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Spiritual grandparenting at its best

Effective faith formation in children is the job of multiple generations, says LifelongFaith’s John Roberto

The calamity of Ephraim’s children, as detailed in Psalm 78, is something John Roberto prays to avoid: “The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle. They did not keep the covenant of God; they refused to walk in his law, and forgot his works, and his wonders that he had shown them.”

John Roberto speaks during the Intergenerational Faith 2016 Dialogues at Oklahoma Christian University.

John Roberto speaks during the Intergenerational Faith 2016 Dialogues at Oklahoma Christian University.

People of faith — and grandparents in particular, Roberto says — can play a vital role in “telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength and his wonderful works that he has done.” Roberto, president of Lifelong Faith Associates and editor of the journal Lifelong Faith, is the author of multiple books on faith formation, including “Seasons of Adult Faith Formation,” “Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century” and “Generations Together: Caring, Praying, Learning, Celebrating & Serving Faithfully.” He conducts workshops and seminars for multiple faith groups, including Churches of Christ and Christian universities.

Roberto’s research and teaching emphasizes how a community of believers of all ages can combine the strength of their faith to positively influence the next generation. He and his wife live in Connecticut.


What makes the role of grandparents so important in faith transmission? 
We know instinctively that grandparents play a role in the faith-forming of their grandchildren (and their parents), but now we have research that reinforces our belief.Vern Bengston and his colleagues have conducted the largest study of religion and family across generations. They have followed more than 350 families composed of more than 3,500 individuals whose lives span more than a century — the oldest was born in 1881, the youngest in 1988 — to find out how religion is, or is not, passed down from one generation to the next. In “Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations,” Bengston and colleagues report their findings.One of the four most significant conclusions in the study is that grandparents have an increasing influence on religious transmission, support and socialization in the 21st century. Grandparents provide religious influence by modeling faith, teaching the tradition and faith practices and immersing their grandchildren in religious experiences, often at church. Grandparents can support and reinforce parents’ religious socialization of children. In some cases they may substitute for parents’ religious socialization, when parents feel that faith or church involvement is not a priority for them, but that it could be a value for their children.
What are some of the specific things a grandparent can do to enhance faith in their grandchildren?

There are several ways that grandparents can be faith formers of their grandchildren. First is by being models of faithful Christian lives and by being actively engaged in a church community. Many grandparents bring their grandchildren to Sunday worship and to church activities (and hopefully attract their own children to join them — at least occasionally).

Second, parental warmth is the key to successful religious transmission. A high-quality parent- and grandparent-child relationship — close, warm and affirming — leads to higher religiosity. Sounds like the job description of a grandparent! When it comes to faith growth, the quality of the relationship is essential.

Third, grandparents can teach faith practices to their grandchildren: praying, reading the Bible, serving those in need and more. Grandparents bring decades of rich experience in living their faith. Their experience is a great asset in teaching these practices to their grandchildren.

Fourth, grandparents can join their grandchildren in church activities. Grandparents can find intergenerational programs and experiences in which faith can be experienced. This is an area where every church should provide more intergenerational activities that immerse the generations in faith forming experiences. How about an intergenerational vacation Bible school for grandparents and grandchildren?
How can grandparents who live a great distance from their grandchildren influence their faith?

In years past, distance made the role of grandparents as faith formers much more difficult. Not today!

Grandparents can connect with their grandchildren online using Skype or FaceTime and post thoughts, photos and video on Facebook or Instagram or other social media. Imagine the possibilities for reading a children’s storybook or a story from a children’s Bible in a one-to-one conversation online. Imagine watching a video together online and then talking about the video. There are so many ways for grandparents to close the distance gap using technology.

A second way for grandparents to close the distance gap is to invite their grandchildren to vacations at grandma’s or grandpa’s house. These can be times for grandchildren to experience faith firsthand by joining with their grandparents in Sunday worship and home faith practices. Grandparents might time the vacation to coincide with vacation Bible school (or other engaging programs for children) at their church.

A third possibility is to plan a road trip adventure. Road Scholar has pioneered intergenerational programs for grandparents and grandchildren over 10 years old. Grandparents and grandchildren could plan together and organize their own faith adventure — domestic or international — that can include religious programs and activities, museums, historic churches and cathedrals and more.


Are there common mistakes that grandparents make?

There are several things that grandparents need to keep in mind when they become active faith formers of their grandchildren. First, parents are the primary influence on the lives of their children. So grandparents need to support parents, offer to assist them in faith formation, provide alternatives and resources and more. But grandparents cannot replace parents. They can take on many faith-forming roles — with the implicit or explicit approval of the parents — but they can’t do things in opposition to the parents.Second, grandparents can only invite their grandchildren to experience faith, to live and learn the faith tradition. They cannot force faith or Sunday worship on their grandchildren. This will never work because it contradicts God’s message of unconditional love and acceptance — and freely accepting the gift of faith into our lives. Grandparents are in a great position to influence this process because of the quality of their relationship with their grandchildren and because of their decades of faithful living. These are the great assets that grandparents bring to nurturing faith in their grandchildren.
What if one or more grandparent is antagonistic to faith?

Oftentimes we think that having a non-supportive grandparent is a huge impediment for nurturing faith in their grandchildren. In these cases, instead of focusing on grandparents’ antagonism toward faith, encourage them to focus on their love for their grandchildren. Make the case that even if faith is not important to them, it could become a life-giving force in their grandchildren’s life.We encourage children to experience activities like sports, music, art and dance, because we believe it is life-giving and challenging and fun. Participating in religious activities and church life can be life-giving, challenging and fun. Churches can provide intergenerational activities that connect grandchildren to other grandparents and families who are role models of faith — becoming a non-kindred family for the children.Find resources for faith formation at www.lifelongfaith.com.

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