Sunday school is perhaps the single largest program in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. On a national level, assuming 550 parishes with an average of 30 students per Sunday school program (and that's probably a conservative number), on any given Sunday, there are 16,500 young people in a classroom. Assuming 5 teachers per parish, on any given Sunday, there are 2, 750 adult teachers. Add the approximately 700 clergy in the Archdiocese, on any given Sunday there almost 20,000 people involved in handing forward the Orthodox Christian Faith.
So many people seem to be highly critical or doubtful about this mainstay of parish life. So it might seem counterintuitive to praise Sunday Church school. The cures for what ails the program are many, ranging from dropping it altogether to finding ways to make teachers and students accountable for what’s being taught and learned there. There’s room for debate about the best way the Church can hand forward its Faith and Way of Life to another generation. There’s room for discussion about what’s important for someone to know, to believe, and to do (three classic educational categories) as a member of the Church. Scholars in the academic discipline of religious education study and discuss these questions. So do clergy, pastoral leaders, seminarians, and the teachers who minister in the program, as well as the parents of the students themselves.
But as the discussion continues – and this discussion has been going on for decades – consider some of what Sunday Church school provides.
Sunday Church school builds a community and advances the parish and wider Church. Sunday Church school prepares a group of Orthodox Christians to work together by building their relationships with one another. It provides the learners with a place to study and hold conversations that matter about topics of Faith, moving beyond feelings and into reasoned discussion that revolves around the sources of Orthodoxy: Scripture, liturgy, theological writings. In a regular and systematic manner, these sources are introduced into the lives of learners. It can raise questions that will last for a lifetime.
Sunday Church school is a model of hospitality for the rest of the parish to emulate. Dedicated teachers, usually parents of students, welcome children and teenagers into their classes, even if they have not been in attendance the week before, or for weeks at a time (unfortunately, this is common). We say that parishes should be welcoming environments. We even try to teach hospitality! But hospitality is being modeled Sunday after Sunday.
Sunday Church school continues to teach liturgical awareness and sacramental participation. Many years ago, Orthodox religious educators began to teach that children and families should be attending the divine services, paying attention to what was going on in those services, and participating in the sacraments as often as possible. It’s been a huge success, to the point that we complain about the long lines and have now witnessed the development of the diaconate, if only to shorten those lines (and we are now learning that deacons can do so much more than administer Holy Communion).
Sunday Church school is a place where one’s Orthodox Christian identity can be informed, formed, and transformed. The “given-ness” of one’s religious identity cannot be taken for granted. In a “classroom,” and I put this in quotes to remind us that there are many places where we learn, information can be shared and experiences can be explored. Simply, a classroom is a good place to discuss, “this is what we do and this is why we do it, making us who we are.”
There are issues, of course. Parental involvement needs to be increased. We need to better equip those who teach. As parents are often teachers, more efforts at adult education are needed. Even a regular discussion between the priest and teachers would be a good place to start.
There are issues related to “losing” our youth. Some of them are demographic. There have been fewer children born into our families. But there have been over 160,000 baptisms in the last twenty-five years in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, meaning that there is a potential pool of that many young people under 25 or so in our parishes. There are issues with younger people in the US generally abandoning organized religion. The question is, how can we engage young people in Church life over a lifetime? On this point, there needs to be a recognition that there is no magic bullet for retaining people in our parishes, building a congregation of faithful, and advancing the mission of the Church in the world. Camp, more videos, or technological use are effective but still can’t replace sustained face-to-face work.
The discussion should continue about the ways we teach, the resources we use, and more involving critique and edification so that we may successfully hand forward the Orthodox Faith and Way of Life.