Grandparents and the Faith Formation “Tent”

How do you see the grandparents and great-grandparents in your congregation? As onlookers to ministry with children or youth or as ministers on the frontlines of passing on faith? As symbolic of a bygone era or agents of God for the shaping of a new generation of disciples? Of late, I have had three different prompts to think about the role and potential significance of grandparents and great-grandparents in faith formation.

Firstly, I had a conversation with a grandparent of faith who invests a considerable part of their week providing low cost childcare for their young grandchildren, while the children’s parents are both out working. This grandparent expressed their frustration with the challenges this presented for them at a stage in life when they expected to be past looking after young children. They wanted to be supportive of their own children, but doing so came at a personal cost. While empathising with the grandparent, I also wondered with them about the “gift” they had been given of living out their Christian faith with their grandchildren in a domestic place and space from day to day. The hours they have with their young grandchildren, even as though they are sometimes wearing and frustrating, are also a precious opportunity to tell Bible stories, guide them in prayer, practice rhythms and rituals of faith and embody the love of Christ! Within the stress and messiness of “grandpa and grandma childcare” there is the potential to make an indelible imprint on young lives in the name of Jesus and to transform extended families.

My second prompt came in reading the chapter by Phyllis Tickle in Faith Forward Volume 2: Re-imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry. Tickle writes that “the Abrahamic faiths … have always been transmitted domestically.” In ancient times the tent was the place where the faith was carried forward through shared conversations, routines, rituals and rhythms. The pattern was the “the tent and then the synagogue and then the temple“. Tickle points out that in the modern age the “transmitting function of the tent” has become eroded. The home has become a place of individual retreat from the world instead of a community that ‘informs’ and ‘forms’ across generations through shared play, enterprise, and conversation. A result of this erosion is that a generation of Christian adults have not themselves been informed and formed in the way of the tent in order to inform and form others.

“Christian parents of today’s young children do not themselves – by and large and truth be told – know the stories of their biblical or their ecclesial history. That is, they too were reared after the 20th century’s interruptions [to the way of the tent].  They too did not have the tent, and they attest to this with great poignancy and great longing, if and when the rest of us are willing to listen.”

In other words, many parents of today who may have grown up attending church with their parents do not know what it is to practice the Christian faith in their own homes because they did not experience the way of the tent for themselves. They do not have the rich childhood memories and experiences of faith conversations, home devotions, rituals and traditions and service to draw upon in tending the faith lives of their own children. One has to to back at least one further generation to find those who can speak of the tent and school others in its patterns, rhythms and routines. And going back to these earlier generations, Tickle suggests, is precisely what can and must be done to mend the tent. Grandparents and great-grandparents are precious treasures in the life of the church, for they are the repository of stories, customs and practices that today’s children, youth and parents need to hear, hear about and experience.

“Those among us who are over 65, by and large, have those stories and formative customs deep within us.  We – or they, as the case may be – still have them. I would to my soul that every congregation … might begin to contrive ways to match their seniors with either their own grandchildren or with other children in the congregation, or in the neighborhood. Match them up so that the tent’s narrative flow of faith – both read and enacted – begins to happen again. If we can get our seniors deliberately and purposefully connected, either with their own grandchildren, which is an easy fix, or with other children, youth and young Christians in the making; if we can get them connected there is some kind of ongoing, sustained, responsibility, then the tent can be restored in a new way.”

My third prompt has been Vern Bengtson’s book, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across GenerationsBengtson studied the transmission of faith across four generations and 35 years, encompassing over 3000 persons and over 300 multigenerational families. He found “strong evidence of transmission [of religious orientations] from grandparents to grandchildren.” In some cases, grandparents functioned as spiritual “replacement figures” for the children’s parents. In others, grandparents significantly reinforced the faith teachings and practices of their grandchildren’s parents. And, in still other cases, grandparents served as countering influence to the non-Christian attitudes and perspectives of their grandchildren’s parents. Indeed, Bengtson proposes that, because of demographic, technological and societal developments the spiritual influence and impact of grandparents is potentially stronger than previously.

“Because of the increase in life expectancy over the twentieth century, grandparents have longer lives than ever before, and grandchildren can enjoy many years with living grandparents. This has increased the chances for grandparents to play a significant role in the lives of grandchildren. … Moreover, grandparents and grandchildren today have more time to interact, share, and lend support. They have more time to learn from each other and more opportunities for mutual socialization. Though there is sometimes greater geographic distance between generations now than in the past, grandparents and grandchildren have more ways to communicate as well, with the pervasive use of technologies such as cell phones, Skype, and Facebook – often with grandchildren teaching their parents how to use them – an instance of “reverse socialization” between generations. … Grandparents can provide a stabilizing influence in their grandchildren’s lives in situations of parental divorce, incapacity, addiction or emotional distancing. In these contexts grandparents’ influence may be highly salient for the development of children’s religious values and beliefs. In other situations, grandparents may play a larger role in influencing children’s religious orientation simply because they have more time to do so, or religious instruction is not a priority for parents, or parents are religiously indifferent. … For many children, grandparents are the de facto moral and religious models and teachers in lieu of parents who are too exhausted or too busy on weekend to go to church.”

I suspect that, for the most part, too little focus has been given to the existing and potential ministry impact our seniors have on children and youth through their relationships with them, particularly in extended families. Instead of overlooking, marginalising or devaluing the seniors in our communities of faith we need to celebrate them as God’s gift in the enterprise of faith formation across generations. So here are some questions …

  • In what ways can we affirm grandparents, great-grandparents and other seniors in their vocation as spiritual influences and role models?
  • In what ways can we better equip and resource our seniors for sharing their faith lives and their faith stories with the young?
  • In what ways can we facilitate and enable relationships between seniors in our congregations and our children and youth, whether they are familially-related or not?

One of my favourite passages of Scripture is Psalm 71:17-18. Here the Psalmist asks God to sustain him into old age so that he can proclaim the faithfulness and saving might of the Lord to future generations.

17 Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
    and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
18 Even when I am old and gray,
    do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
    your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Now, that’s what I’m talking about! God bless our grandpas and grandmas!

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