Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine
I’m at a religious education conference here at Ferry Beach, leading a week-long workshop on small religious education programs. We had our first session in this workshop today.
My basic contention for this workshop is that small churches are not well-served by the usual Unitarian Universalist (UU) approach to religious education. The usual UU approach to religious education is pretty straightforward: find a printed curriculum guide that you like, buy it, and tell all your volunteer teachers to follow it. Problem is, almost all of the printed curriculum guides that are appropriate for UU religious education are written for churches that have perhaps 50 children in their programs — enough so you can have have 8-12 children in each class, with the classes divided up by age group. But small churches have too few children to divide up by age groups. This is the big problem facing most small church religious education programs — we feel we have to use the existing printed curriculum guides, but they don’t work with the small number of children we have.
So what’s a small church to do?
I propose a different approach for small churches. Instead of letting printed curriculum guides drive what we do in our programs, I propose that we determine our desired educational outcomes, and let those outcomes drive our programs.
I think most of us have the same basic goals for kids in our religious education programs. With minor variations from one congregation to another, we want them to get four basic things:
(1) We want kids to grow up to be Unitarian Universalists. Right now, only about 12% of the adults in our churches grew up as UUs, whereas in UCC churches (our closest church cousins), 44% of the adults grew up in a UCC church. 44% should be our low-end target.
(2) We want kids to have the skills they need to survive and thrive in a religious community. If they’re going to grow up to be UU adults, they have to know how to serve in leadership positions, how to speak in public, how to sing from a hymnal, how to further their own spiritual growth, etc.
(3) We want kids to have basic religious literacy, compatible with the society they’re living in. So they need to know all the Bible stories they’re going to run into in English-language literature, and they need to know the basic stories of other world religions as well.
And (4) we want kids to have fun, to enjoy coming to church.
Once we have these goals in mind, creating a religious education program to meet those goals turns out to be pretty straightforward. (The interesting thing is that most printed curriculum guides that we have been relying on in the past typically only help us reach the third goal, helping kids achieve religious literacy.) Once you know your desired outcomes, we can release the creativity and energy of volunteers to meet these goals. Of course, the devil is in the details — that’s why this is a week-long workshop, so we can dig into those details.
Participant reactions: The participants all come from smaller churches with relatively small religious education programs. They have all experienced how the available printed curriculum guides are not designed for small churches. They understood how specifying outcomes, rather than specifying printed curriculum guides, could be a way to drive their religious education programs more effectively.