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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.