2 of 3 Pastors: Schools a ‘Negative Influence’ on Spirituality, by Michael F. Haverluck

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March 25, 2019
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By Michael F. Haverluck, OneNewsNow, March 23, 2019

A nationwide study shows that approximately two out of three Protestant pastors believe that schools are detrimentally affecting the spiritual development of students.

Even though parents and the church are perceived as the primary sources from which youth build their faith, they are quite cognizant of the destructive influence school culture has on their faith – especially taking into account that the greatest proportion of children’s waking hours are spent behind school gates – not at church with pastors or at home with parents.

Students beware

Even though a large majority of Protestant pastors are fearful about the effects of school on children, Catholic priests are split on the issue.

“[C]hildren are spending most of their daytime weekday hours each at school, which is perceived by many church leaders as a negative influence on a child’s spiritual formation (65 percent Protestant, 50 percent Catholic),” the latest Barna Group report on its survey reported. “In fact, schools are ranked alongside a child’s friends and peers as primarily negative influences – a view held by 61 percent of Protestant leaders and 65 percent of Catholic leaders.”

Most adults in the faith community agree that the foundation of children’s faith lies with the parents, followed by the church, but it is feared that the toll that the secular climate  of schools takes on youth can overpower the other positive spiritual influences in their lives.

“Clergy view parents (98 percent Protestant, 96 percent Catholic), churches (99 percent Protestant, 100 percent Catholic) and Christian communities (93 percent Protestant, 92 percent Catholic) as positive influences on a child’s spiritual formation and development,” Barna revealed. “In some cases, the perceived negative influence of a child’s school or friend group outweighs a perceived positive influence by double.”

It is presumed that a number of factors could explain the greater confidence Catholic leaders have in schools.

“Catholic priests – though still divided on the issue – are more likely than Protestant pastors to see schools as a positive influence,” Barna pointed out. “This denominational gap could be explained by the prevalence of Catholic school education and the possibility that Catholic priests are assessing the influence of a religious school education.”

Times – and children – are changing

Results from Barna’s Gen Z study – conducted in partnership with the faith-based think tank, Cardus – surveying 650 Protestant and Catholic church leaders, focused on the next generation of Americans coming of age, and it indicates that youth are moving further away from their parents and grandparents regarding their spirituality.

“The post-truth world they inhabit no longer shares the same moral principles or societal values – leading to a more relativistic worldview among teens and a growing religious apathy,” the researchers explained. “Christianity today has less influence on Gen Z than on any previous generation, [but] through Barna’s other research, we see that parents – especially engaged Christian parents – are eager for their children to develop a lasting faith, yet many lack clarity on how to disciple their children well in a decidedly post-Christian context.”

Churches preparing parents?

Barna found that when it comes to training parents to instill their Christian beliefs in their offspring, churches are failing.

“When church leaders were asked to cite the main ways in which they prioritized children’s spiritual formation, nearly three-quarters of Protestant pastors (73 percent) say they address children’s spiritual formation by providing Sunday school and classes for youth,” the study found. “Other common programs include camps or VBS [Vacation Bible School] (36 percent), encouraging children to participate in the main worship service (37 percent) and offering worship services just for children (33 percent).”

Things are a bit different for Catholics.

“Catholic leaders rely most on catechism and sacramental prep classes (71 percent), but also regard children’s presence in the main worship service or mass (31 percent) and participation in the sacraments (31 percent) as means of prioritizing their spiritual development,” it was noted. “To a much lesser extent than Protestant churches, Catholic priests rely on specific Sunday school classes (31 percent).”

Church leaders might believe that the spiritual growth of children primarily rests in the hands of parents, but they are ill-equipped to give them the resources they need to hand down their core beliefs.

“Only about one in five clergy (20 percent Protestant, 17 percent Catholic, though this number is higher for larger churches) says they prioritize training for parents, and even fewer provide parenting guides or other resources (15 percent Catholic, 10 percent Protestant),” the Christian research group revealed. “This lack of training persists even though many parents appear to be actively seeking guidance from church leaders on school matters; for example, nearly half of non-mainline (47 percent) and Catholic (42 percent) clergy say a parent has asked them for advice regarding schooling.”

Addressing education

When it comes to school choice and God giving parents – not the government or schools – authority over their children’s education, most Christian leaders admit their failure to adequately address the topic from the pulpit.

“Catholic priests are more likely than their Protestant peers to address school choice – either from the pulpit (25 percent) or in another setting (35 percent),” Barna asserted. “Slightly less than half of non-mainline pastors (44 percent) has addressed the matter of school choice in the past year, whereas only one in five mainline pastors (21 percent) has done so. Among both Catholic and Protestant clergy who have addressed school choice, most did so outside the pulpit. More Protestant pastors who have schools on campus have mentioned this from the pulpit – [b]ut only slightly more. As expected, pastors who believe Christian schools are important are much more likely to speak about this from the pulpit.”

Summing up kids’ spirituality today …

Barna Senior Vice President of Research Brooke Hempell laments the fact that most Christian parents do not take into account the detrimental impact schools have on their faith before enrolling them at their local campus.

“While it is great that some churches have partnered with or served at local public schools for the purposes of outreach, the decision of where a Christian parent should send their child to school should take into account the whole-person formation of the child,” Hempell contended. “And if public schools are perceived to have a negative influence on the spiritual formation of a child, parents need guidance on how to navigate this decision.”

She shared some takeaways from the study that could turn around the downward spiral in which children’s spirituality is descending.

“In this and several other studies with Christian parents, our research has found that they crave guidance on how to educate and form their children, knowing that they are growing up in a world that is far more secular than their own childhood,” the Christian research expert noted. “Parents want to hear from their pastors on this issue, [and] church leaders have the opportunity to develop a unique community for faith formation by bringing parents, school administrators and faith leaders together in partnerships for faith development.”

She said that in order for America to end its trend of becoming a post-Christian nation, a new reworking of dynamics between families and their local worship centers must take place.

“Overall, this study illustrates a disconnect between these three groups,” Hempell concluded. “Alignment between or relationships among church, parents and schools could be powerful in shaping faith formation in our modern, post-Christian age.”

Changing it up

Cardus Executive Vice President Ray Pennings argued that schools – Christian academic institutions, in particular – must play a crucial rule in children’s spiritual development.

“Church and family life are important in the spiritual formation of young adults, but our research reinforces that schools play an important role too,” Pennings stated in a news release issued by his group. “Church leaders, parents and educators must understand the positive influence of Christian schooling on spiritual formation and work together to ensure that these schooling options are genuinely available for as many families as possible.”

Last year, Penning’s organization revealed children going to Christian schools are more likely to live out their faith than youth attending secular state-run schools.

“In research released in January 2018, Cardus found that Generation X and millennial-aged adults who attended evangelical Protestant schools were more likely to read the Bible, attend worship and pray than their peers who attended public schools,”The Christian Post (CP) recounted. “The 2018 report drew from the 2011 and 2014 Cardus Education Surveys for the United States and the CES for Canada taken in 2012 and 2016.”

Schools that lead students in biblical instruction and other Christian practices bolstering their faith make an impact in whether they stick with their faith down the road.

“Our findings show strong effects of EP schooling on various religious and spiritual outcomes in young adulthood, and these effects hold up after controlling for family-background and demographic variables – including religion of parents,” the Cardus study last year explained.