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.