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.”