As a 14-year-old, Robert H. Reuss was riding with his Sunday School teacher when the man's car narrowly missed colliding with another.

Reuss recalls vividly, 20 years later, his shock at hearing the teacher let out a strong racial epithet.

That was "the turning point," says Reuss, a 34-year-old chemist and project officer for the CIA. He began to see what he calls the "dichotomy between what was preached and what was practiced."

Then, too, he recalls, he began to feel religion was "meaningless, rote, hollow and hypocritical."

Today, Reuss and his wife, Candace, 33, of Springfield, are themselves Sunday School teachers.

The Reusses say they returned to religion for one reason: a sense of responsibility to their children.

"I'm here for my kids," says Mrs. Reuss, co-ordinator of the Fairfax County Court Observer program. "I'm giving them the basis for making decisions on their own.

"If we impose religion on them, it won't work. We must show our children it's part of our lives, too. Just dropping them off for Sunday School would ruin the whole idea of religion."

So the Reuss family spends Sunday mornings together at the Unitarian Church of Arlington, the parents teaching and the children (Pamela, 8, David, 5) learning -- or sometimes the other way around.

But many other "unchurched" parents find it more honest -- and easier -- to roll over in bed Sunday mornings and let the kids read the comics.

"Especialy now, at Christmas time, I'd like my kids to know more about religion," says a suburban mother of two. "But frankly, I can't stand most of the stuff I hear."

Says another: "My child is 7, and he's fascinated by who created the world -- but I won't send him to Sunday School. I don't think he'll learn much about what God really is there. He'll only learn that in the silence of his heart."

A study last year for the National Council of Churches, conducted by Gallup and the Princeton Religion Research Center, found that some 80 percent of the "unchurched" -- those not now involved regularly in organized religion -- would nevertheless like their children to receive religious training.

"So many parents are working, or they feel they're not qualified to instruct kids," says Linda Hughes of the Christian Service Corps, a Christian Peace Corps" headquartered on 16th Street.

"Kids get maybe 20 hours of religious instruction a year, whereas public schools spend 180 hours on English, and we wonder why children are ignorant of religion and church. Most families really do not spend the time educating their children in religion, beyond maybe a few table graces and the Lord's Prayer."

The Christian Service Corps' response is to begin in January an interdenominational program for 4th, 5th and 6th graders called the Trinity School, to meet three hours a week at two area churches.

Many churches and synagogues have also developed new ways to try to reach more children and through them, parents.

Ann Rubin, director of religious education at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, has found that the "triangle" approach -- parents, children and synagogue -- is the most effective way to teach a child about Judaism.

At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, parishioners may join one of about 20 small "inter-generational" communities that are part of the GIFT (Growing in Faith Together) program. Families, as well as single adults, join in a group celebration every other month, usually focused on a holiday.

Mercedes and Joseph Iannone, former Catholic school teachers, in 1976 founded the Center for Family Learning Teams Inc., Mt. Vernon.

"We believe that parents are the primary religious educators of their children, and that the church's role is to aid parents in developing their children's faith," says Mrs. Iannone.

While any teaching must be integrated with the church, "It's more important for our children," she says, "to observe us working for just causes -- world peace, open housing, an end to poverty in suburbia -- and to have meaningful worship than it is to have a good religious education textbook."

Some parents say their children have, in effect, forced them to take a stand on religion.

Barbar Kurtzig of Falls Church recalls her own childhood in a southern New Jersey town where she was the only Jewish child in the neighborhood. She realized history was repeating itself with her son, "the only dark curly-headed kid among blond blue-eyed children.

"My child asked, 'Why doesn't Santa Claus come to my house, why don't I have a Christmas tree like everyone else?' I deliberately sought a preschool in a synagogue, knowing there'd be other Jewish children and that the nonverbal things -- the menorah, the Star of David, men wearing hats -- would be communicated to him.

"We have started in our home to observe the traditions -- to light candles on Friday night, to bring out the good china. It doesn't come easily to me. I'm tired and I wasn't brought up to spend Friday cooking and ironing tablecloths, but I'm determined because I want my children to have some of the traditions I didn't have."

Some parents insist that home is the best and most natural place to teach religion -- by reading and discussing Bible stories, doing nature-study projects, helping children learn to care for others.

"I have great respect for religious and spiritual teachings," says one father. "What I don't like is the organized setting, collecting money, all the social activities. I think I give my kids a lot on a day-by-day basis, without outside help."

Others parents prefer more structure.

Judith Espenschied, a free-lance writer, enrolled her children in the Sunday School of the Washington Ethical Society, a non-denominational group.

Her children have studied comparative religion, politics and "how people can use themselves as laboratories to learn to solve conflicts." A movie recently shown to her 9-year-old son's class told the story of a boy who saw his friend shoplifting. Class members were asked to decide what to do about it.

Espenschied believes in a community "reinforcing" what parents say is right and wrong, "so that the family is not along in this."

Carol Eliot of Bethesda, a consultant on religious education programs, advocates learning religion by living it.

At the Episcopal church the Eliots now attend, the children take canned goods for the needy on Sunday mornings. "My 3-year-old was crying, 'Mommy, why are we giving away our apple juice?' That to me is learning to share what they have. It also affects me. Every week I have to be conscious of buying good food for someone else. That translates religion into an everyday life experience."

Linwood Barnes, a 33-year-old bank employe of Forrestville, Md., will tonight, Christmas Eve, spend a quiet time in prayer with his children at their church, The Freedom Church in Northeast Washington.

Raised a Catholic, he dropped out when he left home and went at age 18 to Vietnam, where he was involved in heavy fighting. He started drinking and smoking marijuana, like a lot of his buddies, he says. When he returned home, he kept up the drinking and it got steadily worse until he was, he says, a "trained alcoholic."

"My son asked me on Sundays why don't we go to church, but I'd have a headache from drinking, or I'd still be high," he recalls. The question went unanswered until his wife Mary joined a Pentecostal church.

One spring Sunday almost two years ago Barnes fought a hangover and, to please his wife and boy, went to church. Two weeks later, he joined the church and became "born-again."

"When I really decided to be a Christian, I told the Lord if he would help me get out of this problem I would give my life to him." He quit drinking "cold-turykey" and "cleaned up the house."

"I figure if I can give my kids to the Lord now, I won't have to give them to the Devil later," he says of his boys, Linwood, 9, Damon, 6, Brian, 3, and an infant daughter.

Barnes, who is 6-feet-3, weighs 257 pounds and used to be a Washington cop, stops a minute to check his Bible for the right quote. He finds it quickly.

"Oh, yes, here it is. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.' That's in the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 22, Verse 6."