The grandparents of our faith:
The amazing impact grandparents can have on the faith of their descendants. By Alex Newman
Sophia Nast-Kolb was eight when her family left Winnipeg for Beausejour, Manitoba, and started moving from church to church, looking for the right fit. They even tried starting a home church but that eventually petered out. Now 16, she rarely attends church except when she sees her grandmother in Winnipeg. “That keeps me connected. I always liked going with her when she taught Sunday School, and listening to the Bible stories, and it was comforting to know that not only she was watching over me, but someone else also was watching out for me.”
When she and her sister, Johanna, 18, would visit, their grandmother played the piano and they’d sing hymns together. “We loved hanging out with her. She’s so comfortable to be around, very supportive of everything we did, read us stories, and at bedtimes she always said ‘bless you and keep you and let his light shine upon you,” and it was nice to have that blessing and assurance.”
Not only anecdotes like this, but research as well suggests that grandparents have a very positive role to play, personally and spiritually, in the lives of their grandchildren. One study revealed that 90% of kids would like to live close to their grandparents, others suggest that while parents pass on spiritual disciplines such as bible reading and prayer, grandparents have a special ability to pass on a sense of identity, purpose and belonging. A 2015 Boston Globe article reporting on a Boston College study even suggested that closer ties with grandparents reduce depression symptoms in grandkids, and fewer emotional and behavioural problems.
When Matthew Deprez set out to study the role of grandparents on spiritual outcomes, he was involved in intergenerational ministry at the Michigan church where he pastored. What he observed in his experiments with older and younger generations walking together, was that familial relationships had the required “stickiness.”
That’s what Deprez’ close friend Bradford Rogers experienced. The 26-year-old, an African-American pastor and married father of three, says his two grandmothers were unequivocal in their sharing the faith. “Black culture is matriarchal and my grandmothers were strong, passionate, independent, and vocal. My grandfathers were in the background, working a lot, involved in the church but my grandmothers were right there, doing everything with the family, cooking cleaning, disciplining, counselling, and they made all of us go to church, no questions asked. Family prayer mattered, giving thanks to God for all he has done mattered. We were surrounded by faith in every aspect of our daily lives.”
For Deprez, though, the research had personal motivation as well – pastoring a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan far from his or his wife’s parents, he worried about his young children losing vital contact with their grandparents. His aim was to see if geographic proximity matters in faith development, and if so how to bridge the geographic gap; the result was a comprehensive journal article
In it, Deprez notes that grandparents are in a unique position to shape faith precisely because they don’t live with them and aren’t involved in the typical daily family struggles and routines. “Grandparents have an ability to walk with their grandkids in the formative years when they’re figuring out who they are,” he says. “It’s a time of nuance and fluidity, and parents are worried sick about their kids’ spiritual future. They want to tie things up in a little bow for fear of kids going off the deep end. Not so the grandparents.”
That’s how it was for Catherine Stauffert, a former Toronto insurance agent who struggles with fibromyalgia as well as depression. “My grandparents helped me find God. Without God I probably wouldn’t be alive, my health problems are that discouraging, and it was my grandparents who urged me from the time I was little to turn to God in times of distress, and to memorize consoling verses like the Beatitudes, and Romans 12.”
Deprez also learned that storytelling and relating life experiences are almost as important as praying with grandchildren. This is something echoed by Bruce Feiler in a New York Times essay, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
When Ruta Rusinas was ten, her Lithuanian grandparents arrived in Canada after escaping from Siberia. “I learned the family stories from my grandmother, but she only told us once because they were so awful and she never told them again. But she also made it clear to me that her faith had sustained her through those horrors. I remember her praying all the time, at the stove, while crocheting or ironing. Her prayer was a daily act of faith while going to church on Sundays was a culmination of each week's prayers.”
Now a grandmother, Rusinas is writing a family history for her children and grandchildren so they will know “what our family went through.”
Although her own two grandchildren attend a private Catholic school, where faith infuses all they do, Rusinas has noticed a disturbing trend away from the church. “And my generation of parents don’t know what we did wrong with our children’s generation, whether it’s our fault or just society.”
Indeed, many grandparents have lost their confidence in passing on the faith. Elsie Rempel, author of Please Pass the Faith: the art of Spiritual Grandparenting, says this is partly because families are more spread out, and children move away for jobs, and grandparents are far from their grandchildren. But it’s also due to how specialized instruction has become, she says. “We got tutors for math, and coaches for baseball and instructors for swimming. We’ve lost our confidence in naturally sharing what we knew, and then with pluralism, we have lost our confidence in sharing our faith.”
Where the relationships become more challenging, regardless of geographic distance, is when children have either turned entirely from faith and refuse to let grandparents speak of God or Jesus. Deprez has seen this even with Christian families: “There’s a trend with some young Christian couples not letting their parents pass on their particular brand of faith because they find it judgmental and rigid.”
It’s making a perfect situation for the churches to step in. And some are. Recognizing a real need to encourage grandparents to share faith with grandchildren , Spruce Grove Alliance near Edmonton, AB, for example, started holding a Grandparenting Matters conference. Spruce Grove’s pastor, Art Quist, decided to host a conference after he and his wife attended something similar in Texas in 2015. “There was so little out there to help grandparents,” Quist says. “We did some research and came upon some surprising facts – like in Ontario alone, 65,000 grandparents don’t see their grandkids. And then at the other extreme, another fact that rocked me a bit was in British Columbia 30,000 grandchildren live 24/7 with their grandparents.”
From 30 different churches in southern Alberta, 120 people attended that first conference, with lectures from North American grandparenting experts, and interactive workshops that offered attendees the opportunity to share their experiences. Quist has held two conferences and hopes to hold more.
The stories ran the gamut from lovely to lost: “Some grandparents who attended really had it together, had wonderful relationships and no marriage breakdowns, grandkids who loved them, and visited often, and lots of physical, emotional, and spiritual closeness, coming to church with them Sundays,” Quist says. “And then there were the others, so broken, and the tears just fell.”
Quist wasn’t entirely surprised – his initial research revealed a staggering 65,000 grandparents in Ontario were not allowed to see their grandchildren. And what “equally rocked” him was that in BC, 30,000 grandchildren were living 24/7 with their grandparents.
Sometimes it’s because the child or their spouse has turned from the church. Elsie Rempel, who wrote a book on spiritual grandparenting, has one son who is “an avowed atheist, and a sensitive family guy. His values are Christian but his beliefs are not. We had an email conversation that was pretty intense, back and forth with the apologetics, until I finally said let’s stop and affirm what we can about our relationship, as mother and son, and celebrate where we agree.”
It requires great sensitivity and a lot of communication when dealing with a child whose beliefs aren’t at all similar, Rempel adds. “If they get angry, you risk losing contact with your children and grandchildren. A lot of grandparents walk on eggshells around talking about who they are as child of God. We had hoped [our son’s leaving the church] would be a temporary thing. That was hard but thankfully I had a spiritual director who helped me live with that.”
Julia Johnson is a Saskatchewan mother of four and grandmother of 12 who also has grandchildren not going to church. Although one of her daughters was a Christian through high school, and attended one year of bible college, somewhere along the way she fell away. She then met her husband, who had never really attended church, moved to Switzerland, and started a family. Johnson sees her daughter’s family regularly and her daughter is open to Christian topics.
Still, when kids fall away from the church, “it’s disappointing and you wonder if it was something you did or said,” Johnson says. “But God isn’t finished with any of us yet. Besides, we all have to make faith ours, and while I know it would benefit their lives to have God’s presence in it. In spite of what parents teach or don’t teach their children, grandparents can have a profound influence on grandchildren by giving unconditional love, and faithfully speaking the Word of God into their lives.”
When Johnson sees her Swiss grandkids -- for a full month in the summer and another in the winter – she “spends time in their world, being present and not distracted by other things. I do whatever they’re doing, don’t go to shows or events, watch them on the trampoline or the tree fort, read to them, bake with them, do crafts.”
As a “Christian grandma,” she seizes opportunities where possible, if she finds an unusual fact in her daily devotions, she points it out, or tells the children how God answers prayers using her example of healing from cancer in age appropriate ways. But she is also mindful of not making the parents feel they’ve failed in some way, or of doing something that disrespects them and their parenting.”
For his own three children, Bradford Rogers is thankful for the role his mother has already taken in discipling his children. “My mom is a great Christian influence and changed my life around when she brought me and my brother to Canada from inner-city Baltimore,” he says. “That decision found me my faith, my vocation, and my wife.” Now, though, she lives in PEI, and is not as close geographically as he would like for their family. So Rogers purchased three Bible journals for her to fill in on each of the grandchildren which she will then give them when they turn 16.
Because grandparents hold such esteem in grandchildren’s eyes, and because they have lived long enough to take a longer view, they are in a good position to discuss tough topics, and Deprez encourages them to take on “the things that young people consider very important, like abortion and pro-life, same-sex marriage, doubting the existence of God and Jesus. The way grandparents engage these issues really matters, because doubt doesn’t kill faith but silence can.”
That exposure is something Deprez so desires for his own children that he and his wife and the grandparents skype once or twice a month while sitting down to dinner together in real time. Now that he works for Fuller Youth Institute as a church engagement specialist, and divides his time between California and Michigan, opportunities for personal engagement with the grandparents are fewer. In addition to frequent phone calls, he and his family and either set of grandparents will skype while sitting down to dinner together in real time. They have agreed ahead of time which hard topics to tackle and when, so the children feel it is safe and good to question.
Modeling is doubly impactful since children are natural observers, he adds, and are forming opinions about the importance of your faith by how you live.
Susan Fish, a Waterloo Ontario writer, was three months when her mother returned to work and her grandmother stepped in. Over the years she observed her grandmother’s giving nature – at 90 still making soup for the homeless -- and her forgiving nature toward other’s failures. “My own family attended church but would grow disillusioned with a church and move. My grandmother’s attitude was people make mistakes and you get over it and forgive. She just kept going and kept on giving and kept on praying. I’m still feeling the loss – she really was best friend.”
Likewise for Jenn Stewart, a Toronto Montessori teacher, whose grandmother cared for her and her sisters before school. “My parents taught me faith in God, but my grandmother taught me the love of Jesus. She was the hub of the whole family, incredibly kind and loving, nurturing me and my siblings, baking and cooking for everyone. I remember her praying the rosary every day, sometimes several times if there was some family crisis.”
Grandchildren need to witness you in action, see how you serve in church, how Bible reading shapes your interactions with others, and the way you guide them through religious questions and struggles, writes Deprez. “Pray for your grandchildren, both privately and with them. Find ways for them to feel close to you before attempting to have faith-related discussions. Let grandchildren see the way you show your faith in Christ by how you talk and act, and exemplify for them what it means to be an authentic Christian by how consistently you live out your faith. Influence them in the same way you hope they influence their grandchildren one day.”
Things you can do with your grandchildren:
Pray regularly and intentionally and specifically with each child’s needs in mind
Travel with them if possible, and on these vacations try to have devotions that everyone contributes to, for an intergenerational perspective.
Take your grandchild on a mission trip
Help out your children in their time-stressed lives by offering to babysit while they work; show up at all your grandchild’s sporting events; offer to drive to activities; volunteer at your grandchildren’s youth group, Sunday school class, school room,
Explore age-specific Christian resources that show how best to communicate the gospel to children
Seek opportunities for deeper conversations – while on a nature walk, doing a puzzle, teaching them a skill or craft