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A few weeks ago I wrote about LifelongFaith Associates’ amazing work around the future of faith development, or as they call it, Faith Formation 2020. I’ve been going over their Thirteen Trends and Four Scenarios this weekend in preparation for a conversation I’ll be facilitating about FF2020 with my Congregational Life colleagues at the UUA in Boston. I was especially interested in Trend 10: Rediscovering the Impact of Parents and Families on Faith Practice. The FF2020 summary notes the work of sociologist Christian Smith and what he learned from his research for Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. I remember reading this a few years back. It seems even more important now given the context of the FF2020 report.
Parental Influence. Research from the National Study on Youth and Religion (as reported in Soul Searching) clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents. Grandparents and other relatives, mentors, and youth workers can be very influential as well, but normally, parents are most important in forming their children’s religious and spiritual lives. The best social predictor, although not a guarantee, of what the religious and spiritual lives of youth will look like is what the religious and spiritual lives of their parents do look like: “We’ll get what we are.” By normal processes of socialization, and unless other significant forces intervene, more than what parents might say they want as religious outcomes of their children, most parents most likely will end up getting religiously of their children what they themselves are. The best way to get most youth involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities.
That last sentence certainly bears repeating: “The best way to get most youth involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities.” I really believe that this is where we should start when we think about our ministry with children and youth. Unless we get “their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities,” we might just be guaranteeing a continued decline in numbers as a faith movement.
Two things. One, I’d like to call your attention to a very enlightening post in Scientific American (Parental rejection of gay teens worsens health: Scientific American Blog) about the how parental rejection of gay teens can adversely affect their health (“eight times more likely to have attempted suicide than those whose families accepted them…. nearly six times as likely to report depression, three times as likely to use drugs and three times as likely to have unprotected sex.”) It’s a sobering reminder of just how important it is for our congregations to offer Our Whole Lives and provide a safe environment for youth who are dealing with questions about their sexual identity. Two, I’m trying out a new tool on WordPress that allows me to post a link to something interesting I’ve found on the web using a “Press This” bookmarklet on my Firefox tool bar. I like it better than some of the other options (using the “Quick Post” feature on my WordPress dashboard, or the “Daily Blog Posting” option on delicious). Now when I run across something that’s really worth sharing, I can both bookmark it on delicious and post a quick note about it here.
An honest response to the two questions I posed in my previous post (“What are we trying to accomplish here?” and “How do we know we’re accomplishing it?”) wouldn’t require a test for the children and youth in a religious education program. Rather, it would require a test of the entire congregation. Testing the children and youth reflects a no-child-left-behind mentality, where the quality and the content of a program is measure by the performance of the individuals involved in that program. This emphasis on the individual is a continuation of the “child-centered” religious education model that was the norm for most of the twentieth century in Unitarian Universalist (and mainline Protestant) congregations. The answer to the first question in a “test the children” scenario would be something like, “We’re trying to teach children about world religions (including Unitarian Universalism) and what it means to be an ethical person.” It seems to me that for a long time, these were the kinds of things we thought we were teaching our congregations’ children and youth.
What I’m looking for is a way to see how well a congregation is engaging children and youth in the Unitarian Universalist faith and how well a congregation is doing in allowing children and youth to be full participants in the practices of their religious community. And I have two suggestions on how we might measure that. First, for children twelve and under, I would submit that their identities as persons of a particular faith (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, etc.) depend upon the faith of their families. And if we want the children to be engaged in Unitarian Universalism and be full participants in the practices of their congregation, then the way I would measure that is by counting how many families in the RE program are actually members of the congregation. If one or more of their parents aren’t members, then it’s a good sign that the family isn’t fully engaged in either the faith tradition or the practices of the congregation, or both.
Does this mean that only children whose parents are members of a congregation should be allowed in RE programs? Not necessarily. But there should be some pretty strong incentives for parents to be involved. Many, perhaps most, congregations have requirements that a parent needs to be physically present in the building while their child is at Sunday school. Of course this doesn’t mean that the parent is actually involved in the congregation, and it certainly doens’t require that they’re a member. But it’s a start. Another strategy would be to charge families who are members of a congregation a nominal RE registration fee, and charge non-members a LOT more. At Unity Church-Unitarian, for example, pledging families are charged $30-$35 per children to enroll in the RE program (it’s free if a parent volunteers to be a teacher). Non-pledging families are charged $200 for each child. I personally would change that so pledging members where charged the lesser fee. And the only parents who would qualify for free registration would be members. I’m a strong believer in having only members teach Sunday school.
My test for evaulating whether or not we’re accomplishing the same things with youth (engaging them in the faith tradition and the practices of the religious community) would be the same. I would want to know how many youth who had completed the children’s portion of the RE program (through Middle School OWL and Coming of Age) had actually become members of the congregation. What’s more, I would want to know how many parents of those children are still members of the congregation. My goal here is pretty straightforward: to know that an RE program is retaining a majority of the children as Unitarian Universalists by sampling the membership rates of families and youth. The first sample is when a family first attends. The second sample would be after Coming of Age. And the final sample would be when a youth turns 18.
How does sampling like this constitute a test for the entire congregation? Because it seems to me that only a congregation which thoroughly engages entire families in the faith tradition and religious community is going to be able to make a case for membership being important. That means thinking in terms of more than just age-segregated Sunday school. Which is partially what my presentation (with Kerri Meyer, Unity Church-Unitarian’s DRE) at the LREDA Fall Conference a couple of weeks ago was about. And I’ll definitely write more about that next week.
This fall, for or the first time in many, many years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach Sunday school. Back when I was a religious educator on the congregational level, I had plenty of chances to actually teach. And teach I did–from preschool through adult education, I taught ‘em all. But once I started working at the district level, the opportunities disappeared. That is until this year, when the combination of having a three-year-old son and a 4:30 in the afternoon service at my home church combined to offer another chance for me to teach preschool. So, for the last few months I’ve been one of the co-teachers for Henry David’s Spirit Play class at Unity Church-Unitarian in Saint Paul. I have to say that I’m really loving it–for a couple of reasons. One, I do miss teaching Sunday school on a regular basis, and two, I believe that time spent at church should be family time, so being a teacher in H.D.’s class gives me a chance to spend a little more time with him.
Getting back into the RE classroom has also raised a couple of new questions for me. One question is, “What are we trying to accomplish here?” Another is, “How do we know we’re accomplishing it?” These questions might sound familiar to anyone who’s had to come up with definite goals for themselves in their work place (something we’re taking more seriously here in Prairie Star). They’re the kind of questions organizations need to ask themselves, too. And here’s the thing–now that I’m actively teaching again, I’m beginning to wonder what we really are trying to do in our RE classroom. My wonderment comes more from the second question than the first. I have no idea how we would get a sense of whether or not we’re actually accomplishing anything specific in our classrooms. To be sure, we’re doing all of the things UUs try to do for their children: expose them to the sources of our faith, give them a moral grounding, even teach them a thing or two about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. But that’s all starting to sound a little mushy to me right now, especially when I think in terms of measuring outcomes.
I mean, this would be easy if we had something like a final exam for our children once they reached middle school or high school (think of Jewish children having to read Hebrew for their Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah). But that runs against the notion of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. A more accurate measure might be to actually figure the percentage of youth who are still part of a congregation at a specific time in their lives, say, ninth grade. Do we really have any idea how many of our preschoolers actually stick around long enough to complete a coming of age or OWL program? And while those figures might be useful (if we could ever get them–right now I know of no congregation that keeps track of those sort of things), I’m afraid that we might be measuring the wrong thing. We would still be looking at individual involvement, which is how we’ve pretty much measure everything in our movement. We count heads (or souls) as our basic unit of measure.
So I’m looking for another kind of test to help us measure whether or not we’re actually achieving what we hope to in our Sunday school classes. And I’ve got some ideas. But before I share them, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject. What do you think we should be looking for to test whether or not our Sunday school programs are doing what we hope they’re doing? And while you’re at it, just what the heck are we trying to do in our RE programs?