No Father → No Faith?

By Scott Keith

father and son

Last week, the Pew Research Group published a study entitled: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The study found that the number of people who self-identify as Christians in the U.S. population is on the decline. At the same time, the number of people in the U.S. who simply do not associate with any type of “organized religion” is expanding. The Pew Group claims: “Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.”

So what are we to make of this? Why is it happening? I’m sure that there are many and varied reasons for this, almost clichéd statistical data. In fact, some may even rebuff the data as inconclusive or simply false. Yet when I heard the numbers, I was reminded of a few others studies that I ran across while working on my forthcoming book on fatherhood.

According to US Census Bureau data, 43% of all children in the United States live in a home where there is no father. The social ramifications of this sad reality are staggering. According to the US Department of Health, 63% of all youth suicides occur in fatherless homes. The same agency reports that 90% of all runaway children live in a home where there is no father. Further, the Center for Diseases control reported in 2012 that 85% of children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes, 20 times the national average. A staggering 80% of convicted rapists come from fatherless homes. (Criminal Justice & Behavior 1978) And lastly, a 2014 National Principals Association Report on the state of U.S. schools indicated that 71% of all high school dropouts live in fatherless homes.

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This crisis even extends into the life of faith and the health and wellness of the church. In 1994 the Swiss carried out a landmark study that revealed the truth about the faith lives of children. The study found that it is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children. (Robbie Low, Men in Church) Not surprisingly, the study revealed that if both parents attend church regularly, 33% of their adult children would also attend regularly. Also, no surprise is that if only one parent–the mother–attends regularly (and the father is a no show), a mere 2% of adult children will attend regularly. The unexpected result was that if the father alone attends (the mother is the no show), fully 44% of adult children become regular attenders.

In short, if a father is not a believer, the children will most likely not be believers as adults, no matter the faith practices of the mother. If a father is a believer and practices his faith regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, in the neighborhood of 60% to 75% of their children will be Christians who regularly attend church. Even a father’s irregular faith input and practice will result in more than half of his offspring coming to, staying in, and practicing the faith as adults. In short, fathers matter more than we think when it comes to the faith of their children. In fact, perhaps nothing in a child’s faith development matters more than the picture of faith that they see in their own father.

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My forthcoming book, On Being a Dad – The Apologetic Magic in a Father’s Love, will discuss these issues in great detail. The parable of the Prodigal Son will serve as the backdrop for the book. This is a powerful story because it provides a picture of the Word of forgiveness spoken into a world rightly expecting law. Just when we think condemnation is what is needed, the father steps in and hands out only forgiveness. This is the picture of the Father that Christ paints, and this is the shadow of “fatherness” for which the book will advocate. If fathers are to make a substantive and powerful impact in the lives of their children, it will be by being who God has said they are: little Christ’s and forgiveness to their own children.

If there is a “father problem” in our society, and I think there is, the solution is more Gospel, more forgiveness, more fathered graciousness, not more law.

The goal is to give a gift to the reader of a picture of a good father. In the end, connections will be made between good earthly fathers and the picture of God as our true Father. This book will never be a how-to manual. Many specifics will be left out. I am approaching this work through the narrow lense of how good dads who forgive point to the truth of a good God who forgives. There will be no 10 steps to better disciplined children here. As I have said many times, I believe that the Law is natural to us and we need very few tips regarding its implementation in the home. If we choose to be permissive, that is not the Law but rather our own sin. If we choose to be rigidly legalistic in our approach to fatherhood, that is allowing the character of the Law to rule over our household in place of the Gospel. But if we forgive sins, we cast a reflection that points to a God who forgives in Christ. It is in this way that we understand that fatherhood truly must be at the core of the universe. Again, please remember, perhaps nothing in a child’s faith development matters more than the picture of faith that they see in their own father.

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