Monday, December 23, 2013

Why Traditional Religious Education Fails Our Children

So, on my occasionally secular blog I get to finally voice a very real concern I have regarding “traditional” religious education in the Protestant vein. Lest you think I am a seat-warmer, I probably should let you know that I have served as a DRE (Director of Religious Education) for two Unitarian Universalist churches over a seven year span and have also been a religious educator (unpaid volunteer sometimes) in three UCC churches for another six years.  I’ve watched the number of children fall off in most programs, listened to peers from countless other denominations weep into their beer and peanuts over their RE headaches and heartaches, listened to parents who can’t understand why its so hard to get Johnnie to go to church.

Such experiences make me scratch my head and wonder why.  Never underestimate wondering why—it’s the very stuff of religion!

The truth of the matter is, the entire system is based on ideas that are no longer relevant or were faulty to begin with.  Lets consider just a few points—you may come up with more:

#1:  The idea of separating families during church services is relatively new, mostly an idea from the 1950’s. One of the great headaches most RE programs have is a lack of volunteers.  At the inception of  “church school”, most women did not work, and if you were like my mother-in-law, you started volunteering in the RE program from the time you were a late teenager.  The pool you could draw from, as well as the socially mandated expectation was:  woman= body who WILL volunteer at the church.  That is simply no longer the case today, where families are mostly made up of two working (read exhausted) adults.  The very “pool” that our budding educators are drawn from no longer exists.

#2: The whole idea of a “school” model unfortunately has one drawback.  It’s called “graduation”.  So children, encouraged to “graduate” from their public or private institutions will, in most cases, apply the same logic to their church experience.  They will “graduate” from church and go on to college.  See some empty pews in your old church?  This may be one reason why they are filled with so much space.

#3: Karen Armstrong made a delicious and telling observation.  It is quite simply this:  experience precedes creeds, beliefs, dogmas and ideally religious education programsPRECEDES!  In other words, attempting to cram a child’s head with the “intellectual stuff” of religion without attendant experiences to attach those ideas to is sort of like talking about frog dissection if the kid has never even held a real, croaking, slippery green and brown critter in the first place.  And then hoping the child will understand frogs, the way they lay in the water with just their eyes and nose holes clear of the depths, the amazing transformations they make from jelly-balls to little fishie shapes to sporting tiny front and back legs all in a single summer, the sound of a chorus of them serenading spring-time, the way they can leap from your hand like a bar of soap squeezed too tightly—these are the things of whole body experience. These are the essence of froginess, the spirit and the living delight.  And by and larger, our education programs put this all backwards, hoping the stories, the creeds, the memorization, the coloring and creating and what not will somehow make a religious experience happen.  Mostly, it does not.  The result:  boredom, confusion, and frustration on both adult and children’s faces.

#4: Sending the children out of the service and into church school conveys some very interesting messages:  “we don’t want you here because you act up, are cuter than the minister, might ask difficult questions, etc.”: “you won’t understand this”; and, “you will be bored if you stay—and therefore embarrass me or drive me crazy” being the primary implicit messages that radiate out from a church school way of doing Sunday morning. 

Let me address each of these, one by one.

In most cultures, the children stay for hours in services (I’m thinking 2.5 hour Sikh services, three hour Hindu temple services, 2-3 hour Vietnamese Buddhist services, etc.)  Yes, they sometimes run around, steal the fruit from in front of Buddha (and are helped to return it by several clucking adults), cry, laugh, have hissie-fits, color, play their pocket sized electronic games. But there is a sense that what is going on is “bigger” than simply understanding the whole thing, particularly the all-important “message” delivered by the beloved and overworked minister.  The children are part of the people, they are tribe, they are loved and they belong. They are seen and interacted with by all the adults.  They have a place, and it means family and connections and identity.  We should, all of us, want those kids with us as we approach the great mysteries of life in awe and wonder and curiosity and delight.

I remember going to church with my Grandma Harris...and watching her tear up when she was singing a hymn.  Can’t name the hymn.  Can’t tell you what the minister talked about.  I only know that down deep, at age six or so, I knew that my grandmother was experiencing something profound.  It made a mark.  It planted a seed that has kept me enthralled with religion in all its shades and varieties for over four decades.  To say a child will not understand a church service ignores the power of music, eviscerates the energy of watching all-powerful adults bow, recite words together, light candles and listen with attention to the words of another.  We need to gift our children with more than a basic understanding our religious tradition—we need to let them experience its beating heart.

Boredom is great compost.  Seriously.  How often do we allow our children to sit for an hour, doing something that is not edifying, educational or even necessarily interesting?  How do we begin to convey the sense of Sabbath to our over-programmed kids?  OK, so I will concede that last sentence is the contemplative’s answer to the gifts of boredom.  But the other answer, the practical answer is this—give them something to do!  Set up an art table in the back of the hall that children can come and go from if they wish.  Keep colored pencils and paper in the pews.  Give the kids cameras without flashes and turn them loose to “document” the proceedings and share their photo-art on line.  Involve them in the candles, reading (even imperfectly) what needs to be read from the pulpit, singing with the choir (even loudly or out of tune). 

I think you will begin to see that church school is not particularly an institution for the sake of our children. It is an institution of convenience for the adults, the “important” minister and the tired parent.  But is this what your faith calls you to? 

And more, what can you learn from the children among you if you open your arms and hearts and heads and keep them in the dance of worship?

Next time:  So if I buy this argument, what do we DO with our paid resident religious educator?  I’m so glad you asked...

Ameyn! (No this isn't a's Aramaic.  And the fuel for another blog...later....)

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