Feed the young or perish. Our future is here.

Rev. Archpriest Antranig Baljian gifting a Bible to a Sunday School student at the 2019 Sunday School Graduation and Closing Exercises at St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church, Watertown, Mass. (Photo: Facebook)

It has often been stated that knowledge is freedom. The Armenians were an enslaved people under Turkish rule for centuries in Western Armenia until the period of enlightenment in the mid to late 19th century brought fresh air into their thinking. The increase of formal education in the homeland and the impact of young Armenians educated in Europe developed an appetite for knowledge and eventually the quest for freedom. The primary source of the Christian Armenian education of children for centuries was the home. This was where the family Bible was the center of knowledge. Village schools either didn’t exist or were considered a supplement to the responsibilities of parents. Eventually the church guided a more formal education system that brought literacy to many. “Sunday schools” as we define them today generally did not exist as religious education was combined with secular topics in the local schools run by the church. The Sunday School concept is essentially a process of the western diaspora. Since there were no village schools in the United States, the church and auxiliary groups opened “Saturday” language schools in the 1920s and eventually “Sunday Schools” for religious instruction either during or after the Soorp Badarak. It was a different approach but was guided by the same value.

This was a workable formula for the baby boomer generation and for portions of the next generation. Thousands of children in the Eastern Diocese and Prelacy were part of these schools that reflected a strong sense of community. There have always been struggles to retain attendance and participation in our diaspora, but signs of decline were evident beginning in the 1980s. Where there were 200 students in large parishes, there are now 100. Some schools in medium or smaller communities began to struggle with securing a critical mass, forcing them to further combine grades, increasing the challenges faced by the dedicated teaching staff. Our leaders failed to address the core issues. Their answer was “well, the world is more secular” or “we can’t tell parents not to have their children participate in sports on Sunday mornings.” The socialization needs in our Armenian families began to emerge as a higher priority than the building of faith through knowledge. It is so much easier to skip church and succumb to the peer pressure.

Of course the church has failed our families also. As intermarriage has become prevalent, the church has not made the necessary adjustments to integrate non-Armenians into the church as knowledgeable, functioning contributors. We all have examples of outstanding non-Armenians in our parishes, but those who left or never connected are the vast majority. In an attempt to avoid controversy and maintain harmony, very few of our priests and lay leaders will directly address the responsibility of parents to focus on their children’s religious and heritage education. They always encourage them to participate but are conflicted as to how to shepherd them to the church. Who can blame them as local leaders when the international and national church has paid little more than lip service to this decades-long decline? We constantly state and restate the problem from a symptom perspective but have been unwilling to truly address the core issues. The questions that beg to be asked are: Do we have the will to succeed or are we paralyzed by fear of conflict? Is the fear of conflict greater than the fear of decline? 

To illustrate this issue further, let’s look at the numbers. At face value, the schools seem stable.  According to the 2019 Eastern Diocesan report, there were 34 schools in the 2016-2017 school year, declining slightly the following year to 32 and remaining that way in 2018-2019. Enrollment was at 1,596 students in 2016-2017. That number dropped to 1,381 in 2017-2018 and rebounded slightly to 1,403 students in 2018-2019. With our “let’s keep the lights on” mentality in leadership, they probably look at that and say “not bad, but try to do better.” If you are concerned about our future, then you should be alarmed. Why? Currently, we have 44 parishes in the Eastern Diocese. With 32 Sunday Schools, that means there are at least 12 parishes without a Sunday School. How can a parish operate without a Sunday School and expect to complete its mission and have a future? Why isn’t this addressed at the highest level? Why are the priests and lay councils not being held accountable? A few schools shy of one-third of the parishes do not have formal Christian education for the youth. Perhaps they have an ACYOA for teenagers, but at that point, you are receiving what has matriculated without a strong “feeder” school program.

Another point of interest is that school attendance is at 1,403. That number is about half of what it was a generation ago and the potential pool is much larger today. The problem is that we are not accessing the market. Furthermore these numbers are registered students which is the most optimistic participation statistic available. On any given Sunday, most parishes have 50-percent of those registered attending. The impact of irregular attendance has become more problematic as sports and ambivalence impact participation. I empathize with teachers who dutifully prepare a lesson that starts late due to stragglers and has a fraction of the students. Many of the churches (close to 50-percent) operate by bringing several age groups together, thus complicating the teaching process. Some schools have abandoned classroom teaching because of attendance, and hold general assembly group sessions which have limited impact. Imagine that the diocese on Sunday is educating only 800 to 1000 children across 44 parishes with a compromised process. There is every reason to believe that the Prelacy with its 24 parishes in the eastern region is experiencing a similar decline—parishes with no schools and barely a critical mass of students.

There are many parishes with approximately 100 dues paying members or less (estimated to be 24 of the 44 parishes) that are at this critical stage now. The larger parishes (estimated at 10) have always had the ability to mask the problem with volume and a larger base, but each of them operate far below their peak numbers. Another telling trend: Parishes that have maintained their size of 400 to 600 members have experienced declines in their Sunday school programs. The facts clearly suggest that we are in a crisis and have been for some time. What I find most discouraging has been the lack of national attention and solution-oriented decisions. It is irresponsible for a church to utter the word “future” constantly, yet tolerate the decline of its Sunday Schools.

The Sunday School program usually has its core participants in the age 3 to 13 demographic. Programs at the high school level have been waning except in large parishes due to the aforementioned issues. Our church has a number of programs for teens and college students in the “immersion” category that have been very successful. I am referring to the Datev Institute, St. Nersess, retreats and camps. They tend to comfort the leaders of our church that we are investing in the education of our youth. The problem is that the participants are usually from a pool that emerges from the younger age groups, and if we are declining in those areas, then we are significantly limiting our potential. The output of our declining Sunday School participation and limits on immersion programs lend one to believe that we are preparing for a functional but smaller national church. Investment in that critical age range has been primarily focused on curriculum and to a lesser degree teacher training. I am sorry to say that in the absence of participants, great teachers (and we have many) and lessons are tragically underutilized.

Similar to any institution, our church is a reflection of where we spend our time and money. The decline of our Sunday Schools has been occurring for years, yet parish annual assemblies and diocese level assemblies barely devote time to addressing the root causes. We tend to address them as victims by listing the causes and moving on. The problem is common to both the Prelacy and the Diocese. I attended the Diocesan Assembly for eight years and the Prelacy NRA for another eight. I cannot recall one substantive plenary discussion on the state of our Sunday Schools. This is a formula for failure. We are letting down the church we love and the future generations. Our parish assemblies have become forums to discuss finances and controversies and move on. The diocesan level assemblies are plagued with superficial protocol. We robotically applaud successes with our youth (immersion programs) and ignore the reality of our general decline. We take comfort in seeing a room filled with youth, but fail to realize that it takes many filled rooms to have a future. We have not yet displayed the will to give our youth what we were given by our parents and grandparents. Yes, it’s a different world that requires different methods, but the goal of the church has not changed. Our recovery will begin when we stop denying reality and have the courage to address the root causes. What can and should be done? It’s an important discussion that I will continue next week.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
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.
Stepan Piligian

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4 Comments

  1. Stepan: Read with interest your article on Sunday schools. I have been teaching at St James for 40 years. In the beginning we had 400 students. Now we have about 200 registered with the majority in the lower grades. One of the problems as I see it is that most of are families have moved away from Watertown where most children walked to church and families bonded together. In addition the fact that sports teams are allowed to hold practices on Sunday. If the child can not make the practice they are dropped from the team. Another excuse is that the study load makes for studying on Sunday. Sunday school takes a back seat.

    • Ed…… thank you for your commitment to our children’s education. It is true
      remarkable. The problems you identified are real. We must have the will to look for creative solutions. All options must be considered since without success we have a limited future. Thanks.

  2. Great article Stepan. Everyone knows this is a complex problem however all my adult life I’ve been hearing that we need to look at all options and solutions. I grew up in Queens New York, went to school in Boston and for the past 50 years have been in Dallas Texas. I was a teenager when the Holy Martyfs Church was built in Bayside New York and I attended Saint James Church in Watertown while in school and helped in the formation of Saint Sarkis Church in Dallas. For many years I was a Delegate to the national assembly of the Easton Diocese. During one of the Diocese meetings I offered to fund a study about language. Of course instead the diocese did a study about social change. I’ve seen many of my contemporaries in New York drift away from the church and over the past 30 years here in Dallas the same thing is happening. It’s happening all over I Our church service is conducted in the ancient language that few understand. If Saint Gregory the illuminator preached in a ancient language there would be no church today. It is sad that the leaders of our church is both Armenia and Lebanon insist on maintaining the status quo while thousands of young people around the world are being left behind. Watertown Massachusetts has been a beacon for Armenians for over 100 years. Saint James and Saint Stephen’s should be mega churches. Follow the past for 30 years all I have heard that this is a complex problem. Yes it is but there has to be a starting point and language should be a simple one. The church service has to be relevant to the young people

  3. I too am unabashedly committed to stemming the decline of “active engagement” in Church/Community activities. Unfortunately the problem is systemic and not simply a matter of recapturing what we had in our Sunday Schools when the post Geocide immigrants first started creating “Armenian Communities.” That was then and this is now. Frankly our Spiritual leaders in the Diaspora have not taken note of how their Armenian Communities have acculturated during the past 50 to 70 years.
    Most communities now included 2 and 3 generations of American born Armenian youth whose parents are also American born. To make a long story short, I’m not confident that the old goals we pretend to be pursuing apply any longer.
    Each community needs to face the realities of the 21st century. Most of our families are integrated into middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods. English is the primary language spoken in the home. The children are very engaged with their American classmates in after school sports etc.
    I think I’m probably exceeding the allotted space for comments. Each community must conduct a thorough needs assessment to determine what’s resonating and what isn’t and whether the existing programs are even relevant any more for this new reality of being Armenia in the 21st century.

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