Reimagining Sunday school

I finally finished writing a short essay titled “Reimagining Sunday school” for my curriculum website. This essay has been in the works for a while, both as a response to the “death of Sunday school” movement, and as a response to the de-funding of religious education programs that we’ve been seeing denomination-wide. I’m copying the entire essay in below the fold, or you can read it on my curriculum website.

Let’s reimagine Sunday school for the mid-twenty-first century. What would a new vision of Sunday school look like?

Have fun and build community

Let’s reimagine Sunday school as a place where children and teens learn how to be in community. Let’s co-create Sunday schools that are laboratories where kids learn how to do community by doing community. In this vision of Sunday school, it’s not a program separate from the rest of a congregation, it’s central to the congregation. Children and teens learn leadership skills that allow them to move into leadership roles in the congregation. They learn caregiving skills that allow them to reach out in pastoral ways to other persons. They learn how to engage in social justice together, and with responsible adults, through social education, social service, and direct action that reaches out to policy makers. Sunday school begins to look more like John Dewy’s vision of school: school is not preparation for life, it is life.

A proven way to build community among children and teens — and among kids and adults — is to have fun together. So as we reimagine Sunday school, we’ll take fun seriously. Having fun and playing together will become central to Sunday school, and by extension to religious communities more broadly. This fun might include playing together, doing theatre and music and art together, eating meals together, and so on. While these might seem like activities that don’t need Sunday school to happen, the schooling framework can help us to be intentional about having fun, and can also help us to maintain structures that keep kids safe.

Learn skills associated with liberal religion

Some basic skills have long been associated with liberal religion. With our commitment to democracy, liberal religious congregations are natural places to teach and learn skills associated with non-profit leadership. This is true for both kids and adults. For example, a past president of the California League of Women Voters told me that she learned how to do nonprofit leadership in her Unitarian Universalist congregation. As we reimagine Sunday school, we’ll think about how to teach kids basic leadership skills so that beginning about eighth grade, they can start moving into congregational leadership roles — committee members, Sunday school teachers, members of the Board of Trustees, website co-managers, and so on (and these are all roles that I’ve seen teens successfully fill in my congregation). 

One of my religious education mentors, Prof. Robert Pazmino, said that our goal should be to have a young person on every committee in the congregation — and that if we did so, we’d have to reimagine congregational governance. For example, moving a young person onto your congregation’s environmental action committee could be invigorating — since kids are the ones who are going see the worst effects of environmental disaster. When teens are on the board of trustees, it helps remind board members that ongoing board development is a necessity for all board members (adults, too), that we can’t assume that everyone knows how to read a balance sheet or how to navigate Robert’s Rules. Thus Sunday school could be a path to full participation in all the messy details of democracy.

Other skills are associated with liberal religion as well, including interpersonal skills (knowing how to relate with family, with peers, and with adults beyond the family), and intrapersonal skills (knowing how to reflect on oneself and on one’s actions). Liberal religion also has a long history of educating kids in basic group singing. It’s fascinating to know that when people sing together (even when we don’t sing particularly well!), something known as “entrainment”happens, where heart rates synchronize, which can affect human social interactions. Other lively arts have similar effects. So as we reimagine Sunday school, we’ll want to include plenty of opportunities for full participation in various lively arts.

Learn the religious literacy needed in a multicultural democracy

If we’re going to understand our neighbors in our multicultural democracy, we need to know more about them than the color of their skis, what language they speak, and the food they eat. Religious traditions and cultural traditions are intertwined, and religious identity is a key part of many people’s personal identity. This includes those people who claim no religious identity at all — religion can even include such “secular” commitments as your job.

So understanding how religions shape us can be an important skill for understanding different cultures. It’s well known that most public schools in the U.S. do not adequately cover religion, in fear of violating the First Amendment injunction against state-supported religion. This means that Sunday schools are crucial in teaching our kids about the religions and religious identities of others. The American Academy of Religion has a set of excellent guidelines for religious literacy for gr. K-12 that can guide our teaching and learning in this area.

Prepare UU kids to become UU adults, if they decide to do so

Finally, Sunday school can prepare UU kids to become UU adults, when they reach the age where they are capable of making their own decisions about their religious identity.

I believe Sunday school is not preparation for life, it’s life itself. At the same time, our religious tradition is quite clear that each person makes their own decision about whether to become a Unitarian Universalist. This means that no one is actually born into Unitarian Universalism — you might be born into a Unitarian Universalist family, but it’s up to you to decide whether you want to continue as a Unitarian Universalist.

Sometimes, we Unitarian Universalists have taken this understanding too far. I’ve heard of Unitarian Universalists who tell kids, “Now that you’re a teenager, we expect you to go away, and not come back until much later.” And I know teenagers who heard this as, “Go away, we don’t want you.”

And it looks like 85% of the kids who grew up in Unitarian Universalist congregations leave Unitarian Universalism entirely. Our closest religious relatives, the United Church of Christ (we split with them in the early nineteenth century, and remain close on social issues), retain about 45% of their kids. Clearly, we need to do better!

Part of the problem here is that we Unitarian Universalists often do a poor job of preparing kids to become full members of our congregations. Actually, we often do a poor job of preparing adults to enter our congregations. This means that many Unitarian Universalist parents are poorly prepared to educate their children on how to become members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. As a result, Sunday school becomes an important place to educate kids what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. How do we govern and fund ourselves? How do we manage our local religious communities? How do we coordinate with other local Unitarian Universalist congregations? What are our shared values? What are our social justice commitments? How do we aim to behave to one another? These are all questions that can be addressed in hands-on, practical, developmentally appropriate ways in the very way we structure Sunday school.

Sunday school doesn’t look much like school

After you’ve read the above, you may say to yourself, “Gee, Sunday school doesn’t look much like public school.” And if you said that to yourself, you’d be correct! Sunday school looks like a combination of many types of education.

Sometimes Sunday school looks like summer camp. Sometimes it looks like a children’s museum. Sometimes it looks like the local children’s library. Sometimes it looks like a maker space. Sometimes it looks like arts programs. Sometimes it looks like scouting programs. Sometimes it looks like small group ministries. Sometimes it looks like racial justice and social jsutice.

Sometimes Sunday school might even look like a class, as it tends to do with such key programs as Our Whole Lives sexuality education classes. But we never do testing (though we may do other kinds of assessment as a group). We avoid the factory model of schooling. For safety’s sake we have adult leaders, but adults learn from children and children learn from adults. We encourage Sunday school to spill over into the home, and the home to spill over into Sunday school. In fact, we erase the boundaries between school and the rest of the world, so that the whole world is part of Sunday school, and Sunday school is the whole world.

Now I hear you saying, “Gee, Sunday school doesn’t sound much like school!” And you’re right, at least insofar as Sunday school is not like the public schools. But Sunday school is like schooling as envisioned by people like John Dewey, Maxine Grene, and Maria Harris.

Using the curriculum on this website

[Note to blog readers: A little context is necessary here. This essay was written for my curriculum website, so these last two paragraphs tie the essay to the curriculum guides on that site.]

The curriculum guides on this website are designed to help you fulfill this vision of Sunday school. To help those new to teaching, the curriculum guides include fully scripted lesson plans. Lesson plans by their nature can push people away from a child-centered curriculum. So experienced teachers will want to use these curriculum guides differently from new volunteers.

A useful analogy might be thinking of curriculum guides as if they were musical scores. New volunteers will use the lesson plans the way symphony orchestra musicians follow a score, playing carefully along exactly as the music is written, as a way to stay in synch with the rest of the program. Experienced teachers, on the other hand, will approach the lesson plans the way a jazz musician approaches a lead sheet, an indication of general structure and direction in which the teacher can improvise.

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