Today's post was written by Emily Morgan, host of the The Grand Life: Wholehearted Grandparenting podcast.
It’s 1952 and my grandparents are descending the church steps together. My grandfather is holding a hat in his left hand, and my grandmother’s purse hangs from her forearm like she’s Queen Elizabeth. I’m sitting watching some 8mm film taken back in the 1950s of my extended family, including my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my parents and older sister when she was just a baby.
The film, now a video, shows on our widescreen TV. No darkened room, no clackety projector. My husband and I watch with my middle sister and her husband, naming people whose faded Ektachrome images flit silently by. More than just congregants to my grandparents, they were dear friends and members of a greater community where they all lived. We only know them because we visited that church every time we traveled to see my grandparents. I wonder how many of you have had the same experience? Surely I’m not the only one with grandparents steeped in faith from a young age, and who in their old age made it no secret that they prayed for decades that all of us would follow in their footsteps.
Have their prayers been answered? How many of their progeny are walking out of a church building every Sunday like they did?
I would venture to say that many of us seldom do. And even if we do worship regularly, how different does that place look compared to the one we visited or attended in the 1950’s? Each generation’s faith mutates. And in some households, it completely disappears.
For some – even now -- religion is far more than just a practice. It’s an identity. But according to recent Gallup Poll numbers, “Americans' membership in houses of worship have continued to decline, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup's eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.” You may be one of those faithful 47 percent. But your children and grandchildren may not. So how do you reconcile that when family comes to visit or when a shared holiday coincides with a visit to a place of worship?
After speaking to many grandparents in different religious traditions, I can say that all of them want their children and grandchildren to take away from their own upbringing a faith that looks similar to the one they passed down to them. They desire this for many reasons: tradition, commonality, belief in a shared afterlife, and a strong conviction that the structure and truth of a shared faith bonds a family together like nothing else can.
Parents whose adult children eschew those reasons lament that choice. As grandparents, we may have an urge to leapfrog over our “spiritual but not religious” adult children in order to influence our impressionable grandchildren. But what is borne out of love and concern can often morph into conflict and estrangement.
So what is the answer? Witholding judgment, try speaking to your adult children before you openly share your beliefs with your grands. There is certainly nothing wrong with inviting your grands to say a prayer before dinner or bedtime when they are in your own home, but to insist on that when you’re visiting another’s home is another matter. And if your family comes to visit during a religious holiday or even on a regular weekend, it would be best to ask your adult children if they’d like to attend worship with you. Be willing to accept a “no” if they decline. There is nothing stopping you from attending yourself, but you should do everything to be loving and kind in your response to your adult children’s requests not to attend. That is where the outpouring of your faith becomes the genuine love that you profess to believe. While the saying “actions speak louder than words” is not a sacred or biblical proverb, it really could be.
The Grand Life Podcast: Wholehearted Grandparenting is hosted by Emily Morgan, author of this essay. If you are interested in more reflection specifically about grandparents and faith traditions, listen here for the first of a three-part series about this topic.
© 2022 Emily Morgan
Emily Morgan hosts The Grand Life: Wholehearted Grandparenting podcast and is in her third year of creating over 80 episodes consisting of stories, interviews and essays about grandparenting. Her The Stretch It Takes essays have become a favorite for her listeners, exploring how to stay flexible in relationship with adult children and grandchildren alike. She and her husband Mike enjoy their 10 grandchildren who reside with their respective parents in IN, CO, and VA and who range in age from six months to 10 years old.