by Joe Olson
Do fathers matter? Pop culture answers a resounding, “No!” Our evening television shows teach us that fathers are nothing more than overgrown children who need their wives to take care of them, and fathers fair no better in civil society. The assault on traditional marriage assures us the bumbling idiot father is not even necessary. Academia is also turning on fathers. A recent study published in the Journal of Family and Marriage has declared that a second mother is just as good, perhaps even better than a father, ultimately concluding, “The gender of parents only matters in ways that don’t matter.”
Of course, Christians, especially Lutherans, know better. We know that the vocation of fatherhood matters. But are we willing to accept how much it matters? Are we willing to accept that by God’s design the deliverance of the faith from one generation to the next depends on fathers more than on anyone else?
That is a bold statement, perhaps even insulting to some. After all, we’ve created a near endless supply of books, programs and seminars teaching us the latest, best way to repackage Scripture and Sunday mornings so that our young people stay engaged.
And yet, after decades of these efforts, the Barna Group reports that 43 percent of active church members will leave the Church sometime after graduating high school and before turning 30. The reasons given for this exodus vary widely and suggest there is not an easy fix. But there is: Fathers. The most effective way to combat this trend is for fathers to live out their vocation by taking their kids to church and teaching them the catechism.
Why dads matter
Scripture is clear that fathers are responsible for raising their children in the faith. Children are called to honor and respect the authority of their parents (Ex. 20:12; Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1–3), but it is the father who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the children are raised in the faith. Eph. 6:1–4 gives us a clear explanation of this ordering:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother, (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Luther recognized this ordering and began each of the six chief parts of the Small Catechism by exhorting fathers to teach it in a simple way.
It seems like a rather simplistic idea, but the numbers bear it out. A recent study conducted by the European Union concluded, “The religious practices of the father . . . above all, determines the future attendance or absence from church of the children.”
Unsurprisingly, the study found that if father and mother are active, 75 percent of their children will remain in the church (33 percent will attend regularly, 42 percent irregularly). If neither attends regularly, 80 percent will be lost.
The results get interesting when only one parent is active. When the father is active and the mother irregular, the percentage of children becoming regular attendees actually increases to 38 percent. If the mother is non-practicing, the number of regular attendees reaches 44 percent. Even an irregular father paired with a non-practicing mother results in 48 percent of the children remaining in the church (25 percent regular and 23 percent irregular).
But what happens when the mother is a faithful attendee but the father is not? Bar the doors, because in that case only 2–3 percent of the children will become regular attendees. When paired with an irregular father, another 59 percent of the children will become irregular attendees and 38 percent will be lost. If the father is non-practicing, 38 percent will become irregulars but the reaming 60 percent will leave the church completely.
Put simply, if the father does not make taking his children to church a priority, only one child in 50 will regularly attend church as an adult, despite the mother’s best efforts.
What does this mean?
Fathers must reject the cultural caricature of fatherhood and embrace their vocation. Take your family to church every Sunday. Teach your children the catechism. As the numbers show, shirking this God-given responsibility can have drastic consequences. And when this responsibility feels overwhelming, remember that our Lord has not left us alone in this. The Holy Spirit will do the heavily lifting instilling and strengthening their faith through Baptism, Confession and Absolution, the proclamation of the Gospel and the Lord’s Supper. We just get them through the door.
Joe Olson is a father and a member of the LCMS.
 Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner, “The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguist and Religious Groups in Switzerland” in The Demographic Characteristics of National Minorities in Certain European States, Werner Haug, ed., vol. 2. (Council of European Directorate General III, Social Coheasion, Strasburg, 2000).