On Strengthening Our Sunday Schools

…because a church without children is a dead church.

Parenting has always been an expression of love. We live to see our kids healthy and happy.  Often, we even put our personal interests to the wayside to ensure that they will prosper. We take them places that we alone would choose not to go. We save money to secure their futures through education. We work hard to live in towns where the school systems are considered good. These are called sacrifices. And we look back at these moments of giving with pride. Why? Because all of these decisions are motivated by love.

But why is it that we don’t apply same enthusiasm to ensuring their spiritual health and happiness? Perhaps we feel that there is always time in the future for such matters. In truth, we have only a few precious years to establish these values for our children.

Life is much more complicated than it was a generation or two ago. It comes down to choices—choices our parents and grandparents did not have to make when life was “simpler.” As loving parents, we help guide our children with these choices. It helps to remind ourselves that they are always watching and learning. We are role models, whose actions and lifestyles influence their values. If, for example, we stay home from church on Sundays or simply drop them off at the pews while we go about our day, this influences the decisions they will make as adults. If, however, we attend church alongside them, and guide them in filling their hearts with God’s love, we give them the gift of lifelong spiritual engagement.

But this gift requires sacrifice. My mother taught Sunday School for 50 years, back when some of us were still in strollers. It made a lasting impression on me. She attended every Sunday with her young children, prepared lessons after we went to bed and gave up any personal social needs for the benefit of hundreds. I learned the importance of service—to each other, to our communities and to our church—from my parents. Yes, times have changed, but one thing hasn’t: the important things in life still require sacrifice. I was in church last week and saw several young parents with their infants and toddlers. It warmed my heart because they were building those values early. It isn’t easy with working parents, limited quiet family time and busy schedules. The temptation to stay home is strong, but they have made a connection between the present and the future.

This is in stark contrast to the convenience around which so much of today’s world revolves. In fact, we are often told—in advertisements, more often than not—that convenience will improve our lives. However, this is at odds with experience. Is it not true that the most important experiences in our lives take place in times where we are incredibly vested and committed? Strength and character are results yielded by long periods of adversity, not convenience. This is true for spirituality, as well; it does require parents to understand what will truly nurture their children’s development,  but a church without fussing little ones is a dead church. Children bring life to our churches and give us an inner peace. Go today and begin their journey.

Participation is essential, but we also have another challenge. The “spiral of decline” in our parishes has been so significant in many cases, that traditional infrastructure has been weakened. In our churches, we have what I will refer to as an “upstairs” and a “downstairs.”

Upstairs is our sanctuary and the essentials for Soorp Badarak (“Holy Mass”)—a priest, deacon, choir and the congregation. Although it has grown weak in some cases, it persists. Every church has incredibly dedicated individuals serving in these ministries. They could, of course, benefit from even more help strengthening the institution, but nevertheless, they carry on.

“Downstairs,” on the other hand, refers to institutions such as Sunday school. Here’s a scenario that plays out too often: Some parishioners bring their children to Sunday school only to discover that it is not well-organized or, in some cases, quite dysfunctional due to attrition or neglect. While some parents are sympathetic (and some actually get involved as teachers or administrators to strengthen the school), too often, they simply don’t return or fade away.

The clock is ticking with our kids. We have a finite window.

This has led to a new term in our Armenian church experience: “church shopping.” Church shopping happens when dedicated parents look elsewhere to find a spiritual home because their immediate community is not providing one for whatever reason. Maybe they just don’t feel like they fit in at their community’s church, or maybe it’s not a place where they feel their children can be educated. Whatever it is, it is a real tragedy and a real dilemma for both the parents and the local churches. Should parents stay and invest in their church in the hopes that it will get better? Or do they search for another place for their children? The clock is ticking with our kids. We have a finite window.

The single most important area of investment for our churches is in the education and spiritual enlightenment of children. In a previous column, I discussed generations that have now drifted, who were beneficiaries of functioning Sunday schools. As a result ,we have churches today with declining or barely functioning schools. Dramatic action is required.

How does the Armenian church expect to survive without children educated in our Christian Armenian faith? What will be the impact for a generation without a spiritual education? I urge our leaders at the Diocese, Prelacy and parish levels not to subordinate the practical needs of our parishes, and to lead us into meaningful action to reverse these trends. We must not lose this generation of parents and children. Today’s parents should embrace their children’s spiritual health as a priority and rebuild our Sunday schools to the appropriate level. If we, as a church, are not focused on these real issues, then we need to re-examine how we spend our time and allocate resources.

There are two sides to every equation. For every action by parents, there must be a reciprocal move by the church in the form of outreach and building infrastructure. A future column will be devoted to the challenges of our parishes, but suffice it to say that bold action is needed by the church nationally, regionally and locally to reverse this trend. Here are some actions I suggest:

    1. Declare A ‘State of Emergency.’ Our Sunday schools need help. It is irresponsible for us to experience this decline, continue the same activity and expect different results. Recovery starts when we admit there is a problem. I have attended many Assemblies of both the Diocese and the Prelacy, and this decline is always discounted or patronized. Start by getting people’s attention.
    2. Take Accountability. Our leadership must ensure the recovery of Sunday schools with a visible campaign in the Diocese and Prelacy which will include diocesan and parish level focus. If it remains buried down on the list, it simply will not improve. We must set goals and hold ourselves accountable.
    3. Secure Investments. To have a sustainable impact, we need to tap into professional resources regionally to work with parishes on outreach recruitment and building the infrastructure of the Sunday schools. The purely centralized approach has had limited success. Our parishes need “hands on” help. The future has arrived. Endowment funds are great but we are living in decline now.  Benefactors should be encouraged to support the rebuilding of our church schools. How come we can come up with millions for “special anniversaries or events,” but paltry sums for our children?
    4. Stop Playing the Victim. Our parishes deserve a national campaign to help them establish some traction. Problems left without solutions lead to negativity and a hopeless environment. The common response today is “Parents don’t bring their children.” Although logical, it will only lead us further down into the spiral. Together, we can change our approach and the results.

In order to support assertive action, we need to have internalized the problem. Let’s be honest, set aside our pride and acknowledge this major challenge. This is no criticism of those that are maintaining our church today. Every parish is filled with incredibly devoted and faithful individuals. We must honor their work and give our children a gift by investing and building for our future. When most parents are asked why they did something for their families, most say we “did it for the kids.” Let’s live by those words with renewed and unprecedented action.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.


  1. Why are there fewer people in church these days? Dunno. Could have something to do with the churches’ money-grubbing and covering up instances when priests raped children. And the younger generation’s preference for popular culture.

    In my case, I learned the Jesus story when my parents and I went to Paris. We toured the museums, many of them containing paintings showing biblical scenes, so my mom told me the story (for the record, long before then I could identify the people who made the Looney Tunes cartoons, and also the cast of “Ghostbusters”).

  2. Dear Stepan,

    I have read your recent articles with great interest. Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do. I have tried to contact you privately but without success, so I would like to offer these thoughts on this public site.

    You have posited that it would be wonderful to minimize, if not to eliminate, the divisiveness between the two jurisdictions. And, you have just written about the universal issue with our Sunday School challenges. Please, therefore, allow me to propose an interesting solution.

    Our jurisdictional division is strictly administrative. There is no theological difference between the two jurisdictions. Therefore, the doctrine and the dogma which should be taught and preached and proclaimed ought not only to be the same, but ought to be standardized across all of the parishes in the jurisdictions.

    At the moment, the Armenian Apostolic Church in the United States does not have a revised Catechism, and the majority of Sunday School programs are without standard curricula and supporting textbooks for both teachers and students. More to the point, the instructional material has not been prepared based upon parallel educational techniques and technology concurrently available to the very same students in their Monday through Friday school systems.

    If the two jurisdictions are convened through the forum of Sunday School Curriculum, and if the two jurisdictions set to the task of creating a single, unified, and applicable system to be used across all of the parishes, then we might finally achieve two objectives: we would have a kindergarten-through-twelfth grade standardized curriculum for every Armenian Christian child in the United States, and we would greatly reduce the stress of division between the two jurisdictions by emphasizing our single doctrine and creed.

    Our Lectionary/”Jashots-Kirk” provides standard lessons for each day of the Church Year, and especially for each season and each Sunday in that season. It would be so helpful if, for instance, we would give the standard parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) to an assembly of qualified teachers. Then, ask a teacher whose specialization is First Grade to prepare a format by which the parable should be taught to a child at the First Grade level. Do the same for a teacher whose expertise is for Seventh Graders, and another for Eleventh Graders. You see the point. It is connecting the “upstairs” chanting of the Gospel with the “downstairs” teaching of the Gospel lesson at a level which the students are better able to understand and to appreciate.

    Our current Sunday School system is not grade-specific. It is also not connected to the 21st-century in terms of methodology and technology. If we could assemble qualified school teachers for each grade level, present them with the base text, and ask them to create a grade-specific interpretation of that text, then we would finally achieve a national, standardized Sunday School curriculum for every Armenian parish in both jurisdictions.

    For too many years, many parish Sunday School programs have held onto antiquated books and archaic methods of teaching in comparison with what today’s American school students enjoy. And for too many years, the division not only between the two jurisdictions but between parishes even in the same town may be directly correlated to the lack of standardization in the Sunday School curriculum.

    The English translation of the Catechism was prepared in the 1840s in Calcutta, India for the Armenians living in British India who no longer spoke Armenian. That text was slightly revised and edited through the 1940s, but since that time, our Holy Church has not published a modern Catechism. It is especially important to address another form of division in our parishes, the divisiveness which occurs because of inter-marriage. When a non-Armenian marries into the Armenian community, not only is there a cultural challenge, but there is also a religious challenge. Without a proper Catechism, how is the non-Armenian to learn about the Church, and therefore, how is the non-Armenian to be made welcome and to feel comfortable worshiping in a very different form and environment without first being taught with a Catechism?

    Please allow me respectfully to add that there are many Armenians who have recently immigrated into the United States who have originated from places in the world where they did not have active churches or Sunday Schools. These new-comers are equally deserving of a revised Catechism so that they may learn and explore their faith, perhaps for the first time.

    It goes without saying that our commitment to education in our parishes is the cornerstone to the spiritual health of our Church, and I also believe that as we strengthen our Sunday School curriculum and our Catechism, that we will also be rewarded by having more American-born clergy to serve our parishes.

    I have to assume that across the United States, we have many well-educated and dedicated teachers who are members of the Armenian Church, and who have achieved years of experience and merit in teaching at a particular grade level in the American school system. Let us invite them and bring them to a conference. Organize them according to grade level. Hand them all the same text of the “Hayr mer”, and then ask them to prepare a presentation on that text based on their experience of teaching that particular age/grade level. We will be so blessed and pleasantly surprised by the information which these professionals could provide to us!

    By creating a standardized curriculum for the One, Holy, Apostolic Church of Armenia (regardless of administrative jurisdiction), we may be able to stop the downward spiral, and actually revitalize the spiritual health and well-being of all of our parishes across this wonderful nation.

    Your articles contain tremendous detail and information, and it behooves us all to take the data and to construct proposals – if not solutions – to redirect the institution as a whole.

    “Meg karov, yergoo trchoon” is appropriate. If we can come together to create a single and standardized Sunday School curriculum and Catechism, then we may strengthen the Church as a whole and significantly reduce the tension of divisiveness.

    Thank you, with every best wish:

    “Krisdos haryav ‘i merrelots! Orhnyal eh Harootyoonun Krisdosi!”

    • George…a very intriguing proposal. What you are proposing goes beyond the standard discussion of Sunday School
      “curriculum”. Just as my articles are intended to be connected and interdependent, your thoughts would address a number
      of of chronic issues both in youth and adult education. We need bold ideas to deal with our challenges. The Robles is that bold ideas have fallen upon deaf ears. Through public dialogue and sustained efforts, we can succeed in creating a “Velvet Revolution” in our beloved church. Thank you.

  3. Thoughtful article. Thank you. As to Armenian-Non Armenian intermarriage p, begin by elimination the pejorative term
    “Odar.” All too often it is used in an insulting and discriminatory manner,

    • I am sorry for your experience. As a Christian people, we should embrace all. I agree with your perception. There are unfortunately too many stories like yours. If we are proud of our faith and heritage, it should be a joy to reach out and welcome others.

  4. Confused a bit by this commentary. There are other factors that I experienced as a Sunday School teacher for 14 years. These were focused on 2 areas: One was societal changes, the reality of being a diaspora community in another society that envelopes even the best students, teachers and parents. Sports, debating teams, the expansion of the middle and high school week into the weekend. Lots of weekends at the Reggie Lewis center including my own children. Let’s not mention SATs, college visits and tryouts. Secondly, the competition for Sunday school student time by our own organizations (I used to lose students on Sundays because of Olympics, panagooms and other seminars and gatherings requiring travel in many cases). Again these affected my own kids, where my kids went to events while I went to teach the kids less involved in many cases. Instead of indicting the school and church, we should look at what the greater society is asking of our kids, while our community also complicate their lives.

    • Your comments are quite valid. The front end of my article was devoted to responsibilities of parents, while the latter portion was focused on the churches’. There is no question that secular invasion of sports and other activities is a major issue. It still is choice. Today we want it all. We want to “fit in” and not oppose Sunday morning sports etc. We , as parents, look at the short term….. our kids social satisfaction verses spiritual development. The macro issue in our Greater society is at the cause but parents still retain the right of choice. It is not popular and requires strength but if we abandon. At some point I hope we all come to the realization of what we giving up. Then perhaps, we will garner the will to noose differently. Thank you for sharing.

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