Monthly Archives: July 2006

Blogging and religion

Way back on July 9, 2006, the Washington Post ran an article on ministers who write blogs, “Cyber-Savvy Pastors Blog When the Spirit Moves Them” by Megan Greenwell [link; and thanks World of Your Making for the link]. Some of the ministers Greenwell interviewed use blogs for evangelism and at least one uses a blog for personal reflection — but for me, the most interesting reflection on ministerial blogging was this…

The Rev. Jan Edmiston, pastor of Fairlington Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, said … the blogging phenomenon is part of a larger shift in the way religion is practiced — although she is unsure what form that change might take. She now devotes every other Monday to “monastery day,” when she sits in a coffee shop reflecting on the state of the church and expressing her thoughts on her blog, “A Church for Starving Artists.”

“I’m doing the things you would do in a monastery except with a cup of coffee and my laptop,” she said. “It’s completely spiritually energizing in ways a lot of people wouldn’t think possible. I think the church is going through a transformation similar to the Reformation, and blogging helps me work through where I fit into that.”

Now that’s an interesting new spiritual practice:– blogging in a coffee shop. Just as Edmiston calls her practice “monastic,” I think this is less a story of technology changing the way we do things, than it is a story of people finding and creating new ways to pursue spiritual growth and exploration. And as Edmiston says, it’s all very spiritually energizing — which doesn’t mean I have the faintest idea of what form this new change in religion will take.

Teaching kids how to be religious, part six: Developmentally-based programs

Part one: Link

When many people think of how to teach children to be religious, the only psychological model they use is developmental psychology — and with good reason: developmental psychology is an extremely useful model for planning cognitive and affective learning. Because so much has been written about applying developmental psychology to religious education, I don’t need to spend too much time on it.

The insights of developmental psychology basically tell us to create programs wherein children of the same general age (or same general developmental stage) learn together. In my own experience as a religious educator and parish minister based in local congregations, developmental psychology has helped me to figure out ways to create a mix of good programs for different age groups. The key word here is “mix”: while some religious educators feel they have to rely on just one kind of developmentally-based program, in my experience children are best served by offering a variety of programs, offered either concurrently (in large congregations) or successively (in smaller congregations).

For school aged children, the mix of programs might include closely-graded classes (traditional Sunday school and the Montessori-based “Godly Play”), closely-graded worship experiences (children’s chapel, or in large churches even more closely-graded worship experiences), and other programs like a children’s choir (in larger churches, several different children’s choirs, divided based on physical and intellectual development, will be possible).

For teens, the mix of programs might include closely-graded programs (traditional youth groups, mission trips, youth choirs), youth worship, and closely-graded classes.

As we’ll see in the next installment, these closely-graded programs can (and, I believe, should) be mixed in with multi-age programs.

Next: Distributed cognition

Street scene

Carol and I are looking out of the second-floor window of the place where we’re cat-sitting. A 1970’s-era Mercedes sedan slowly drives up.

“Wow, look at the old Mercedes,” says Carol, “it still looks good, especially in white. Is he stopping to look at the stuff I put on Craigslist?” She just stacked a pile of old junk at curbside.

A man gets out, about 60, longish white hair, aviator sunglasses, khaki pants, shirt in Madras plaid. He walks in front of the Mercedes, seemingly looking intently at the pile of Carol’s junk.

“Yup,” I say, “he’s looking at the blue wading pool.” The wading pool is leaning up against the “Parking Permit Required” sign, and from his point of view, all the other junk must be hidden behind it.

Just then, a slender young woman in her early twenties appears around the corner of the house, walking down the sidewalk past the blue wading pool towards the man. Carol bursts out laughing. “No, he’s looking at the foxy chick!”

The man turns away, but as soon as she passes by him, he turns to stare at her rear end.

“Boy, he’s a little obvious about it!” I say.

“It’s not that bad,” says Carol. “At least she was past him and didn’t see.”

“I guess, but,” I start to say, when Carol interrupts me.

“Shh, he’ll hear us,” she says.

We move away from the window.

Teaching kids how to be religious, part five: Safety and security

Part one: Link

Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote extensively about what he called a “hierarchy of needs.” It’s really a basic, common-sense insight: you have to have enough food to eat and water to drink before you start to worry about structure and order in your life, you have to worry about order and security in your life before you worry about having human community, you have to have human contact and community before you worry about self respect and respect of others.

  • Physiological needs — air, water, food, warmth, sex, voiding wastes, etc.
  • Safety needs — safety, security, stability, protection, structure, order, limits, etc.
  • Belonging needs — human relationships, family, community, membership in a congregation, etc.
  • Esteem needs — respect of others, and self-respect

All the above are what Maslow termed “deficiency needs”: you have to have them in order to survive, and if you are deficient in one of these needs, you have to make up that deficiency before you can meet the needs higher in the hierarchy. For example, if you are starving to death, or can’t breath, you have to make up those deficiencies before you can worry about self-esteem. Maslow visualized this hierarchy of needs as a pyramid, with a broad base of physiological needs at the bottom, narrowing to a point at the top.

According to W. Huitt (2004 [“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Educational Psychology Interactive, Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved 21 July 2006 from]), the apex of the pyramid of needs has “growth needs” that go beyond the four deficiency needs:

According to Maslow, an individual is ready to act upon the growth needs if and only if the deficiency needs are met. Maslow’s initial conceptualization included only one growth need–self-actualization. Self-actualized people are characterized by: 1) being problem-focused; 2) incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life; 3) a concern about personal growth; and 4) the ability to have peak experiences. Maslow later differentiated the growth need of self-actualization, specifically naming two lower-level growth needs prior to general level of self-actualization (Maslow & Lowery, 1998) and one beyond that level (Maslow, 1971). They are:

5) Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;

6) Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;

7) Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential; and

8) Self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

This psychological model, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, has obvious implications for teaching kids how to learn to be religious. Most obviously, you have to start with the lowest levels of the hierarchy of needs. Children must have the following, in the following order:

  1. Water to drink, food to eat (you may have to supply food if the child’s family cannot give them adequate food), clean air to breathe (a problem in old or poorly-ventilated buildings), a place to void wastes, etc.
  2. Safety including physical safety (building must be safe and secure) and emotional safety (adult leaders must behave appropriately), order and structure, behavioral and other limits, etc.
  3. A human community to which they can belong, and feel welcomed in.
  4. Respect of others, and self-respect.

Once the congregation helps children meet these needs, we can go further and help children get to cognitive learning, aesthetic appreciation, realizing their own potential, and achieving transcendence. A common mistake that many religious educators make is to try to start with cognitive learning, while ignoring safety. When it comes to teaching kids how to do religion, in my experience as a religious educator and minister I find myself spending perhaps half my time at the first two levels: making sure the physical plant is safe and secure, making sure adult volunteers know how to provide emotionally safety and appropriate limits. Then I spend another third of my time at the next two levels: building community and helping create an environment where children can respect each other and respect themselves. Only then do I get to cognitive, aesthetic, and other needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has some real problems and limitations. In one glaring example, self-transcendence can burst in on persons who are starving, or who are experiencing emotional or physical abuse — if you want to use God-talk, God does not necessarily wait for you to be well-fed before manifesting.

In spite of the limitations, I find Maslow’s psychological model of a hierarchy of needs has helped me at a practical level far more than any theory of developmental psychology. To ignore the hierarchy of needs is to assume that every child you try to teach comes from such a privileged background that you can ignore basic survival needs.

Next: Developmentally-based programs

Street signs in Cambridge

The heat is making me even crankier than usual, but at least the signs I see when I’m out walking keep me entertained.

Neatly chalked on a sidewalk blackboard in front of a bar at 2046 Mass. Ave.:


Not all of North Cambridge has succumbed to the onslaught of chi-chi boutiques selling things you don’t really need. A few places still supply the necessities of life.


Spray-painted in neat capital letters, alternating lines painted in red or blue, on the asphalt sidewalk in Cambridge Common parallel to Mass. Ave.:


Yes, Virginia, we are in Cambridge.


On Oxford Street, a few blocks down from Lesley University, the “Oxford Laundry Dry Cleaning Coin-Op” displays the following sign in their window:


You probably guessed that the “o”s in “Love Story” are hearts. I’m just surprised that anyone still remembers that movie.

Swallows and Amazons

In the book Swallows and Amazons, four children from a 1930’s upper middle class English family spend their summer holiday on an unnamed lake in England’s Lake District. Roger is the youngest at 7, and John is the oldest at about 12; Susan is about 10 and Titty (an unfortunate name for today’s readers) is about 8. Their father is in the Navy, and their mother lets the four of them sail off in a small sailboat named “Swallow” so that they can camp out on an island in the middle of the lake.

Soon they meet two other children, the sisters Nancy (age 13) and Peggy (age 12), who fly the Jolly Roger from the mast of their own small boat, which is named “Amazon.” The six children become friends, although their friendship includes skirmishes and a naval war, and the rest of their summer is shaped by the boats they sail.

One of the highest values these children hold is to be good sailors. The younger children, Roger and Titty, long to be allowed to take the tiller of “Swallow.” The crews of the Swallow and the Amazon watch each other’s ability closely, and of course they race each other. The next highest value these children hold is self-sufficiency. They camp out on the island, cook for themselves, and do their best to take care of themselves. It may be that these two values, self-sufficiency and good sailing, cannot be separated for these particular children: to have the responsibility of sailing a small boat is to learn self-sufficiency. At least one organization in Boston, Community Boating, believes this to be true, and offers children (even those who can’t afford it) the opportunity to learn how to sail on the Charles River Basin.

No need to tell you all the adventures the children have. Suffice it to say that all their adventures, while fictional, could be true; everything they do is something that children of their age could manage, including living on their own in the outdoors for a week. These are not carefully protected children of 21st C. North American suburbia; these are children who are expected to learn how to take care of themselves. You can’t help but notice the influence that the ideals of British Empire have on these children, and some will reject the children’s self-sufficiency on that score.

(More astute readers might suspect that Empire is living on in these children’s play in the same way that the ravages of the Plague live on in the game “Ring-around the Rosy.” Better to play at departed Empire, if it leads a child to self-sufficiency and a love of the outdoors, than to play at video-games, which will be a useful skill once the child grows up and joins the United States military, but which will ultimately lead only to dependency and slothfulness, and a lack of competence at living outdoors.)

Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, wrote a dozen other related books with the same characters. Speaking of the ones I have read, Ransome’s books seem to me to encourage children’s self-sufficiency without resorting to the pyrotechnics of, say, Harry Potter. If you have children, have them read Swallows and Amazons now, and deal with the longing for small boats later.

The book is still in print, and I found my paperback copy in the “Harvard Book Store”: Link. Another bookstore, “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth,” tries to keep all twelve volumes of the series in stock in their Cambridge, Mass., store (but call them for mail-order, because not all their books are availabel through their Web site): Link. One of the mangers of “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth” told me that the distributor thinks the books look “too old-fashioned” and doesn’t always keep them in stock, so the bookstore may have to back-order individual volumes now and then.

There is also a fan club for those who like Swallows and Amazons: Link.

Post revised August 20, 2006.

Teaching kids how to be religious, part four

Part one: Link

That still leaves us with the problem of how to teach kids to be religious. Given the limitations of the “lifespan faith development” approach, should we jettison it and try a completely new model? If so, which model? Or can we find a less drastic approach?

I’d like to suggest a less drastic approach. “Faith development” — or, as I prefer to call it, religious development — does have useful tools for us to place in our toolboxes. But developmentalism cannot be the only approach we use to teach kids how to be religious; nor can it even be the primary approach. Those of us who are concerned with religious education, spiritual growth and exploration, and religious development can’t limit ourselves to one approach or one way of doing things. We have to consider a range of models and methods for teaching kids how to be religious.

I’d like to consider three broad models and methods for teaching kids how to be religious. These three models and methods are all firmly rooted in congregational life. They are not mutually exclusive, but represent an ecology of mutually interdependence:– which is to say, you can’t do one without the other two. Each of the three grows out of the insights of psychological theory and research. Each of the three has implications for religious professionals, lay leaders, parents/guardians, and for kids.

The three models and methods can be summarized as follows:

(1) Safety and security. Drawing on Abraham Maslow’s model of the hierarchy of needs (and other models), physical and emotional well-being must be secured.

(2) Developmentally-based programs. Drawing on the insights of Jean Piaget and related developmental psychologists, the psychological development of individuals is nurtured.

(3) Distributed cognition. Drawing on the insights of Lev Vygotsky and theorists of distributed cognition, the whole congregation is understood as teaching kids how to be religious.

I’ll look at each of these three models, and their associated methods, in the next three installments of this essay.

To be continued…

Al Gore vs. Bender

If you’re a fan of the Futurama TV show, you’ll know that Bender is mouthy robot given to saying things like “Comedy’s a dead art form. Now tragedy…heh heh heh, that’s funny.”

Now Bender the robot takes on Al Gore in a short cartoon, “A Terrifying Message from Al Gore,” featuring dialogue like this:

Al Gore: If we don’t do something, our planet will become a deadly smog ball that will choke out all life.

Bender: Good! More beer for the robots!

How can you resist? See it now: Link.


Yesterday, I arranged to meet my dad at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge for some birding. While I was waiting for dad to show up, I walked out the trail over the low dike that separates the two impoundments. Because of the late flooding this year, many of the cattails are still quite short, less than four feet tall. I was looking at some of the short cattails when I heard a familiar sound, a loud abrupt “kick-it, kick-it.” It was a Virginia Rail hiding somewhere in the cattails not far from the trail. Then another one started calling on the other side of the trail.

I stopped to listen, when suddenly one of the rails walked right up on the dike about fifty feet away, looked at me, and scuttled back into the cattails. Virginia Rails are small secretive birds and they can be hard to see, but every once in a while one will pop out into the open and let you have a look at it. I was thinking how lucky I was to see a Virginia Rail in the middle of the afternoon, when I realized the other Virginia Rail I had heard calling was coming out into the open practically at my feet.

As it moved closer and closer, I trained my binoculars on it. They’re odd-looking birds: drab brown, strangely thin from side to side so they can slip through the cattails, somewhat elongated, legs placed well back on their bodies, with very long toes. But when you look closely you realize they’re quite beautiful: their reddish-orange down-curved bill contrasts well with their gray cheeks and warm brown bodies. This particular rail got so close I could see individual feathers through the binoculars, and I could make out a neat subtle pattern on its back and wings. It fluffed up its feathers, uttered a loud “kak!”, turned and kept walking towards me.

The rail got so close I could not focus the binoculars on it. I looked down at it, not six feet away, moving across the trail and out in the open now but still moving furtively: a small brown bird, a fellow living thing, looking up at me. It moved quickly across the trail, and lost itself in the weeds and cattails.

“Wow,” I said out loud, to no one in particular, for there were no other human beings in sight. I felt a little light-headed: I had just been amazingly close to an amazing animal. The light-headedness lasted for a good half hour.