Please Pass the Faith: How Grandparents Can Best Pass Their Faith on to Their Grandchildren

“My granddaughter loves going to church. We’re all there together; three generations sitting in the pew – It make me the happiest grandparent I can be. My kids are doing a great job, but I often wonder if it’s all up to them. What should I be doing to pass on my faith to my grandchildren?”

“My children no longer go to church, and don’t want to have anything to do it. I bring my grandchildren to Sunday school as often as I can and I tell them the stories of Jesus. I am so sad my grown children have walked away from the church and I don’t want to fail with my grandchildren.”

In my job serving as Regional Minister for Faith Formation I get asked a lot of questions by grandparents; grandparents who come alongside their adult children sharing their faith with their grandchildren, grandparents who rarely get to see their grandchildren, and grandparents who grieve their adult children’s leaving church and deeply desire that their grandchildren know Jesus. Regardless of circumstances, these grandparents all want to know how they can best pass their faith on to their grandchildren. It’s a wonderful question, and one I have a few answers for, for them and for you.

In the last couple of decades there has been a great deal of interest in the religious influence of grandparents, and the good news is that grandparents have far greater agency than was originally thought. Vern L. Bengtson, professor of social work at the University of Southern California, began studying families in 1969 by asking one question, “Why do some people adopt their families’ (religious) views, while others…strike out on their own?” Bengtson asked this question initially with 350 families representing Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints denominations. And he kept asking that question with those same families’ children, and their children, and their children up to 2008. At that point he was able to draw some significant conclusions about how parents pass on faith, but also about how grandparents and even great grandparents pass on faith to the next generations.

Most significantly Bengtson discovered that family bonds matter. Telling the stories, worshipping together, following the practices of faith are all important, but more important than all of these is the quality of the relationship that children and grandchildren have with their parents and grandparents. “Without emotional bonding these other factors are not sufficient (to pass on faith from one generation to the next)”. Two simple words summarize all of Bengtson’s decades of research: “WARMTH MATTERS. ”Parents and grandparents who are unconditionally supportive, and provide consistent role-modelling of religious practices, and who do not force their beliefs or practices on their children have the greatest success in passing on faith to the next generation. So, we all need to turn up the heat, with relationships that invite conversation and affirm unconditional love.

Addressing grandparents in particular, Bengtson points out that grandparents who reinforce or accentuate the parent’s religious socialization pass on their faith most successfully. Recognizing that this is not always the case, he then cautions that grandparents who challenge or subvert the religious socialization of their adult children are often ineffective and even counter-productive leading some adult children to deny grandparents access to their grandchildren. Likewise he states that doing nothing passes also passes on nothing. 

So what is a grandparent to do? Here are a few best practices identified by Holly Catterton Allen, professor of Christian Education at Lipscomb University that are uniquely available to grandparents:

PRAYER is the primary way grandparents share faith with their grandchildren. Children believe people who know God PRAY – A LOT! Therefore, if grandpa prays a lot, he must know God very, very well. In Allen’s study one child declared that her grandmother prayed from the moment she got up at dawn to the last second before she fell asleep at night. She stated that her grandmother was the closest person to God that she knew. However, just praying isn’t enough. Grandparents lead by example when they pray in front of their grandchildren. Just talking about praying won’t work, praying in front of, with, and for their grandchildren makes the difference. Likewise, asking your grandchildren to pray for you matters.

Grandparents provide continuity of faith by passing down family STORIES and traditions. Take as many opportunities as you can to share those wonderful stories that make us break out in gales of laughter and bring us to loving tears; tell stories of baptisms, of Sunday school and church services ‘back in the day’, of wonder-filled Christmases, family gatherings and those who loved the Lord and are no longer with us. Repeat family seasonal rituals from one generation to the next. In these children are able to see that their grandparents know God. Special stories should reflect grandparents’ faith journeys teaching succeeding generations how to live lives consistent with family and religious values. Personal stories add meaningful coherence to grandchildren’s lives and offer structures with which they can frame their own experiences.

Grandparents share their faith when they MODEL FAITH. They become ‘God with skin on!’ This is the best practice I often highlight when grandparents do not have permission to talk about God or faith with their grandchildren. The everyday lives grandparents lead can exemplify faith in God, strong values, respect for all human beings and a sense of self worth. So, bring your grandchild along when you deliver Meals on Wheels, have them help you rake an older neighbours yard, or introduce them to the lady you visit because she is lonely.

Know too, that grandparents can also have a negative influence. “Some grandparents embrace life, deal constructively with losses, and maintain a sense of optimism and hope. Others become negative, are critical of the oncoming generation, and cover life, family, and community with a blanket of darkness.” Children pick up on and imitate our shared attitudes, both positive and negative.

Children crave attention and love. Many parents are running in twelve directions at once, multi-tasking with work, school, meals, and after school activities. Grandparents share faith when they are able to take time to sit, play and just enjoy their grandchildren. SHARING UNHURRIED TIME helps children to know that they are loved, cared for and appreciated. This is your calling. During these times a bond forms and this allows children to reveal themselves emotionally and feel reassured that they are loved.

Finally, grandparents get to SPOIL AND BLESS their grandchildren in ways their parents can’t. To spoil implies giving someone better than they deserve. Every kid needs a bit of that. God spoils us and gives us better than we deserve – it’s called GRACE. Blessing grandchildren can have a powerful, positive impact on them by demonstrating grace and love that is not the result of good behaviour, but is bestowed simply because their grandchildren are loved. 

I love to turn to Mark 4:26-29, the Parable of the Growing Seed. In this story I am reminded that as much as we prepare the soil, fertilize, weed and water, it is God that brings the growth, we don’t know how. We are not alone as we pass on our faith to our grandchildren, and that brings incredible comfort.

There are no quick fixes, only faithful living and attention to those we love. And in this we give glory to God.

Notes This article was originally published in PCConnection

Bengtson, Vern L. Families and Faith: How Is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford, 2013)

Holly Catterton Allen, “The Spiritual Influence of Grandparents” (Christian Education Journal: Series 3, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2008) 

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