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The Potential of Religious Education, even Sunday School

On any given Sunday from about September to May, I conservatively estimate that at least 10,500 young people attend a parish religious education program, with at least 2,625 adult volunteer teachers, with the support of the 600 clergy in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (You can do the math: 525 parishes: an average 20 students, 5 teachers per parish.). Whatever the size of your parish’s program, you are participating in the single largest program of the Greek Orthodox Church on a national scale. If we were to include all Orthodox Christian parishes in the US, the numbers would, of course, be even larger.

Handing forward the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life to another generation ought to be a central activity of every parish and family. As Orthodox Americans, we have been thinking about the best ways to teach the next generation, pretty much since we arrived on these shores. Implicit in this effort has been the realization that our educational efforts are essential to “make it” in America. This realization has become more important today. As the sociologist Peter Berger advised an Orthodox audience more than a decade ago, we can no longer “take it for granted” that our children will remain connected to the Church and their Faith. If we fail in our educational ministry, you and I could be the last generation of Orthodox Christians in America. It’s a great responsibility and challenge.

“Knowing” is more important today than perhaps ever before; we don’t call it “the information age” for nothing. We are bombarded by all kinds of information from a dizzying array of sources. As Orthodox, we are often asked to explain what we believe to others, so knowing the facts is important. Educational experiences that foster thinking provide the space for separating the wheat from the chaff through study, questions, discussion, and action. Of course, we can “know” in many ways, but religious education creates, at least, the opportunity “to know” in our minds.

Religious education has the potential to fill the minds of young and old and expose them to the treasury that is the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life. Religious education, when done well and for all, provides everyone in the community an opportunity to acquire the knowledge of the contents of their Faith and ask honest and critical questions of it, hopefully getting good answers, so that they can more deeply appropriate its truth and wisdom in their heads, their hearts, and their hands.

As a Church, we have yet to tap the potential of good religious education, even in the Sunday school model. There are real strengths in the schooling approach to religious education. Yes, there are challenges, but there are advantages as well.

Focused, sequenced, and age-appropriate study. Religious education should follow good educational practices, utilizing what we know about how people learn over their lives and the best ways for teachers to facilitate learning. One benefit of a textbook series is that someone has done that work, sequenced what is to be learned in an orderly way that makes sense for someone over time. Is it everything that can be learned about any given topic? Of course not! There is always more to be learned and experiences to process, which is why it takes a lifetime.

Adults mentoring students. Teachers take up a lot of time and space in young people’s lives. At church, they can instill a love of learning about the Faith, because they are excited about learning it. They are role models, guides, and coaches in living the Faith, because they are striving to put their Faith into action.

Community building. A classroom setting is a good place for people to get to know one another; relationships are formed and a community is built. Studying together fosters relationships because of the work of the class, discussions, projects, games, and celebrations. In the parish, a classroom experience is just one of a few ways young people can meet regularly and become friends. They can mentor one another as peers, student to student. In a class, we learn what it means to be a part of a community.

Reflection and making connections. A classroom is a good place to make an intentional connection between the praxis and experience of the Orthodox Way of Life with the content of the Orthodox Faith. Customs, traditions, and practices are connected to stories, events, and sources. Hymns have words that relay ideas, concepts, doctrine, and teachings. A classroom is a good place to ask the questions, “What does that mean?” and “Why do we do that?” One of the great truisms of education is that we can learn little from experience without reflecting on it.

This being said, we must state that we have too easily limited our understanding of curriculum to a printed book. The entire life of the parish is the curriculum. Which physician would you prefer? One who only read medical textbooks or one who went to a medical school filled with labs, good teachers, hospital internships and residencies? The same is true for the Church. Schooling in faith -- reading a textbook, answering questions -- is just one dimension of the much larger curriculum of the parish that teaches us what it means to be and live as an Orthodox Christian. The curriculum that is needed is a dynamic parish community filled with good worship and liturgy, opportunities for service to the world and parish, good fellowship and organization, and fellow parishioners who can talk about and share their knowledge, experience, and wisdom that comes from a life in the Church. In such an environment, classroom experiences fill in the knowledge about the Christian life that is being lived.

Religious education programs should not happen during the Divine Liturgy or any other worship service of the Church. For the better part of the last fifty years, Orthodox Christian religious educators, the Department of Religious Education, and Clergy Laity Congresses of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese have reaffirmed this message repeatedly.

There may have been an unintended byproduct of this message. Some people say that the main reason they attend church on Sundays is to send their children to Sunday school. Perhaps, just perhaps, they have figured out when Sunday school begins and time their arrival just for that! Perhaps, just perhaps, (as one of my students observed), attendance at Divine Liturgy was better when people came to Liturgy from the beginning because they knew that’s when Sunday school began and they sent their children to class while the adults attended Liturgy.

Finally, permit me to share how religious education occurs. Volunteers handle the overwhelming majority of this work in our parishes and Metropolises. They are the little recognized heroes and heroines of this ministry. In my travels around our Archdiocese, I see creative and dedicated teachers, supervisors, and clergy, who week after week strive to teach the Faith. St. Paul ranks teachers after apostles and prophets, and before miracle workers (1 Cor. 12:28). Yet these teachers are apostolic and prophetic, and week after week, they perform miracles.

There is no expansive educational bureaucracy to support them. There is one Archdiocese office of seven people that creates textbooks and supplements, magazines, videos, develops programs, and now websites, blogs, and social media discussions (and it takes real money). They also seek out other materials created by Orthodox sources and evaluate resources created by non-Orthodox, so that they might be purchased and distributed to parishes (We maintain a catalog of nearly 800 items.). They spend time on the phone advising parishes and teachers about these resources, and take their orders, answer their questions, pass along tips and ideas about improving a parish program (We have about 7000 customers, parishes and individuals, from all Orthodox jurisdictions in North America and the English-speaking Orthodox world.). And we are responsible for keeping track of it all – accounting, reporting, computers, files, etc. (We average 3000 orders per year.) As I like to say, this dedicated group of people is too few people trying to meet too many needs.

In the first description of the Church after Pentecost, the community gathered daily to attend to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2:42) and the breaking of bread and prayers. Education in faith has been an organized and intentional activity of the Church since its very first day. Our task is to honor that legacy with the best educational ministry we can.

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