There are several factors that drive children who grew up in the faith away from church: college, moving away from home, or starting a career. But many who leave the church return when they form a family of their own.
To some degree, the church-growth movement of the past few decades helped to slow the decline of Christian faith in America. However, the movement’s engine was family formation. “Churches are full of people who left church as single, young adults and returned to the pews when they had families of their own,” wrote religion reporter Paul Asay.
The 2009 book Souls in Transition summarized a longitudinal study of emerging adults ages eighteen to twenty-three, conducted by the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.
The book’s researchers found that:
Marriage, children, and religion tend to go together, at least in the United States. So the more marriage and children are delayed, the more religious involvement is postponed and perhaps never re-engaged (if ever engaged in the first place). One of the strongest factors that brings young adult Americans back to religion after a probable hiatus during emerging adulthood is their formation of new families and especially having children. In the causally reverse direction, being more religious also makes people more likely to marry at all, to marry earlier, to have children at all, and to bear them at a younger age—thus, the strong family/religion connection in the United States is mutually reinforcing, even synergistic. All else being equal, then, we can say that the younger Americans are when they marry and bear children, the more religious they are likely to be. So the postponement of “settling down” that is associated with emerging adulthood unintentionally produces, as a causal mechanism, the tendency for Americans to reduce religious involvements during this phase of life.
The University of Chicago professor Leon Kass said, “It is fatherhood and motherhood that teach most of us what it took to bring us into our own adulthood. And it is the desire to give not only life but a good way of life to our children that opens us toward a serious concern for the true, the good, and even the holy. Parental love of children leads once wayward sheep back into the fold of church.”
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