Grandparents matter: intergenerational faith development
From a blog by Youthscape
We know parents can have a big influence on young people’s faith, but what about grandparents? Research suggests they have a profound – but often neglected – role to play. Such research is increasingly challenging the segregation of children and young people within churches as a result of the creation of ‘youth ministry’ and emphasising how significant the family is for teenagers’ faith formation.
In the USA, researchers from Fuller Youth Institute found that intergenerational relationships are one of four features of church life that create faith that ‘sticks’ into young adulthood, alongside a holistic understanding of the gospel, partnering with families and creating a safe space for doubt (Powell and Clark, 2011). This builds on research by Voas and Crockett (2005) who demonstrated that each age cohort is less religious than the last because of a failure in ‘religious socialisation’, in other words a failure to pass on faith. But while there have been a few studies exploring the role of parents (Mark 2016; Care for the Family). we know very little about grandparents and their experiences or perspectives of ‘faith transmission’ in a UK context.
This gap in our knowledge is significant for three reasons:
First, because the UK church is absolutely full of grandparents. In 2018, a third of the regular attendees of Church of England services were aged 70 or over (Statistics for Mission, 2018), and the number of young people in the church is declining at a rapid rate (Brierley, 2018). The significance of grandparents for young people’s faith has potentially never been greater, especially in smaller churches where congregations offer fewer youth ministry activities to young people, are more likely to rate their youth work as ‘ineffective’ or have no youth work volunteers or young people at all (Losing Heart, 2016).
Second, grandparents do actually influence teenagers’ faith. In reviewing data about faith and family over thirty years, Bengtson et al (2009) show that grandparents can either reinforce parents’ religious influence, substitute for the parents’ influence, or subvert that influence. Indeed, sometimes the faith of grandparents “skips” a generation as grandchildren end up following in their faith footsteps despite parents’ choices to walk away from faith.
And third, grandparents and grandchildren are, arguably, closer now than they ever have been before. Outside of these extraordinary times grandparents contribute a significant amount of child-care and, thanks to 2020, many will be confident at using video-calls to stay in touch. The little research there is suggests teenagers might want that contact too. In one survey with 1566 11-16 year olds, most wanted opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren to do things together, time to build trusting relationships with them and the encouragement from parents to foster grandparent contact. While quality of contact varies for different reasons, 76% of the surveyed teenagers said grandparents advised them when they had a problem, and 85% respected what their grandparents had to say (Buchanan and Griggs, 2009).
All these trends present an opportunity to think purposefully about the role of grandparents and older people in church communities when it comes to youth ministry and discipleship. But how? Some research suggests that simple conversation – learning about one another’s’ lives – might be key. In one study, knowledge of family history predicted measures of adolescents’ self-worth and identity development – even after controlling for general family functioning. In other words, inter-generational conversation about the ‘ups and downs’ of family history supports teenagers’ developing sense of self. One of the authors of the study concludes that children who have the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self” – they know they belong to something bigger than themselves (Fivush et al., 2010).
However, in another recent survey, more than half of the young people questioned had no idea what job their grandparent did before retirement, and 42% didn’t spend any time talking about their grandparent’s history. There is also some indication that we are talking less frequently about faith and spirituality specifically, even in church. Only 57% of the churches surveyed in 'Losing Heart' ‘often’ talked to young people about the basics of the Christian faith.
All this suggests, that we should ‘talk up’ the importance of talking about life and God, particularly where grandparents have some kind of faith.
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From a blog by Youthscape, 28/04/2021