Education

New survey asks pastors: Do schools influence faith formation?

April 3, 2019

Ray Carter

Debates over school choice often focus on academics: Where will a child receive the best quality education? But in many cases, parents seek alternatives for other reasons, including religious values.

New research by the Barna Group shows education’s impact on the transmission of moral values is increasingly an issue of concern for religious leaders, many of whom now view schools as a negative influence when it comes to a child’s faith formation.

Barna, in partnership with Cardus, a faith-based think tank, recently interviewed 650 church leaders about the factors influencing a child’s spiritual formation and development. The survey found virtually all religious leaders place primary responsibility for the development of a child’s faith with the child’s parents and church community, but that 65 percent of Protestant religious leaders and half of Catholic religious leaders perceive school as a negative influence on a child’s spiritual formation. Schools were ranked alongside a child’s friends and peers as primarily negative influences, which may not be surprising since school is where children encounter many peers.

Religious leaders in Oklahoma, who were not among those surveyed by Barna, expressed mixed views on how schools can impact a child’s religious faith.

Rev. Philip Abode of Crossover Bible Church in Tulsa said he does not think the impact of schools on a child’s faith “is necessarily neutral.” He noted “a lot of messages” conveyed in schools may contradict those of the church, particularly on issues of sexual mores.

“I can see why parents would be concerned,” Abode said.

But he noted his church’s goal is also to train up “disciples who make disciples,” so if a child is grounded in his or her faith through the home and church, Abode said those children can become influencers rather than the influenced, regardless of the setting.

Michael Philliber, pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Edmond, said schools can have an enormous impact simply because a child spends more time at school than anywhere else other than the home. While overt staff hostility to religion may occasionally arise, in many cases Philliber noted peer groups represent the greatest concern for parents.

“The community around you is extremely important,” Philliber said.

He believes parents should be provided “a breadth of educational opportunities” to increase their ability to find the best environment for a child. Currently, when parents come to him with concerns about a child’s problems in a traditional public school, the ability for those parents to seek alternatives “all depends on where the parents are financially.”

When problems arise in school and parents lack the financial resources to pursue private school or homeschooling, and do not have access to public-school alternatives like charter schools, Philliber said the church works to “fortify” those families in a time of challenge.

In a release discussing the survey’s findings, Barna noted the views of Catholic leaders were not as negative as Protestants about the influence of schools on children’s development of faith and suggested that may be “explained by the prevalence of Catholic school education and the possibility that Catholic priests are assessing the influence of a religious school education.”

The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, said the church’s support of Catholic schools is part of a broader effort to nurture the faith of the next generation.

“Parents are the first teachers of their children, which is why, as Pope Francis said, the family and the home are the most important places for passing on faith through the quiet daily example of parents who love our Lord and put their faith into practice,” Coakley said. “In close collaboration with parents, Catholic schools and parish faith formation programs play significant roles as places of evangelization in handing on our faith. Here, faith is nurtured and celebrated through worship and prayer. Faith is lived out in loving service to others. Faith is strengthened as it is integrated across the entire curriculum and in every facet of the educational environment.

“In Catholic schools, we pursue excellence in academic instruction, character development as well as faith formation. We can’t deny that there always will be outside influences, both positive and negative, but a good, strong foundation established at home can provide the best hope for a lifelong journey of faithful discipleship.”

Coakley, Philliber, and Abode are among the 80-plus ministers who have signed an open letter to Oklahoma’s political leaders on the importance of educational options.

Barna’s survey found Catholic priests were more likely than Protestant peers to address school choice, either from the pulpit (25 percent) or in another setting (35 percent). Among non-mainline pastors, 44 percent had addressed school choice in the past year, while 21 percent of mainline pastors did the same.

In a posted statement on the survey findings, Brooke Hempell, Barna’s senior vice president of research, said research has consistently shown that parents “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. Parents want to hear from their pastors on this issue.”

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

The Barna Group is a nonpartisan organization that researches cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. The online survey of 650 Protestant senior pastors and Catholic parish priests was conducted between Oct. 5 and Nov. 27, 2018. Participants included 132 Protestant Mainline pastors, 470 Protestant non-Mainline pastors, and 48 Catholic priests. (Mainline Protestants were defined as members of the American Baptist Churches, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church, USA.) The data were minimally weighted to be representative of all U.S. churches based on denomination, region, and church size.

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