Teaching kids how to be religious, part three

Part one: Link

In my own religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we made a fundamental mistake in the way we teach kids how to be religious. Back in the 1930’s, the Unitarians and the Universalists hired Sophia Lyon Fahs as their curriculum editor, and over the next two decades Fahs produced a brilliant series of curriculum textbooks. Brilliant books like The Church across the Street, which introduced junior high students to other Protestant traditions, attracted well-deserved attention beyond the Unitarians and the Universalists. The Fahs curriculum books were, in their own way, works of genius.

But an earlier book co-written by Fahs reveals one of her fundamental limitations as a religious educator. Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds (1930), written by Fahs and co-author Helen Sweet Firman, tells the story of one Sunday school class over the course of a year, through a teacher’s journal and careful analysis of that journal. It, too, is a brilliant book, well worth reading even today; today’s religious educators can still learn from the progressive educational philosophy and pedagogy, the assessment techniques, the tradition of close observation of individual children.

Yet something is fundamentally wrong with the book:– the Sunday school class described in the book is a closely-graded class in a laboratory Sunday school that is not affiliated with any congregation, or even with any specific religious tradition. Fahs had completely divorced children’s religious education from the traditional multi-generational institutions of congregations and wider religious traditions. The children are influenced by each other, by their own inner thoughts and memories and inclinations, and by their teacher; it is an extreme form of individualism, which works pretty well but which leaves out big chunks of religion.

Fahs was not the only one trying to take religious education in this direction. The Universalist Angus MacLean was headed in the same direction, and in his book A New Age in Religious Education he tells churches to take the kids out of the worship service and drop them into closely graded Sunday school classrooms that look exactly like public school classrooms. That was the trend throughout liberal religion and mainline Protestantism in the mid- to late-20th C.: separate the kids from the adults, to the end that the individual development of individual children is nurtured and encouraged.

This was a brilliant idea, but it didn’t really work. Religious educators within liberal religion, and Christian educators within mainline Protestantism began to notice that once kids grew up, they didn’t stick around. “Oh well,” we said, “kids just naturally drift away when they’re in their twenties.” Liberal religion and mainline Protestantism began to decline in numbers, due in no small part to the fact that 80% or 90% of our kids drifted away and never came back.

We said this was “natural,” while turning a blind eye to the fact that other religious groups, like the Mormons, managed to hang on to a higher percentage of their kids. “Oh no,” we said, “we don’t want to be coercive like the Mormons, we don’t want to force our kids to stay in our religious tradition.” We ignored the fact that we were actively training our kids into an extreme individualism that encouraged them, even forced them, to leave us.

We also conveniently ignored the fact that our religious education was built on a deep-held assumption that we really didn’t want our kids to stick around. I had been an active youth leader in my church in my teens. When I tried to go back to my home church in my mid-20’s, I found there wasn’t a place for me. Indeed, I was subtly but actively discouraged from attending church:– many people ignored me at worship services, I was never invited to join a social group or a committee, it was made quite clear that there was no place for a single, childless young man in his early twenties in that church. The idea of closely-graded classes went beyond the Sunday school up into the adult religious community, and there was no “class” for twenty-somethings.

Fortunately for me, a few people like Hrand and Toby and Doug and Kay made sure I felt welcome; and my parents let me join their ushering team so at least I had some role in the church. Hrand, Toby, Doug, and Kay ignored the precepts of “lifespan faith development,” which seems to predict that twenty-somethings will go off and explore other religions. They, and others like them, realized that there were young adults who wanted to belong to that church. Intuitively, they also realized that some of us desperately needed the distributed cognitions built into that church, to help us deal with what was going on in our individual lives.

Contrary to the precepts of developmentalism, not everyone fits into a closely-graded religious education class. Not everyone thrives by being limited to contact solely with other persons of his or her own age. Given that we lose up to 90% of our young people, I’d hazard a guess that most people do not thrive under the precepts of “lifespan faith development.”

To be continued…

9 thoughts on “Teaching kids how to be religious, part three

  1. Stephanie

    I’d say you’re right on the money. I’ve taught a ton of UU RE
    classes and we do foster individualism at the expense of just
    about everything else.

    Similarly, when I tried to go to church in my 20s, and even in
    div school, I found that congregations either ignored me or
    treated me as a peculiarity.

  2. Bill Baar

    This is good Dan. I really think UUs need to review many things about our more recent history. It explains, like this much of what we are today.

  3. Abs

    Yay! You know that the issue of UU’s in their twenties being
    welcomed in congregations is one of my pet peeves – thank you for
    writing such a cogent piece.
    (And here’s what happened to me when I tried to assimilate into
    our home church after college: people kept asking me to babysit
    their children. Um, no, I’m grown up now, thank you!)

  4. Jess

    I wonder, on the YA issue, if stressing the importance of having specific YA groups in congregations and at GA is actually contributing to the problem of the divide between “real” adults and the “young” adults. I find the definition, 18-35, to be too broad, too – what do I, a 30 year old mother of two, specifically have in common with an 18 year old just starting college?

    I’ve really felt lately that the YA groups are more about continuing YRUU than about really addressing community issues – namely bringing all the generations of a congregation into a cohesive community. What the solution is, I don’t know.

  5. Administrator

    Jess — When I was helping coordinate young conferences a dozen years ago, some of us (who were all childless) insisted that part of the conference fee be a \”child-care equalization fee,\” and we hired child care without even knowing if anyone with children woulf show up. Sure enough, a single mom did show up, and we all had a blast (including her daughter). In retrospect, I think that child care equalization fee was a way to help everyone see what we all had in common whether we were 18 (the age of the youngest person present) or 34 (as I was at the time) — I mean, isn\’t the most distinctive aspect of the 18-35 year old age range the fact that you\’re trying to figure out if and how to have children? If that\’s true, then what are we teaching (and learning) by creating young adult communities that exclude children?

  6. Jess

    I’m not saying that 18 year olds and 34 year olds can’t learn from one another, I’m saying that I don’t think it’s effective to group that age range in a specific category and feel that we’re now “meeting the needs” of the young adult demographic. It’s not much different than the separation between YRUU and the rest of typical RE structures, and the separations between RE, YRUU and the bulk of the congregation.

    I want to see all generations in the same room more often, partaking of church life as a church community.

    Child care is definitely an issue for conferences, and is the main reason I can’t see ever bringing our kids to GA – plus the fact that the kids in the GA child care were not brought to events like Sunday worship! It’s great if child care is offered, even greater if everyone shares in the cost, but the issue of strict separation between “adult” “youth” “young adult” and “child” activities still stands, particularly at church events outside of a conference setting. I feel there should be some aspect of every church event that engages the congregation as a whole – not necessarily “child-friendly” but that fine line of “not child-unfriendly.”

    And then we get into parenting and how to raise children in such a way that they understand how one behaves in various public/church settings.

  7. John Cullinan

    Brief example of separations that should be done away with.

    After Sunday worship at GA this year, I noticed on my way out that the “Young Fun” group was being led in to the arena. While it’s great that the program is there to make GA more accessible for families, I see no reason why the youth should not have been brought in to worship with the rest of us that morning, especially since it’s a more contemporary worship style.

  8. Pingback: How we grew a huge 20/30s group at Making Chutney

  9. Administrator

    Hey Jess, one of my favorite quotes on young adult ministries comes from Rev. Hank Peirce, a young adult himself who has been very successful at bringing all age groups into the congregation he serves….

    …”I’m saying ‘young adult,’ but I don’t really think of people as ‘young adults’ in our congregation,” said Peirce. “They are just members [of the congregation] in my view.” He disagrees with efforts to create special worship services and separate young adults groups within Unitarian Universalist congregations. “Don’t think outside the box, think inside the box,” said Peirce. “Don’t try to develop separate congregations for young adults, integrate them into the wider congregation.”…

    This is from a workshop Hank did at General Assembly a couple o fyears ago, reported on by yours truly — my report is still online Link.

    John — I missed that. How silly to keep the kids out of that worship service. Send a note to the GA Planning Committee.

    Chutney — One of the issues I suspect you’re addressing is that in many Unitarian Universalist congregations young adults are actually discouraged from attending. By creating any program at all (especially one as good as yours sounds), my guess is that you’ll find that there are young adults just waiting to come to your church. I also like the fact that you did not try to draw young adults away from common worship, which addresses the concerns Jess has voiced in her comments.

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