly unchurched region, it seems possible that events are scheduled at times that frequently conflict with church services more often than in other regions.

What about engaging with a service via the internet? Roughly one in three says they “never” watch a church service online (30%). Among the one-quarter of all engaged Christian parents (24%) who watch two or more times per month, doing so is more common among African Americans (45%) and single parents (32% vs. 21% married).

The crux of the matter is this: Even when they are absent, parents’ desire to be with their church family (with kids in tow) is strong—so strong that many “go” to church any way they can.

frequency watch online

Stages of Spiritual Development

By Hettie Brittz

Spiritual development is closely tied to moral development phases—how growing children process the ideas of right and wrong, safe and unsafe, good and bad. These are very abstract concepts for a while and only become concrete later in childhood.

From ages 3 to 5 there’s a phase of wonder. Kids are very much impressed by the miracles God can do. It’s almost a magical phase—where the stories about the miracles of Christ, the plagues or Samson’s strength really grab their attention. Kids see God almost like a superhero with incredible powers. During this time, they need to be taught how the wonder points to the inner powers, such as love, that makes God better than any superhero.

The 5-year-old starts getting ready to understand some of that and the 6-yearold, depending on their development and personality, can move onto a next phase that’s very, very different. (Six-year-olds are right on “the crack” between the two spiritual developmental phases on either side.)

The years from 6 to 10 are almost ruled by fear. Kids become acutely aware of how real dangers are in the world around them. They become aware of illness. It’s the age when parents start telling them, “We’re not going to grandma’s because she is sick.” Parents start talking about death. Children are more exposed, more active out of the house. They see the world a bit more clearly. During this time, one of their primary felt needs is to know, How can God protect me? The world has become so much bigger, so they want to know how “big” God is and how his power can help them.

This is a phase when we sometimes think children are too small to deal with difficult truths, so we are tempted to give them a false foundation. This is an extreme example, but something along the lines of, “If you pray Psalm 91 before you go to bed, then the bad guys can’t come into the house.” We try to give them concrete guarantees of safety, but that undermines faith when people do die. Not everybody we pray for gets healed and things don’t always go smoothly. In this phase, we need to understand that they could develop a very unhelpful fear of God because of this propensity to be afraid.

Then, from age 11 onward, there is a stronger focus on morality. There is an acute awareness of sin, uncertainty whether they are good enough for God. Usually they want to know what “the rules” are. They regard faith as making the right choices, believing the right things, having the right information and living right. Right, right, right.

This is a wonderful phase for them to be introduced to concepts of grace, forgiveness, confession and the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life. It’s really in this phase they can get their heads around Jesus dying on the cross for us in very meaningful ways. Earlier on it’s almost a little too scary and too concrete, and kids who are exposed to the crucifixion of Christ in a very graphic manner before that age often go into extreme guilt about what “they” have done to Christ, personally and individually, unless they are guided carefully through that.

When we as parents demonstrate both God’s justice and his forgiveness in consistent ways in that phase from 10 to 12, it is the best spiritual gift we can give our children.


Hettie BrittzHETTIE BRITTZ is developer of the Evergreen Parenting Course and heads a group of more than 200 facilitators in eight countries who use the course to help families. She is married to the Gospel singer and music producer Louis Brittz, and they have three children.

Guiding Healthier Transitions

By Beth Green

While our kids are being forced to deal with “adult” topics and media at younger ages, there is a bigger story: In our culture, transitions into real adulthood are being delayed. Thinking back to my grandparents’ generation, young people left school at age 12 or 13 to begin apprenticeships and start functioning as adults. But today, the idea of a preadolescent developmental transition is far more significant, and chronological phases are drawn out.

At age 12 today, a child is not yet a teenager, and certainly not an adult. In some senses they’re being given permission to grow up, while in other ways—including emotionally, psychologically and spiritually— they’re not being encouraged to mature into the responsibilities of adulthood. Technology may push kids to experience mature ideas, but they lack the support and structure of the healthy expectations of their community to help them transition into the next phase of their lives.


Beth GreenBETH GREENis a senior fellow in education for Cardus, and formerly program director of Cardus Education. She is also Visiting Professor of Research, Integration and Educational Formation at Tyndale University College in Toronto.

Church-Engaged Children

For the six in 10 Christian parents who report attending church on a weekly basis, we will see that their high involvement in church is echoed in other domains of family life. These are church-engaged families, and their faithfulness in a worshiping community correlates with other faith-forming activities. (When it comes to activities that are not specific to Christians, church-engaged and less engaged kids’ lives look similar.)

For example, children who are most active in church tend to engage with the Bible outside of church, to attend church activities other than Sunday worship (such as Bible studies, camps or children’s / youth events), and to pray together with their family as well. They are also about twice as likely to engage in outreach activities and volunteerism, demonstrating that the level of dedication in this group to the overall mission of the church is not only internally focused, but expresses itself in outward action.

Families who are established in their church are more likely to be church-engaged. They’ve put down roots. By the same token, they are less likely to be at a new church than parents with less-engaged children. (Said differently, among families who are in their first year of attending a church, 60% fall into the “less church-engaged” category and do not attend weekly.)

weekly church attendance by Bible engagementchurch activities within the past year

Perhaps unsurprisingly, three out of five church-engaged parents are very satisfied with their children’s spiritual formation thus far (61% vs. 51%). They are also more likely to rely on their church for the faith development of their kids (72% vs. 63%). Less church-engaged parents, by comparison, are more likely to look to extended family as key to their child’s faith development (39% vs. 30%).

But while being a church-engaged parent bodes well for many aspects of parenting, there is reason to believe that church-engaged parents tend to have a rosier view of the age their child is exposed to negative material or experiences. These parents are far more likely to say their children are not exposed to sensitive or problematic things until after they’re 15 years old (see p. 65). It is easy to speculate that heavy church involvement could somewhat disconnect parents from the realities many kids face—but alternately, church-engaged parents may be more vigilant about what their children encounter outside the house and “in the wild.”

child is exposed to _ after age 15

Researchers asked engaged Christian parents about their children’s engagement with “extracurricular” church activities (such as Christian camps, youth group or Bible study), while also gauging their level of involvement with more general extracurricular participation.

The picture that emerges shows significant correlation between a family committing to participation in general extracurricular activity for their children and their commitment to extracurricular church activities. In other words, families already doing quite a bit are likely to do more, while children who aren’t involved as often in general extracurricular activity are less likely to get involved in church-specific activities. Just one example? Kids or youth with high extracurricular commitments are nearly twice as likely to be involved in a church Bible study as kids who have fewer extracurricular commitments.

childrens involvement in church activities

Overcommitment of a child’s time is a real issue today, and these numbers should not be used to pressure more involvement from families who have little margin. But there appears to be a type of family whose high level of engagement encompasses both Christian and secular opportunities for involvement. When there is a healthy balance, church leaders should not feel that their ministry is “just one more thing” for busy families. Church activities can be part of a vibrant and thriving schedule for a developing child— and already are for many families.

The Gift of a Parent’s Presence

By Bryan Cheney

The research into kids retaining their faith as they grow points toward the need for family warmth. The families that have a high “stickiness” factor aren’t just those who read the Bible every night, but those who simply enjoy each other’s company and have fun together.

In understanding that, we’ve decided that one of the best things we can do for families is model the importance of this practice and provide them with opportunities to be together. When we plan an event we don’t just say, “Here’s an event to entertain your kids. Drop them off and we’ll teach them about the Bible.” I call that a “carwash mentality.” Instead, our mentality is, “Here’s an event that will help your whole family. It’s an example of something you could do regularly to learn and spend time together and build your relationship. We want to partner with your family.”

If our families can say, “One of the best things we ever did as a family is come to church regularly,” we feel like we’re winning.


Bryan CheneyBRYAN CHENEY is a Christ-follower, husband, dad and Promiseland Director at Willow Creek Community Church—in that order!

Parents & Kids in Spiritual Conversation

Parenting is perhaps the greatest imaginable opportunity for long-term conversation. No other life role offers such an intimate and constant opportunity to engage questions and develop ongoing dialog. Just ask a committed parent, and they will likely have many stories of conversations with their kid, moments that were meaningful, challenging, satisfying, hilariously awkward—or all of the above.

Conversations about spirituality tend to start young. “Who made the world?” “Does God love me?” “Why do bad things happen?” From early on, these questions invite parents to consider their own faith and test their skill at putting deep concepts into child-friendly formats.

How prepared do parents feel to be guides in spiritual conversations with their kids? It varies, but in general parents are confident. When asked how well their church has equipped them to have faith-focused conversations with their child, nearly half report feeling “extremely well” equipped (46%). An additional two in five say “very well” (39%). In fact, only 2 percent of parents report feeling completely out of their depth.

parents feeling equipped for spiritual conversations

One interesting dynamic is that parents with less education tend to say they feel better equipped to have spiritual conversations than those with more education. One possible reason might be that those with less education have different or simpler ideas of what a spiritual conversation with their kids should look like. Or perhaps their perception of faith is simpler—they do not feel the need to caveat for possible future intellectual barriers to faith in later adolescence or through exposure to new ideas during the college experience. Whatever the case, bettereducated parents may need more encouragement and guidance from ministry leaders.

Given their greater dependence on their church for guidance (as we saw in chapter 1), it’s not surprising that parents of media-engaged children say they find it difficult to discuss faith-focused topics with their children. This is less often the case among less media-engaged families. What is holding them back from taking initiative with their kids to lead these conversations? Church leaders may be able to drill down here to uncover if parents’ reluctance comes from a lack of resourcing or weakness in family relationships. In either case, there is a strategic opportunity for church leaders to lean into an urgent (if quiet) need among media-engaged families in their faith community.

Primary Shapers of Belief

By Janelle Schroy

Church typically gets a small slice of time in a child’s life, often just an hour and a half once a week. This means parents have far more time and opportunity for influence— as well as more responsibility to shape the character of their child—than a church does.

Parents need to think of themselves as primary shapers of their children’s belief structures. But they also need to know they are not alone. Church leaders need to help parents understand the importance of deepening their relationships through shared experiences. No one else knows and understands a child the way a parent does—not a youth pastor, not a children’s minister, not a teacher. In fact, I like to use the word “mentor” or “guide” to describe a parent who guides their child in the process of discovering their belief structure.

This powerful parental influence happens through time spent together. I remember reading a Harvard study that discovered the number one predictor of a child’s future happiness was the quality of their closest relationships when they were young. And of course, quality relationships come through time spent together.

Churches might be tempted to think that they just need to give parents another app or video or webinar to help them be better parents. But it’s about time. Another study found that the average amount of quality time parents spent with kids every day is only 34 minutes. Time spent well has been lost in our culture. How can the church help reverse this? How can we creatively respond to gather kids and parents into shared experiences, instead of constantly separating them when they walk into church?

I’m on this parenting journey myself, and I’ve found the best possible thing I can do with my seven-year-old daughter is to go on a date at a coffee shop with her every week. We have a shared mother-daughter journal with prompts in it that we pass back and forth. She will write things to me that she doesn’t say in person or will ask questions she’s too embarrassed to ask out loud.

I can talk at her all day long, and send her to school and to workshops, but at the end of the day the quality of our relationship depends on my time spent with her. My personal, physical, undivided presence— apart from technology—is the best gift I can give.


Janelle SchroyJANELLE SCHROY is the visionary, product creator and key spokewoman for Adventure Clubs, which she designed out of her desire to create a meaningful life with her family. She is married to her Adventure Clubs co-founder, Jedd Schroy, and they have four daughters.

Waxing & Waning Interest in Church

For any of us—kids included—there can be an ebb and flow in our desire to engage in church life. But the story of fluctuating interest over the course of childhood has interesting implications for how church fits into the larger story of a young person’s spiritual life.

For all young people—those Barna classifies as church-engaged and those who are less engaged—interest often declines a bit as a child enters the middle teenage years. But a sharp disparity emerges when comparing these two groups year over year. In the long run, less church-engaged teens are more likely than those who attend every Sunday to lose interest in church.

changing interest in church attendance by child age

Among church-engaged young people, interest in attending church tends to decline between the ages of 10 and 12, then remain fairly consistent through the high school years.

Compare that to less church-engaged young people. They are significantly more likely to be disinterested in church at a younger age (6 to 9), with a sharp spike in that disinterest when they are 12 to 13. Once they reach high school, disinterest leaps—about three in 10 becoming disinterested in church, compared to roughly one in seven church-engaged youth.

declining and increasing interest by church engagement

In short, consistency matters. Engagement in a community of faith is a slow cooker, not a microwave. Many of the “persistence benefits” of consistent church involvement aren’t truly felt until a young person’s high school experience is well underway. While there are a host of reasons a young person might lose interest in church, the data clearly show that being part of a family that is regular in church attendance plays a part in keeping high schoolers engaged in their congregation.

Three Key Trends Affecting Kids Today

By Beth McCauley

1. Kids today lack persistence.
They avoid struggles and challenges, and give up easily. They become frustrated when they can’t quickly get an answer from adults. We call this a lack of “grit.” In my experience, we’re seeing fewer children work hard, endure struggles, accept failure, and get up to try again. One contributing factor may be that increasingly parents seem to resolve challenges for their children. Often, parents truly want to do what’s right for their child, but that desire results in them resolving the situation themselves instead of allowing their child to struggle to a resolution.

2. Children today need intentional physical activity to maintain focus.
This could certainly be related to the fact that children aren’t getting enough activity outside of the school day because they’re spending more time inside using technology. A decade or so ago, schools pulled back from physical education, believing they needed to focus on core subjects and academics, and there wasn’t time for physical education. But we’re now understanding that we have to up the level of movement throughout the day in order to engage them. Whatever the reason, it’s impacting their cognitive skills and ability to focus—they need to move to create space for learning.

3. Technology affects children’s emotional engagement.
I’ve seen this in schools where children are given iPads and take surveys that ask how they feel by allowing them to click on happy or sad faces. If we continue to do that, we’re diminishing their ability to put emotions into words. The ability to express yourself verbally is essential for success in life, but that ability can be stifled by technology. One way we can develop this is by giving children opportunities and space at home and at school to express their emotions without being criticized or stifled— and giving them a full palette of language to express themselves. (I’ve also seen a tendency for adults to step in and provide responses for children instead of allowing them to struggle and practice responding to difficult situations emotionally. This goes back to the need for parents and educators to help children develop grit.)


Beth McCauleyBETH McCAULEY has been an educator for more than 30 years.

Most parents are willing guides for their child’s spiritual development, and a majority of them say their church plays a vital role in helping them help their child navigate the spiritual journeys of youth and childhood. Church matters—deeply— as part of the whole picture of childhood faith formation.

Regular church attendance in childhood plays an important role in young people’s long-range faith picture. As parents and church leaders consider together how best to nurture the personhood and faith of younger Christians, one thing is vital to remember: We are all in this together, and each guide in a child’s life is dynamically important for their faith and development.

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