Required reading

You need to go right now and read the excerpt from Eboo Patel’s latest book that’s on the Web site. Patel points out that totalitarians and fundamentalists have done a very good job at recruiting teenagers to engage in “targeted assassinations and mass murder” in the name of religious beliefs. Pluralists and religious liberals and moderates, on the other hand, don’t invest in teenagers, and even actively push them away:

Too many adults secretly consider the absence of young people in mainstream religious communities the natural course of events, viewing the kids as too self-absorbed, materialistic, and anti-authoritarian to be interested in religion. The result is that adults pay lip service to the importance of involving youths in faith communities but let themselves off the hook when it comes to actually building strong, long-lasting youth programs. Youth activities are typically the top item in a congregation’s newsletter but the last line in the budget. Youth programs are the most likely to be funded by short-term grants, and youth ministers are the first to be fired when a religious community has financial problems.

Next time you hear someone in a Unitarian Universalist congregation say, “Well of course we don’t have any teenagers, kids that age don’t want to do religion” — challenge them on that point, tell them that if they keep saying that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, tell them that simply by saying that they are helping to force our kids out of our congregations.

Then go read Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why most youth ministry doesn’t last and what your church can do about it by Mark DeVries. DeVries says that building a thriving youth ministry is possible, but it requires long-term commitment and hard work:

If you’re looking for a book that can give you easy steps for building a thriving youth ministry in the next three months, I’m afraid you’ve picked the worng one. Oh, there are steps (and rest assured I’ll be giving them to you), but they’re anything but quick, and on occasion, they will be so difficult that you’ll ask yourself why you got into this enterprise in the first place. But there is good news: building a sustainable, thriving youth ministry is not only possible, it’s actually predictable. Sadly, most churches don’t have the patience….

Most mainstream churches (and Unitarian Universalist congregations) don’t have the patience, that is. The totalitarians and fundamentalists do, and they have built thriving youth ministries that produce fanatics. If we poured the kind of energy and effort and money into youth that they do, we could nurture a huge cadre of young people committed to spreading peace and justice and love throughout the world. If only we had the patience….

Miss Marple speaks

The following reflections on morality and human nature come from Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie (New York: William Morrow, 2011):

“There is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you young people will never realize how very wicked the world is.” — p. 60, in “The Bloodstained Pavement”

“In this wicked world, I’m afraid the most uncharitable assumptions are often justified.” — p. 306, “Tape-Measure Murder”

One of the reasons I’m a Universalist is that I tend to believe that there is a great deal of wickedness in the world, and really the only hope for humanity is for love to be the most powerful force in the universe.

And in the story “The Four Suspects,” Miss Marple affirms a variant of part of Hosea Ballou’s ultra-Universalist theology: that sin is punished in this life. Early in the story, Sir Henry Clithering, a character who is an “ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard,” says:

“You say crime goes unpunished; but does it? Unpunished by the law, perhaps; but cause and effect works outside the law. To say that every crime brings its own punishment is by way of being a platitude, and yet in my opinion nothing can be truer [sic].” (p. 136)

Then towards the end of the story, the following conversation takes place between the characters of Miss Marple and Sir Henry Clithering:

“And that girl—” [Sir Henry] stopped. “She commits a cold-blooded murder and gets off scot-free!”

“Oh! no, Sir Henry,” said Miss Marple. “Not scot-free. Neither you nor I believe that. Remember what you said not long ago. No. Greta Rosen will not escape punishment. To begin with, she must be in with a very queer sort of people — blackmailers and terrorists — associates who will do her no good, and will probably bring her to a miserable end….

But the real point of this story is not whether or not evil-doers get punished; the point is that innocent people suffer because of the actions of the evil-doers. And so, Miss Marple concludes, “one mustn’t waste thoughts on the builty — it’s the innocent who matter.” In this moment, Miss Marple could almost be a Universalist: worried less about punishment of sinners than about making life better for everyone else.

Quaker Checkers

Back in 1985, the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network published a Sunday school curriculum called “Peace Experiments.” One of the things I liked best in this old curriculum was a board game called “Quaker Checkers.” It’s simple, fun, and challenging enough to be worth playing more than once. But I can find no reference to this game on the Web, except as a listing in a manuscript archive in the Swarthmore College library. Since the game explicitly states that it is not patented, and that’s it’s OK to copy and/or improve it, I decided to publish a PDF version here:

Click for a printable PDF.

Plenty of irony

I had an unusual weekend: I spent much of the weekend actually teaching. On Saturday, I spent five hours teaching 7th and 8th graders in our faith-based sexuality education course. On Sunday, I spent an hour teaching first and second graders in Sunday school; another hour with our vanishingly small youth group; a third hour training canvassers for our annual pledge drive; and two hours leading a writing group. Over two days, I had ten contact hours.

This was an unusual weekend because as a minister of religious education, I’m often lucky to get ten contact hours a month. Most of us religious education professionals act more like school principals than schoolteachers; we are supervise a set of programs and ministries, but the volunteer teachers are the ones who have most of the contact with children, teens, and adults. And often there’s a pretty close correlation between the size of a religious education program and the amount of teaching done by the religious education professional: the smaller the program, the more teaching a religious educator can do; the larger the program, the more the religious educator has to be concerned with administration.

Irony abounds in the field of congregationally-based religious education. Many people go into the field and become religious educators because they like teaching, only to find that once they are working in a congregation they do very little teaching, and indeed have very little contact time with young people. Many congregations want a religious educator to “grow their program,” and they like to hire a candidate who has an M.Ed., or experience as a schoolteacher, and then they don’t understand why their program stays small when they hired such a great teacher. And congregations tend to judge their religious educator’s job performance more on if that person is “good with kids,” and less on what really matters: whether that person can manage volunteers, keep a master calendar, play congregational politics, develop a flexible administrative infrastructure, and maybe do some fund raising on the side.

I’m one of those fortunate religious educators who likes the administrative tasks as much as the teaching. That’s a good thing, because our children and youth programs grew 24% in attendance in 2011, and if the growth continues in 2012 I will be doing less and less teaching and more and more administration. Though there will still be plenty of irony to fill my days, because I’ll still be someone who went into religious education because I wanted to teach.