What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? We need to address the structural racism that’s embedded in many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations. I’m not naive enough to believe we’re ever going to eliminate racism. But we can do more than we’re doing now. It’s not enough to debate racism, to read books about racism, to ask the denomination for more resources. Interestingly, one of the places where I feel we have made the most progress in addressing racism in really practical ways has been in our Sunday schools; in many Unitarian Universalist congregations the Sunday school is more diverse than the worshipping community. So if Sunday school really does die off, I’ll always have a lingering suspicion that part of what killed it was our hidden desire for racially homogenous congregations….

(2) The biggest single economic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment is the tremendous pressure on families to make sure their children find a career that will support them. The economic future of children and teens is very murky. Less-skilled jobs are being replaced by offshoring, automation, productivity gains, etc.; secure long-term jobs are being replaced by the gig economy, and by expectations that everyone should change their job every few years; health care costs continue to sky-rocket; post-secondary education costs continue to skyrocket, and levels of student debt are far too high; and so on. The competition for good jobs grow increasingly fierce. The perception of parents and their children is that they have no room for error in preparing for the child’s career.

In the face of that perception, organized religion is a hard sell. If participation in a competitive soccer league might someday get a child even a partial sports scholarship, you are going to prioritize soccer over Sunday school. If after-school SAT classes fill up your time, it’s easy to drop youth group, which is not going to help you gain admission to a competitive college. If a four-year college degree is now perceived as the minimum requirement for a stable job, and if congregational life appears to do nothing to get your child into college, then you are not going to be highly motivated to participate in congregational life.

How can we address this economic pressure on families? First, this can be addressed by changing our educational schedules by adding more short-term intensive religious education programs like summer camps and sexuality education classes and social justice opportunities — programs that are scheduled differently, but use the same educational tools that we use in Sunday school. We can also show parents how Sunday school, however it’s scheduled, improves their child’s prospects for survival by giving them leadership skills, skills for working in groups, sexuality education that will keep them from getting pregnant too young, etc. And if Sunday school really does die off, I’ll have a lingering suspicion that part of what killed it was a failure of educational imagination….

(3) The biggest single social factor affecting Sunday school enrollment is the widespread anti-institutionalism and hyper-individualism that pervades our society. Government is not to be trusted, a truism that holds across the political spectrum. Schools are incompetently run. Clubs and community groups are boring, and worse yet, to participate in them you have to make compromises with other people. By contrast, the world of business — a world of competition, of heroic individual entrepreneurs, of markets disrupted by innovation that wipes out old institutions — this is the world that people value most highly.

Sunday school does not fare well in a society that values hyperindividualism, libertarianism, and anti-institutionalism. And Unitarian Universalist Sunday school teaches communitarianism, liberal democracy, and the importance voluntary associations; our society no longer values such old-fashioned things. This means fewer people will even think about participating in Sunday school.

How can we address the anti-institutionalism that keeps people away from Sunday schools? I think one way for us Unitarian Universalists to address this problem is to renew our religious commitment to democratic process. Then we have to articulate why we commit to democracy clearly and without ambiguity: we commit to democracy in order to fight fascism within the U.S. Then we have to articulate, clearly and without ambiguity, how Sunday school educates children into democratic principles. And if Sunday school really does die, I will always have a lingering suspicion that it is because Unitarian Universalists have morphed into hyperindividualists who have only a lukewarm commitment to democracy….

4. A fourth social trend that cannot be ignored is that most people in the United States don’t know what education is, and on top of that they hate schools. The hatred of schools goes along with anti-institutionalism, but there’s something more going on there. Public education in the U.S were initially designed to strengthen democracy and promote egalitarianism; and they were designed to turn children into better human beings. But we’re in an era when we don’t value democracy, making good human beings, and egalitarianism as much as we value making money. No wonder schools are perceived as old-fashioned, outmoded, in need of reform; no wonder schools and schooling are hated by both political conservatives and liberals.

Unitarian Universalist Sunday School at its progressive best is an institution where people can come together, and learn from each other, and challenge each other; it can be astonishingly egalitarian, in a way that leader-centered Unitarian Universalist worship services can’t be; it can teach skills of democracy in ways that worship services can’t. The problem is that Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools have become too radical for a religious movement that is slowly shifting to the right. Unitarian Universalists pay lip service to egalitarianism, but we drive out people who don’t have college degrees. We pay lip service to democratic ideals, but we value autocratic ministers (mostly male) who are strong bosses in the mold of the Carver Policy Governance model. We pay lip service to challenging ourselves to become better human beings, but instead of challenging ourselves, we turn to Theology-Lite.

I don’t know how to address the hatred of schools and schooling that pervades our society, and which also pervades our Unitarian Universalist congregations. And if Sunday school really does die off, I’ll always think that what what helped kill it was fear of egalitarianism, democracy, and becoming a better human being.

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