We do not have family devotionals in the McDowell household. Given that I am so vocal about the importance of passing on the faith, and the fact that my dad has written a few family devotionals, this might surprise you.
For the record, I am not against family devotionals. Many families have told me that they have regular, meaningful devotional times. If that is you, keep it up.
So, why not have family devotionals?
One reason is that I don’t want to give my kids the impression that faith can be compartmentalized to certain times and places. As taught in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), I want my kids to realize that faith applies to all aspects of life–when they wake up, travel, eat, and lie down. Family devotionals can send an unintended message that we have “spiritual time,” which is distinct from the rest of life.
But this is a minor reason. After all, people could have family devotions and talk about faith throughout the rhythm of life.
My Personal Experience
The main reason comes from my own experience and from the research on how faith is effectively passed from one generation to the next. Let’s start with my experience. In my family growing up, we didn’t have routine family devotions.
Instead, we talked about faith throughout the ebb and flow of life. My parents intentionally wove faith conversations into our daily lives. Whether it was sports, politics, relationships, or movies, they found ways to make faith conversations natural and expected without it feeling forced or overbearing (most of the time!).
Rather than being formally taught to think Christianly, my faith was caught by interacting with my parents as they lived out their faith consistently and naturally.
Research on Faith Transmission
As for the research, in his latest book Handing Down the Faith, sociologist Christian Smith observes that parents having conversations with their kids about faith signals the importance of religion. Since people talk about what they care about, talking about faith communicates to kids that faith matters.
Dr. Smith observes, “Talk about religion that unaffectedly flows in and out of larger discussions is much more powerful than discussions that begin with, 'Okay, children, now we are going to talk about religion'” (p. 84). Regardless of the particular religious tradition, these kinds of natural conversations about religion work best in religious enculturation.
I love superheroes. And I love sports. So, I talk with my kids about these things. But we also talk regularly about religious issues.
With that said, I do have some formal interactions with my kids. For instance, when my son wanted to see the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, I told him I would take him and a friend if he would simply agree to talk with me about it after. We went to the movie together and then had a great conversation (not a lecture) about faith, relationships, and film. We don't do this for every film, but we do for some.
I also convinced my daughter to read the manuscript of my book Chasing Love and have a conversation with me about it, if I would buy her a new pair of new shoes. She agreed and we had a wonderful conversation about sex, love, and dating.
We also plan more formal worldview training such as Summit Ministries, Christian education, and a host of other resources. But we don’t have family devotions. Again, if they work for your family, go for it. Just don’t be led to believe that they are the primary ways that faith is handed down.
What the Data Shows
The data shows that the quality of parent-child relationships, the modeling of an attractive and genuine faith, and the consistency of conversations and interactions about religion are THE key factors in faith transmission.
If you are looking for a how-to book on practical ways to pass on your faith, check out my book with J. Warner Wallace: So The Next Generation Will Know.