02 Faith Heritage & Histories

Faith Heritage & Histories


A majority of practicing Christians tells Barna they became Christians long before adulthood, usually before they were 12 years old (68%). This is true regardless of the type of household practicing Christians now occupy—in fact, there are no significant variations in faith heritage when focusing on respondents by household type.

The idea of beliefs that transcend generations is beautiful, but is it also beneficial? That is, does an “inherited” religious identity contribute to the maturation and flourishing of the individual and their faith in the long run? How does this experience compare with that of people who come to Christianity on their own, without positive faith influences in childhood or later in life?

Before we look at the specific ways that households presently nurture faith, this chapter will offer a retrospective of practicing Christian adults’ faith heritages and histories. (As teens are in a formative stage of life and many are still living with their families of origin, they are excluded from some of the more reflective questions related to the spiritual experiences and influences of their upbringing.)


A Shared Faith in Childhood

For most practicing Christian adults, the early, formative days of discipleship occur in their family of origin, usually because Christianity was “passed down” to them by a particular relative (59%), though sometimes another family member was exploring faith around the same time as the respondent (11%). More than half of those who report growing up in the faith (57%) say they were Christian at the time of their birth, a response that is revealing either of their theology or of how extensively Christianity permeated their upbringing.

Over a third of respondents came to faith for reasons other than a positive interaction in their upbringing, including one in four (23%) who says it occurred in spite of a negative example of Christianity in the home. Typically, individuals without strong family roots in the religion say they became Christians later in their youth or, as is the case for 55 percent of this group, during adulthood.

Respondents could select all Christian heritage scenarios that applied, and we find that a variety of family-of-origin experiences overlap. For example, some people who say Christianity was passed down to them also say someone else explored faith at the same time (48%) or that they had a negative example of Christianity in their household while growing up (17%). As you can see, inheriting faith is a common experience among respondents, but it does not eliminate the possibility of simultaneous experiences—even bad ones—with Christianity.

Practicing Christians most often credit their parents as the individuals who helped impart faith to them. In this and other responses throughout the report, it appears that spiritual development in the home is somewhat of a matriarchy. Two-thirds (68%) say they were most influenced by the Christian model of their mothers, compared to less than half (46%) who point to their fathers. More than a third (37%) looks back further into their lineage, to the spiritual influence of their grandparents, usually a grandmother.

Spiritual Upbringing Impacts Theology

A person’s experience with Christianity while growing up does seem linked to their belief system even into adulthood, but a strong Christian heritage does not automatically equate to a strong Christian faith. Rather, taking ownership of one’s beliefs or finding rich community may be required to build upon—or overcome—the spiritual experiences of one’s upbringing.

Respondents who say someone passed Christianity down to them (40%) are actually more likely to hold a nominal faith, which is not characterized by a personal commitment to faith in Jesus (compared to 30% who had a negative Christian model in their upbringing and 21% of those who had no Christian influence in their upbringing). Their theology also tends to be less grounded in some of the traditional tenets of Christianity. They more often think of Satan as merely symbolic (54% agree strongly + somewhat) and 64 percent agree at least somewhat that people go to heaven if they are generally good. Fewer people in this group view God as the creator and ruler of the universe (79%) or affirm that they will go to heaven because of belief in Jesus’ forgiveness (62%).

At the same time, those with a “family tree faith” are open and expressive. Whether they have a cursory or serious connection to Christianity as an adult, they are more likely to have spiritual conversations in their current households—environments which they describe as “peaceful” and “safe” and indicate are quite welcoming: Six in 10 (61%) regularly practice hospitality, compared to half of the respondents who did not carry Christianity with them from their upbringing (50%). It’s possible that people who became Christians very young within a family context continue to model a lifestyle built around community and traditions.

An Unlikely Faith

A Profile of Respondents Who Grew up with Negative Examples of Christianity


What causes an adult who might be disillusioned with the Church and Christianity to stick with or come back to the faith? This is a question church leaders and many parents might ask, particularly as recent years have seen an uptick in the number of adults who become “church dropouts.” New Barna data shows that, since 2011, the percentage of 18–to–29-year-olds who dropped out of the Church and / or their faith has increased from 59 percent to 64 percent.12Additionally, our Gen Z study reports that atheism is more likely among today’s teens than any other generation.13 In seeking some answers, it might be helpful to observe the group of practicing Christian adult respondents in this study who say they have come by a deep faith (usually in their teen years or early 20s) in spite of the fact that they had negative—or, at the least, mixed—feelings about the way Christianity was presented to them in their youth. In qualitative interviews, individuals who fit this category described “starting over” or “zig-zagging” in their faith practice over time. The quantitative studies help track that meandering spiritual journey.

The responses of this segment point to some estrangement in family units—and the problem seems most to lie with their parents. Though they still note fathers and mothers as Christian presences from their upbringing, this group is more likely to name siblings, grandparents, other relatives and close friends as important spiritual figures in their youth. As adults, Christians with negative spiritual upbringings are consistently less likely than those with other heritages to identify their mothers or fathers as individuals who set a Christian example, taught them about God or encouraged church attendance. Their parents also less often come up as sources of help for other needs, like advice, sympathy or money. Just over half in this faith heritage group, which tends to be represented by Millennials and Gen X, say they continue any unique Christian traditions they learned from their family of origin, compared to two-thirds of those who positively identified with their childhood faith and three-quarters of those who explored faith with someone else in their youth. There are other signs of continued strain even in their current households; when describing their home environments, which are less interactive on several counts, the word “tense” pops up more.

For adults with this complicated faith heritage, regular activities, sensitive discussions or mere texts and phone calls with their immediate family of origin are rare. But there are still signs that these Christians are rooted in loving community, even if they are generally distant from their parents or siblings. If married, they prefer to sort out their faith views and practices with a partner; in fact, they are one of the rare groups who says a spouse even teaches them about traditions (perhaps because they are unlikely to feel attached to or warm toward any from their childhood, or because their spouse first drew them toward or back into a positive faith). They are also more likely than those with other faith backgrounds to report having multiple friends who feel like family.

These facts, as well as evidence of their strong commitment to scripture and other tenets of faith, give an impression of adults who have found refuge and stability—perhaps for the first time—in a faith and community that they chose and cultivated on their own. To them, Christianity isn’t an heirloom; it’s an anchor.



Those whose Christian faith was absent or not positively nurtured in their families of origin could have a harder time establishing spiritual rituals and community in their current households. But though their religious experience may appear less communal or instinctual, it is still thoughtful and assured. Consider that those who say their faith exists despite negative Christian examples in their family of origin are the group most certain of the inerrancy of scripture (94% agree strongly + somewhat), or that those whose Christianity is not linked to their upbringing at all are most convinced of salvation through belief in Jesus Christ (82%). It’s possible that reacting against a negative or inconsistent model of faith prompts one to investigate and cling to these tenets. What these adults lack in religious legacy, they may find in devotion and discipleship. The roots of their faith are often younger, but they are well-tended.

One way or another, Christians need outside influences for robust faith formation. Adults whose upbringing did not plant them in meaningful Christian teachings or traditions might grow in community with their extended households. Meanwhile, adults with a long-held Christian identity might look to resources and voices beyond their family of origin to re-examine or strengthen their beliefs.

A Theology of Hospitality

A Q&A with Sandra Van Opstal

Sandra is a second-generation Latina, pastors at Grace and Peace Church and lives on the west side of Chicago with her husband and two boys. She is a preacher, liturgist and activist reimagining the intersection of worship and justice. Sandra served with Urbana Missions Conference, Chicago Urban Program and Latino National Leadership Team (LaFe) of InterVarsity. Sandra’s influence has also reached many others through preaching globally on topics such as worship and formation, justice, racial identity and reconciliation. Sandra is a board member for the Christian Community Development Association and holds a MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Her most recent books include Still Evangelical and The Next Worship.

A Shared Faith in Adulthood

Whatever their experience with Christianity in their childhood home, most respondents across all of the household types now share the same faith as at least one other person who either lives under their roof or regularly visits. Nearly three-quarters (77%) indicate sharing the same faith “either totally or with few exceptions” with a Christian in their household or extended household. One-third (36%) points to a household relationship with a Christian who has some significant differences in beliefs. A full quarter of respondents (26%), however, regularly shares space with someone who does not claim the same faith at all. A lack of religious overlap occurs more in multi-generational and roommate households.

Controlling for other factors, Boomers and Elders are the generations of practicing Christians most likely to hold the same faith as someone in their household or extended household. This checks out, given a general decrease in practicing faith among younger generations, as well as the fact that many older adults are living in couple contexts, in which three-quarters of respondents (76%) indicate their spouse is also a Christian.

The Role of Doubt in Faith Formation

by Rev. Dr. Jason Broge


“Does God really listen to our prayers?” “Do you really believe your Christian denomination is right and all others are wrong?” “Is Jesus really the only way to heaven?” “If God is loving, would he really send anyone to hell?” “I’m not so sure that God really created everything in just seven days.”

The question can come in many forms; sometimes it isn’t even a question, just an expression of doubt. For many Christians, there are few things scarier than being cornered by someone in your household who is struggling with some fundamental doubt about the faith. This fear is likely even more acute for parents who, as this report demonstrates (page 109), are often the first people children will bring their questions to. As Christians, we have this innate desire to protect kids from religious doubts in the hope that this will keep them within the walls of the kingdom. Yet research suggests that our desire to protect people from doubt may do more harm than good. Studies show doubt is an important part of the process in forming a healthy religious identity. As one researcher put it, “If a genuine and vibrant identity cannot emerge without exploration and doubt is linked to this criteria, then doubt of any kind … appears to be related to healthy psychological development.”14

At first glance, this seems counterintuitive to many people. Part of the problem stems from how we define doubt. Within the Church, doubt is often seen as synonymous with unbelief. Yet for the purposes of research into human growth and development, doubt is distinct from unbelief. Doubt is a hesitation, a temporary divide in thought created “by the collision of evidence with prior belief, or one belief with another.”15 It is the attempt to resolve a mental disequilibrium “by pushing some ideas toward more certainty” over other ideas.16 Unbelief, on the other hand, is an outright rejection of a belief or idea, a “resolute state of mind involving a definitive conviction of falsity regarding an issue.”17 Religious doubt can lead to unbelief, but it does not have to lead to unbelief. Doubt, by its very nature, leads to both a stronger belief in something and unbelief in something else.

Therefore, the question is not whether doubt will lead to unbelief, but which beliefs will be strengthened and which beliefs will be rejected. Doubt can lead to a strengthening of one’s beliefs that Jesus is the only way to heaven even as it pushes one away from a pluralistic view of the road to heaven.

But what if it doesn’t?

That “what if?” is the fear that keeps Christian parents from engaging in spiritual conversations about doubts with their children. The problem is these doubts don’t go away. Doubt cannot be avoided; it is a natural part of human development. Research into human growth and development demonstrates that doubt is a key process a person goes through to confirm and take ownership of their identity. It occurs in all spheres of life, from work and family to social and religious realms. The period of time that defines how well a person will be able to handle the doubts life will continually throw at them is right around ages 18 to 24.18 This is the time of life when the individual is transitioning from adolescence into young adulthood, transitioning from a time when decisions were being made by others (parents, school, church) to being made by self. The doubts come from all angles of life, not just the spiritual realm: Do I really want to go to college? Am I just a Republican / Democrat because my parents are? What if I don’t want to get married? But of course, the questions are spiritual too. How can they not be? As Lesslie Newbigin once wrote: “The story the church is commissioned to tell, if it is true, is bound to call into question any plausibility structure which is founded on other assumptions.”19

Doubt is not the enemy. It is inevitable. And it is important to understand that humans cannot live in the state of doubt forever. They find a way to resolve the doubt and either strengthen the core belief or reject it for another one. They naturally seek sources to help them process and resolve doubts. They turn first to sources that are seen as safe and knowledgeable in the area. With this in mind, as Christian parents, we want our children coming to us with questions and doubts; we want the doubts brought to the household, not hidden from it; we want to be the safe person who can guide them through this “state of mental disequilibrium.”

This does not mean we need to have all the answers—but it does mean that we need to create households where people feel safe to talk about and explore their doubts with the help of loved ones. This is not something to wait for. It is best begun when children are young and naturally bring questions to their parents. These questions can be welcomed and encouraged even as answers are sought together. This creates a pattern of safety and exploration that will become the norm when children are older. Households should embrace doubt as the way to strengthen and create vibrant faith together.


Rev. Dr. Jason Broge

Rev. Dr. Jason Broge is the associate director of design and development for Lutheran Hour Ministries. Jason served as a teacher for a number of years before becoming a pastor. After obtaining his PhD in education, he went on to serve as the director of curriculum design and development for Concordia Seminary.

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