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Why is there a seemingly lack of resources for teaching our children about their Orthodox Christian faith?  Why is it that so many people are adapting curricula from Catholic and Protestant resources?  What does an Orthodox Christian education look like and how do we go about acquiring it?

The first thing we need to understand is that for centuries the Sunday School, as we know it today, did not exist in the Orthodox world.  How was our faith passed on to the next generation then?  Parents were held responsible for teaching the faith to their children not by formal education but through example.  Formal learning about Christianity was provided primarily to adults during the Early Church and on into the years after.

The first Sunday School was created in England in the 1700’s after a child labor law was passed that children were no longer allowed to work on Sundays.  This became a huge problem in the poorer areas of town where children were roaming free in the streets and getting into mischief as they played all day long without parental supervision, seeing as how their parents still had to work.  Robert Raikes created the commonly known Sunday School of today in order to get these children off the streets, provided them the opportunity to learn the Bible, and also gave them a small meal.  This idea grew in popularity and was eventually brought over to the States.  Since at least the late 1940’s, a great number of Orthodox communities in the United States decided to follow this same approach of providing formal religious classes to our children on Sunday.

So, were we just late to the party or was there a reason why we didn’t use this educational model from the beginning?  Again, we need to first understand that the Western and Eastern approaches to religious education are very different.  Roman Catholics and Protestants began focusing their attention on the formal education of their children while Orthodox continued to focus formal education on adults.  The Eastern approach to education was “first I do, and then I learn about what I did”.  (Boojamra, Foundations for Christian Education)  Anton Vrame reaffirmed this approach, “Experience before understanding, participation before explanation, is advocated as the way of catechesis in the Church.”  (The Educating Icon)  The Orthodox Church approached education as a formational learning experience over the course of one’s entire life, not informational as it became in the West, especially after the invention of the printing press.  Additionally, “when many religious educators refer to the restoration of primitive catechesis, including the use of the word, they fail to realize that the catechetical forms and structure of the early Church were almost exclusively adult oriented and experiential…in that the medium itself was the message!”  (Boojamra, Foundations for Christian Education)  This meant that the majority of learning happened within the context of attending the services and living a Christian life by praying, fasting, giving alms, participating in the sacraments, and so forth.  Being an Orthodox Christian was a way of life, not something you simply read about from a book or lesson.

There are a myriad of reasons why the Orthodox Church has historically focused educational efforts primarily towards adults.  Boojamra discusses how each person is unique in their learning abilities, interests, and styles.  People, as a whole, learn with more clarity, meaning, and efficiency as they mature because learning is largely relational and contextual.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that children’s souls are soft and delicate like wax.  If right teachings are impressed upon them from the beginning then, with time, these impressions harden as in the case of waxen seal.  (On Vainglory and How to Bring Up Children)   No one will be able to undo this good impression.  Malleable things take the form of whatever they are impressed with because they have not yet taken a stable shape.  If children are this impressionable, then how much more important is it that the adults around them have been educated in a Christian lifestyle as they teach, knowingly or unknowingly, through their example to all the children around them?

As Sophie Koulomzin so insightfully states, “You can only teach that which you have made your own, and this means that there is always the danger that your personal mistaken judgement of insufficient knowledge will be reflected in your teaching.”  (Our Church and Our Children)  First and foremost, our primary goal needs to be adult education in order for us to properly educate our children.  We cannot teach our children something we do not know or understand ourselves.  Can you effectively teach your child to be a concert pianist if all you’ve ever done is read a few books about it and listened to others play the piano?  No.  Conversely, can we expect our child to become a concert pianist when we only let them read about playing the piano and listen to others play – because it’s too hard or we don’t have time for them to practice on a piano themselves?   But, in this respect, we expect an informational approach to our children’s religious education, devoid of much participation, to produce faithful, active, and fervent Orthodox adults.  The reality is, most of our children graduate high school and we either don’t see them again or don’t see them again until they have children of their own…and, as a whole, we consider this normal!

So why then, do we assume that we can teach our children about their faith if we show up to services late, if we don’t fast, if we don’t pray, if we don’t visit the sick, feed the hungry, or help out our neighbor knowingly in need, if we don’t read the Bible…if we don’t even practice or understand the basics of our faith?  Saint John Chrysostom explains to us, “This, then, is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment-seat?”  (On Marriage and Family Life)

Going back to the questions posed at the beginning – Why is there a seemingly lack of resources for teaching our children about their Orthodox Christian faith?  Why is it that so many people are adapting curricula from Catholic and Protestant resources?  What does an Orthodox Christian education look like and how do we go about acquiring it?  The seemingly lack of Orthodox resources and adapting resources from Protestant and Catholics comes, in part, due to the fact that we’ve forgotten the traditional approach of Orthodox religious education – that of participation within the context of the life of the Church as an individual and within a community as a whole.  If we return to this educational method, then we find that there are a plethora of learning resources and opportunities for ourselves and our children without the need to re-invent the wheel or borrow and tweak from other faiths.

All five of our senses are engaged during the Divine Liturgy illuminating infants, children, young adults, adults, and our elders.  Even if our babies do not understand the prayers being said, they are still taking in so much…on their own level.  They immediately smell the sweet fragrance of incense upon entering an Orthodox church.  Oftentimes infants are lulled to a peaceful sleep as they hear the chanting.  As our babies grow and mature, then we can whisper into their ears, “Where is Jesus’ mommy?”, “Where is Jesus?”, “Let’s count all the candles we see?”, “Where’s Father ____ ?”  From a young age, our children enjoy lighting their own candle and kissing the icon before finding a place to stand in the nave.  As our children learn to read, they can follow along with us in the book as they begin to learn and memorize the hymns and prayers simply by attending services frequently.  We progressively learn as our abilities expand.  All of this happens in an organic manner simply by attending services regularly.  “Liturgical catechesis shows us first of all the main purpose, the aim of religious education as it is understood by the Church.  This aim is to bring the individual into the life of the Church.  I emphasize: it is not merely the communication of ‘religious knowledge,’ not training a human being to become a ‘good person’ but the ‘edification’ – the ‘building up’ – of a member of the Body of Christ”.  (Schmemann, Liturgy and Life: Christian Development Through Liturgical Experience)

Neither do we simply stop learning about our faith the moment we pull out of our parish’s parking lot.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann goes on further to say, “Christianity is neither a philosophy nor a morality nor a ritual, but the gift of new life in Christ.” Orthodoxy is a way of life – lived every moment of every day whether you’re at home, school, work, or vacation.  We teach our children to give thanks to God for the food we eat as we say a prayer before every single meal – at home, at a friend’s house, or at a restaurant.  We give thanks and seek comfort as we come together to say prayers as a family.  Our children begin to learn how to fast as we give them a scoop of the fasting meal we prepared for ourselves along with a bit of meat or dairy for them until they are ready to fast themselves.  Our children watch as we walk by and ignore someone in need or when we stop to help them out.  All of these are teaching moments that are not limited to a classroom setting.  As a teacher, I can ensure my students learn the definition of fasting by various teaching techniques but the fact of the matter remains, knowing the definition of fasting and actually experiencing it are entirely two different things.

We also have small “t” traditions which provide additional learning opportunities.  Anything from planting basil for the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Holy Cross to dyeing eggs red for Pascha.  All of these traditions teach us about specific aspects of our faith – that basil was found growing on the mound of earth covering the cross Christ was crucified on which was unearthed by Saint Helen on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in her old age or the symbolism of red eggs as they remind us of the blood Christ shed for us on the cross, the new life we received through His resurrection, and the tomb being found empty as we crack our eggs and proclaim, “Christ is Risen!”

In this respect, we find an Orthodox Christian curriculum within the context of attending services, living our faith daily with our families (the little churches) and within our communities, and by keeping traditions alive throughout the year.

Where does this leave us with our Sunday Schools then?  I think our Sunday Schools can be used as an important tool to guide our families to a more traditional approach to Orthodox learning.  They can create a bridge between Church and home.  They can provide opportunities to teach families about the services, about ways to bring their Christian lifestyle into their homes, and also teach them about the traditions of the Church.

But…ideally, there would also be some changes that occur within the majority of our current parishes’ Sunday School structures.  Such as:

  • Discontinue having Sunday School during any part of the Divine Liturgy.  We need to teach our children that participating in the Liturgy from start to finish is far more important that reading about it in a textbook, coloring a picture about it, or even having discussions about it.  This is a time for families to participate in the Liturgy side by side and also approach Holy Communion together.  Yes, I fully realize that not every parish has their classes during the service and I also fully realize this is a huge issue for the parishes that still do have classes during any portion of the Liturgy.  (This includes skipping out after Holy Communion to go to class.)  This is something that will have to be worked out parish by parish seeing as how each parish will have their own unique circumstances.  When it comes down to it, where are our priorities?  “Let everything take second place to our care for our children, our bringing them up in discipline and instruction in the Lord.”  (Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life)
  • Teachers set the example by attending all of the Divine Liturgy: Teachers need to refrain from preparing for their class during any portion of the service.  If you’re putting together a lesson during the Liturgy, ultimately, of what quality is your lesson?  If you are setting out supplies so that it will be ready to go when your students arrive, do it before the Liturgy or allow yourself time to do it while your students are having a snack.
  • Formal training or certification as well as mentoring for Sunday School Teachers.  This could be on a parish, metropolis, or national level.
  • Include education opportunities outside of the classroom for the entire community.  In this, we can return to a more traditional formational education model versus an informational education model.
  • We learn to view education within the context of experience and participation as a community
  • We stop viewing adult education as only necessary for catechumens

How do we go about implementing these changes?  There are so many opportunities in which to do this.  We don’t have to limit ourselves to a set curriculum or outline.  The beauty is that we can tailor it to the unique needs of each parish community.  Examples of an Orthodox education for children, adults, families, and the parish community:

  • Attending services from start to finish
  • Bible studies, Introduction to Orthodoxy classes, Chanting classes, Teacher Training, How to Read an Icon Class (the symbolism of colors, clothing, items being held, settings, and so forth)
  • Community learning opportunities: I know of many people who have been life-time Orthodox Christians and also newer to the faith who would love to learn how to make prosphora but either don’t know where to begin or are intimidated by the process.  Even myself, who has baked many loaves, would still love to watch a “master” at work to learn some of the “tricks of the trade” along with the traditions that go along with making prosphora.  This would be an excellent opportunity for the “masters” of prosphora baking in the community to hold a class and take the group through each of the steps as they each make their own loaf.  (Everything from getting the yeast to rise properly, to when to know if your dough is too wet or too dry, to when to know when you’ve kneaded enough, to the prayers you say, to how to get a clear seal, to creating a list of deceased and living Orthodox Christians you wish to include with your loaves for the priest to pray for.)  This is just one example out of many where you have an opportunity for people in the community to pass on their knowledge about traditions to the next generation.
  • Community Projects:  Examples – Implementing recycling in your parish, creating a community garden, or having a Hand-Me-Down Day where you swap gently used clothes amongst each other (especially useful for families) as you discuss being Stewards of God’s Earth.
  • Making the Sunday School a bridge between Church and home:  Send home some basil seeds along with instructions for planting and a short story about Saint Helen.  Ask each parent to sign a portion of the project and return the slip saying they read the story with their children.  Create a wall of icons of patron saints of your students and teachers in each classroom and celebrate each of the name days throughout the year by reading and discussing the life of each of the saints.  Send home instructions on how to set up a home altar and how to celebrate name days at home.  Send a stuffed animal home with a folder.  The folder would contain possibly a story about the stuffed animal (a name, that the stuffed animal wants to see how you live your Orthodox faith at home, etc.) and ask each family to write and draw a picture of what the stuffed animal saw in your home as you lived your faith during the week.  Then return the stuffed animal and folder the following Sunday where the added info can be shared with the class.
  • Hold community retreats with a theme:  For instance, a Lenten retreat.  You can split up the adults and children for a lesson on a Lenten topic so it can be geared towards age appropriateness then come together for a group activity – learning how to fold palm crosses, dyeing red eggs, sharing favorite Lenten meals (and possibly how to make them), etc.
  • Implement a parish food pantry for the needy
  • Implement a program that brings meals to homes who just had a new baby, going through something such as cancer, to a shut-in
  • Implement a program that has the community visiting shut-ins and bringing those who can no longer drive themselves to church to services (or to doctor appointments or the grocery store)

…we can’t be saved through individual righteousness alone.  If the man who buried his one talent gained nothing, but was punished instead, it is obvious that one’s own virtue is not enough for salvation, but the virtue of those for whom we are responsible is also required.  Therefore, let us be greatly concerned for our wives and children, and for ourselves as well, and as we educate both ourselves and them let us beg God to help us in our task.  If He sees that we care about this, He will help us; but if we are unconcerned.  He will not give us His hand.  God helps those who work, not those who are idle.  No one helps an inactive person, but one who joins in the labor.  The good God Himself will bring this work to perfection, so that all of us may be counted worthy of the blessings He has promised, through the grace and love for mankind of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory, honor and power to the Father, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.  – St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life

For further reading, consider the follow-up post to this one.  The post directly addresses homeschooling but is equally relevant for creating a curriculum or lessons for a Sunday School program or church school program.