The evolving state of religious education

I am increasingly convinced that the pandemic is accelerating a number of trends that are going to change the way we do religious education in our local congregations fairly quickly. However, I don’t these trends should lead us to proclaim either the “post Sunday school era” or “the death os Sunday school.”

And before you get too excited (“Yay, the death of Sunday school!”) or too sad (“Nooo, I miss Sunday school!”), let’s look at a couple of the trends that affect religious education, trends that are being accelerated by the pandemic…..

1. Current trends affecting religious education
2. Where we came from, 1781 to the present
3. Why the “post Sunday school” advocates are right
4. Why the “post Sunday school” advocates are wrong
5. Expanding our religious education possibilities
6. The whole church as curriculum
7. New models for funding
8. Final thoughts


1. Current trends affecting religious education

First and foremost among current trends, most American congregations face looming financial difficulties. Staff costs continue to outpace inflation, driven in part by health insurance costs. Staff costs in Unitarian Universalist congregations are also under pressure because we expect our professional staff — both ordained ministers and lay religious educators — to have at least a four year college degree, and often three or more years of graduate study; staffers have to pay off their college debts, and that means they need relatively high salaries. Finally, there’s always Baumol’s Cost Disease: American congregations represent an “technologically stagnant sector” which means congregations experience “above average cost and price increases.” The amount each person gives to a congregation has to increase faster than inflation, just so the congregation can provide the same amount of services.

Thus, one of the strongest factors driving the “post Sunday school era” theorists is actually the fact that most American congregations can no longer afford to pay all the costs associated with Sunday school: dedicated classroom space, highly educated staff supervisors, and a technologically unsophisticated approach that experiences “above average cost and price increases.”

Second, organized religion in the U.S. is in decline; this is the famous “rise of the ‘Nones’.” But the reasons for this demographic shift are complicated. The “rise of the ‘Nones'” does not seem to correlate strongly with a rise in atheism — a vast majority of Americans still believe in God (notice that the pollsters touting the “rise of the ‘Nones'” often assume the Christian God is the norm) — instead the “nones” simply don’t attend local congregations. A trend that may be related seems to show that increasingly American congregations are filled with upper middle class people; working class and poor people, so it seems, are less likely to be affiliated with an in-person congregation. As more and more young people fall out of the upper middle class into lower socio-economic strata, their new socio-economic status means they are less likely to belong to a congregation.

The pandemic is accelerating both of these trends.

Even though congregational giving has remained surprisingly robust during the first half year of the pandemic, we could be facing another one to three years of restrictions on public gatherings, depending on how fast a vaccine becomes widely available. Three years of limited in-person gatherings seem very likely to adversely affect congregational incomes. And what we have seen, at least in Unitarian Universalist congregations, is that when staff position have to be cut for financial reasons, most often religious education and musician hours get the deepest cuts. Most congregations have already cut administrative and custodial hours as far as they can; and cuts to parish minister hours are usually saved till last. The financial effects of the pandemic are just going to accelerate this already-ongoing process.

And we are going to see an increasing number of people falling out of the middle class. The unemployment rate remains high. People who can find work are sometimes working seven days a week at crappy jobs, just to make ends meet. I’m guessing that on average younger people are going to take a bigger hit from the economic effects of the pandemic. As we have already seen, if you’re not in the upper middle class you are less likely to belong to a congregation; so younger, less affluent people are going to be less likely to show up in congregations with their children.

So these are some of the trends that are going to lead to the decline of Sunday school — and this is, quite simply, because Sunday schools are traditionally based in congregations, and congregations are in decline.

However, a look at history paints a less bleak view.


2. Where we came from, 1781 to the present

I’m not convinced this means we’re entering the “post-Sunday school era.” That will only be true if you define “Sunday school” in a very specific way, specific to the forty-year period from about 1965 to about 2005. That was the era of paid religious education professionals in congregationally-funded programs using professionally-produced curriculum purchased from a denominational or commercial publishing house. Before we proclaim that as the “Sunday school era” of which we are now “post,” let’s look at some of the preceding eras.


In the years from about 1900 to 1965, Unitarian and Universalist Sunday schools were typically run by Sunday School Superintendents, volunteers who supervised the religious education program of a congregation. Although the current stereotype has it that ALL the Sunday School Superintendents and the Sunday school teachers of this era were all women who didn’t have jobs and thus could afford to spend forty hours of unpaid time a week on Sunday school, I have found so many exceptions to that rule that I’m only willing to say that many, perhaps most, of the Superintendents and teachers were housewives with no paid job. For example, my mother was the Superintendent of the Junior Department of the Unitarian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, in the 1950s when she was a single career woman working a full-time teaching job in the Wilmington public schools; this was when there were some 600 children enrolled in that congregation, about half of whom were in her department. In another example, the Superintendents of the Sunday school of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto (1905-1934) included some housewives, but also a couple of Stanford professors, a certified public accountant, and for a number of years the minister served as the Superintendent.


Beyond the question of staffing, the years from 1900 to 1965 saw a few important trends that gradually changed the way Sunday schools operated. First, over this period Sunday schools gradually became integrated into the finances of their host congregation: at the beginning of the period, many, perhaps even most, Sunday schools kept their finances separate from the host congregation, whereas by the end of this time almost all Sunday school budgets had become part of the congregation’s budget. Second, congregations gradually built more and more elaborate physical plants for their Sunday schools, culminating in the 1950s building boom where many congregations built large buildings that resembled the school buildings built for public schools during this time. Third, Sunday schools increasingly relied on published curriculum books, and over time demanded higher and higher quality curriculum books. Fourth, inspired by the advances in developmental psychology, Sunday school began to be seen as a program that was co-equal with the main corporate worship service; in part, this was bowing to the inevitable, because parents increasingly didn’t want to bring their children to both the main worship service and also to Sunday school.


As we go back in time into the mid to late nineteenth century, the further back we go the more we see that everyone was expected to attend the main worship service, adults and children together; developmental psychology hadn’t been invented yet, and children were expected to sit still and pay attention to the sermon — and as we go back in time, the sermon gets longer and longer; sermons were much longer than today’s typical fifteen minute quickies. To generalize broadly, the Sunday school was a separately-funded organization; it didn’t have its own building; the primary textbook was the Bible.

We have gone a long way into the past. The mid-nineteenth century Sunday school is so different from Sunday school in 2020, it doesn’t seem right to call them by the same name. But as we go back in time into the early nineteenth and late eighteenth century, things get even stranger:

Sunday schools actually started in the late eighteenth century as literacy schools for children who had to work during the week and so couldn’t attend public school. The purpose of the Sunday school wasn’t just teaching religious and moral content, it was teaching children how to read. They weren’t housed in churches, they were housed in people’s homes. In the early nineteenth century, with the rise of denominational competition, Sunday schools shifted their focus to teaching their denomination’s specific theological point of view. But originally, Sunday schools started as a social justice project: we’d now say they brought literacy to underprivileged, underserved children. Today, when we’re in an era when people below the upper middle class are staying away from congregations, we should pay attention to how late eighteenth century congregations reached out beyond their memberships to serve children in their area.


3. Why the “post Sunday school era” advocates are right

The purpose of this excursion into the past is to show you that Sunday school, as an institution, has changed dramatically over time. When people talk about the “post Sunday school era” or the “death of Sunday school,” what they really mean is that the Sunday school era that lasted from 1965 to about 2005 is over.

Actually, what they often really mean is that they have a specific agenda to push. The “post Sunday school era” advocates often want to push for a new model of religious education. They want to end children attending separate religious education classes, and instead reform the worship service so that it is child-friendly, so that parents will actually want to take their children into worship. This is a sane and rational approach to dealing with some of the financial forces bearing on congregations. In this “post Sunday school” model, you promote efficiency by moving the religious education responsibilities for paid staff to the parish minister, the primary worship leader. Since you’re moving the primary physical locus of religious education into the main worship space, that means all those now-empty classrooms can be converted to other uses, including renting them out to paying customers. You can also focus more strongly on denominational identity in religious education — a big emphasis in “faith formation” is keeping children within your denomination — so that you’re raising up children who assert their denominational identity, which in turn makes their parents feel better about the choice they’ve made to belong to a particular congregation, which maybe makes them give a little more freely.

While this may sound cynical and worldly, when stated so baldly, it’s not. The Milton Friedman brand of capitalism means we are all steeped in consumerism and the survival of the economically fittest, even in (especially in) the nonprofit world. This is our historical moment; we may not like it, but we have to live in its realities. Or we may love it, and embrace its realities ever more fully.


4. Why the “post Sunday school era” advocates are wrong

But the “post Sunday school era” people, the “faith formation” people, the “death of Sunday school” people all strike me as conservative, even reactionary. They seem to me to be ruling out the progressive heritage of that strand of religious education which I belong.

I agree with the progressives who got kids out of the worship services; children and adults are at very different developmental stages, and a congregation that wants to include nine year olds and ninety year olds on a regular basis needs to accommodate the different needs of those two developmental stages. Sticking kids and elders into the same service every week feels like a regression to me — back to some strange conception of how things were in the good old days of the eighteenth century, when kids and adults went to the local Puritan church together every week to listen to three hour sermons.

The “post Sunday school era” people and the “death of Sunday school” folks are well-intentioned. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems facing religious education within organized religion.


5. Expanding our religious education possibilities

It’s clear that financial pressures are going to force changes in the way we do religious education. But what are the other possibilities besides the” death of Sunday school”?

My sense is that what parents (and kids) want is more choices, more options. This makes sense in our consumer culture: we’re all used to having a wide variety of options available. So we need to find more programs to offer in addition to, not in replacement of, weekly classes on Sunday mornings. Here are some of the additional educational formats I’ve experimented with myself, or observed at close hand, in my quarter of a century working in Unitarian Universalist congregations:

children’s worship
all-ages worship in standard weekly worship services
non-traditional worship
“junior church”
youth groups, support groups, small groups, cell groups
retreats (age-specific for ages 8+; or mixed age and family)
conferences (1 to 7 day gatherings)
performing or watching plays, pageants, liturgical drama
choirs and musical ensembles
online learning
study groups and self-directed study
lay leadership in the congregation
field trips
outdoor ministries, summer camps
pastoral counseling
“traditional” Sunday school, the 1965-2005 approach
non-traditional Sunday school

If you were to ask me to identify one or two of these educational formats that holds the most promise for the future, I’d answer — If you pick just one or two, you’re going to lose children and families.

So, for example, if you put all your religious education eggs in the all-ages worship services basket, you’ll probably lose as many as half the children in your congregation. And if you put all your religious education eggs in the “traditional” Sunday school basket, trying to replicate what we were doing from 1965 to 2005, you’ll also probably lose as many as half the children in your congregation.

In my current congregation, we try to maximize the options for parents with children, not force them into one program. Pre-pandemic, children could enjoy supervised play on the playground, or go to Sunday school classes; they could sign up for comprehensive sexuality education programs for four age groups, the Navigators scouting program, a week-long ecology summer camp, etc. During the pandemic, we’re scrambling to offer a range of options, including online Sunday school, one or two outdoors socially-distanced in-person programs, and various mailings.

The point is to expand your offerings to allow for more choices. But how do you do that economically?


6. The whole church as curriculum

All this takes me back to a book I first read twenty-five years ago, Fashion Me a People by Maria Harris. Harris taught me that, in her words, the whole church is curriculum. Anything a child (or an adult) does in the congregation’s building and grounds, or does with a group of people from that congregation, is curriculum. So to the list above add: all-church picnics, drinking hot chocolate at social hour, playing on the congregation’s playground, attending a Unitarian Universalist family camp in the summer, and any other activity that a child does with others from their religious community.

Being a Unitarian Universalist, I of course translated Harris’s word “church” to me “the local congregation.” But when she says “church,” she also implies a connection to a larger body; in her case, as a Christian and a Roman Catholic, she means the larger body of believers in the triune god and participants in the common rituals of that larger body. So that connection to that larger body, however you conceive that larger body, is also curriculum. In the Unitarian Universalist church of my childhood, that meant that we were not only exposed to the larger Unitarian Universalist movement, but we were also exposed to connections with other liberal religious bodies around the world, like Rissho Kosei-kai (the minister of my home church visited Japan more than once to connect with Rissho Kosei-kai leaders), the Brahmo Samaj (the hymnal we used in the children’s chapel in my home church had readings from Rabindranath Tagore), and other groups.

Harris’s main point, the point I want to emphasize, is that we need to broaden our understanding of where and how learning takes place. Once you really internalize what Harris is saying, you find that things that you’re already doing are, in fact, religious education. Religious education happens the moment children set foot on your campus, or the moment they enter a room full of co-religionists.

This is why I’m troubled by the limited scope of the “post Sunday school era” and the “death of Sunday school” movements. There often seems to be a notion that we can fix all our religious education problems by bringing children into the main worship service.


7. New models for funding

But we come back once again to economics, to finances. Broadening educational offerings is going to be difficult for smaller congregations (which means, most Unitarian Universalist congregations), whose resources are already stretched too far — and I fully expect that many smaller congregations will only be able to focus on one or two options, like sticking all their kids into the main worship services, and then they’ll have to settle for losing half their children. Mind you, if that’s what your financial situation allows, then then you get full marks for trying to retain half your children, rather completely giving up on including children (as so many small congregations have done). And if that’s all your congregation can afford, then by all means take credit for doing what you can to salvage half your children in the midst of financial decline. But let’s not pretend that this is some educational advance; it’s not. It’s a response to looming financial ruin.

One ideal solution would be to move religious education away from being the financial responsibility of individual congregations — that’s no longer economically sustainable — and move instead towards some other funding model. (And no, let’s not expect the Unitarian Universalist Association [UUA] to solve this problem for us; their funding is declining faster than that of many congregations, and the past twenty years has seen an ongoing decline in the UUA’s ability to fund religious education staff, curriculum resources, and trainings for leaders.) What might that look like?

One popular suggestion is to move more religious education online. One exemplar here is Khan Academy, that wonderful nonprofit organization that produces those awesome videos that teach kids how to do math and science, and other subjects as well. I love Khan Academy, and one of my fantasies is that they hire me to be part of a team producing religious education videos that teach intercultural competence (and if a recruiter sees this and wants to get in touch with me, I’d love to talk with you but please use my personal email account, not my work email account). However, the Khan Academy videos are designed to supplement, nor to replace, the instruction in regular schools. So while I think we absolutely need to have religious education content delivered through something like Khan Academy, it’s important to remember it’s a supplement to in-person curriculum. Right now, a lot of people are developing videos and other online learning; what I’m hoping is that someone will decide to curate the best of this material, and make it more widely available. But who will fund the curators? I don’t know.

A recent innovation in funding that’s well worth watching is the Soul Matters program development team. I think their funding model, a subscription service for curriculum and worship, is really interesting. (However, I’m less interested by their educational offerings with its theme-based approach, or their editorial model which relies on one or two curriculum writers instead of curating curriculum from more sources.) This subscription funding model injects some efficiency into religious education staffing, by outsourcing some of the higher-level curriculum development work outside of the congregation.

Another funding innovation worth watching is the growth of summer camps. Sheri Prudhomme and Laila Ibrahim get a lot of credit here for their “Chalice Camps.” Though congregations have been doing summer camps for decades — Christian churches call them “Vacation Bible Schools” — Unitarian Universalists began to realize that Sheri’s and Laila’s “Chalice Camp” could perhaps provide a year’s worth of basic religious education in a one-week format. Better still, Sheri and Laila proved that such camps could be self-supporting, including paying salaries for key staffers; and those salaries might even be financially attractive in a gig economy. Best of all, I find Sheri and Laila’s “Chalice Camp” to be educationally interesting.

One final innovation I’d like to see is several local congregations cooperating to offer a variety of educational opportunities together. This would make all kinds of financial sense — my congregation works on the summer camp programs, your congregation works on the weekend retreat programs, a third congregation works on the weekly programs, and so on. This doesn’t mean that you all come to my summer camp, and my congregation sends our kids to your retreats, or your weekly programs; but curriculum development, volunteer training, and administration could be shared responsibilities. Geoff Rimositis started something like this two decades ago when he created shared retreats that other congregations could send their Coming of Age programs to.

Given the deeply ingrained individualism of Unitarian Universalist congregations, this kind of sharing does not come naturally. And the logistics of inter-congregational cooperation are challenging (I say this from experience). Yet we cannot let this discourage us. We can seen how individual programs involving more than one congregation and led by brilliant innovators, like Geoff’s Coming of Age retreats, can succeed. We have seen how innovative ideas, like Sheri and Laila’s “Chalice Camp,” can spread. How can we continue to fund this kind of innovation? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m sure we’ll find a way.


8. Final thoughts

We need to keep on looking for the many and diverse success stories that are out there. Instead of imposing top-down solutions, like the “faith formation” folks and the “post Sunday school” people, let’s look for programs that are actually working. Instead of being prescriptive — telling others what I think will work for them — let’s be descriptive — describing what is actually working for others, and seeing if it will work for us.

And ultimately, I’m advocating for a return to progressive values. I want to embrace the legacy of the late eighteenth century Sunday school as a social justice project. I want to embrace the legacy of progressives in the religious education movement of the twentieth century who drew on the insights of developmental psychology, and child-centered learning. I want to look for inspiration in today’s programs, like another one of Geoff Rimositis’ innovations, Peace Camp, a week-long day camp that used a non-violence curriculum from MOSAIC Project to reach out to both Unitarian Universalist kids and other kids and teach peace.

Forget the “post Sunday school era.” Forget the “death of Sunday school.” Instead, embrace the new possibilities that keep emerging. Embrace change and innovation, while keeping the focus firmly on children. Given the resources that we have, how are we going to raise the next generation of ethical, morally aware, empathetic, and spiritually sensitive human beings?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *