Feed the Young or Perish (Part II)

A Bold Step to Educate our Children

The challenge of revitalizing the Armenian Christian education of our youth is not to be underestimated. A lack of focus on the symptoms of decline has created a negative spiral. In order to begin a recovery, we must address two fundamental issues.

First, we must acknowledge the problem and stop the patronizing coverup that has been the face of our assemblies and councils. In a recent diocesan assembly, there were no questions from the floor on the annual report of Christian education. Most years, the directors are not allowed to attend and interface with the assembly delegates for cost control reasons. We need to declare a state of emergency at the highest level and give this matter the sustained visibility, resources and thinking it will require. What’s tragic is that if you review the minutes of council meetings or legislative bodies, you’ll see that this is clearly not a priority, but the absence of early education shows its impact numerically and functionally. Study groups, agenda dialogue and frustration have been endless. Bold action is required, and the answers are with a new generation of thinking. Have we become so obsessed with short term “keep the lights on” activities that we can’t see the dark clouds?

The second issue we should honestly address is whether today’s methods are applicable to our current reality. The goal is the Armenian Christian education of our children that encourages literacy and commitment to their church as adults. Sunday Schools are a vehicle—a means, not the end. Everything should be on the table in order to bring our children back to the church. This may include migrating away from current processes and embracing options that may service our goal in a more effective manner. Our inability to address these issues is an obstacle to progress. We should never fear change. We should fear extinction.

What should we do to address this challenge? Our first thoughts should be not to overcomplicate the issue and paralyze ourselves with overwhelming complexity. This usually leads to endless debate and little progress. Let’s start at the ground floor. If our goal is to optimize the Armenian Christian education of our youth (defined as preschool to high school for this discussion), then how do we define the challenges? There are a plethora of reasons that have been raised and debated for years (sports, secularism, family conflicts, distance, personalities, etc.) One way to summarize these is to simply state that a Sunday School education is simply not that important to many families. Often we view faith as something we can put off or don’t need. It is not as important as school activities, sports leagues or just sitting home on Sundays after a long week of oversubscription. Our current approach is to compete with these Sunday conflicts. Since the home is no longer the place where these values are prevalent, we fall short and kids end up going to sports, studying or having “family time” on Sunday mornings. We need a new approach. We need to move beyond our disappointment in lack of attendance and focus instead on the interests of the children on their time and venue. If traveling to church on Sunday mornings is not on their list of important items, we should not give up. We need to change our approach. Parents will respond when their children are interested. We have thousands of examples of parents going to extraordinary lengths for their children. Our Armenian Christian education needs to go back into the home to rebuild. This will enable access that does not exist today and build a foundation where it has been missing.

We should never fear change. We should fear extinction.

COVID-19 has taught all of us some important lessons on how to communicate and innovate. Technology is usually underutilized until the environment creates a need. Zoom and other video platforms have become a staple in the last four months. How many of us knew the word last year? Let’s look at this as an iterative recovery process. First we need to get their attention and interest. Driving to church on Sundays works for a dwindling minority. Let’s consider an alternative. Virtual education! The goal is education of our youth in the Armenian Christian tradition. Zoom classes at age appropriate levels with content designed for the audience utilizing animation, graphics, interactive content and music. Imagine the possibilities of an Armenian Church “Sesame Street” on YouTube or Zoom! Parishes would recruit local families to register, programming could be run at alternative times that fit family needs in the comfort of their homes and the focus would be to make a connection. No longer would local parishes need to combine classes and suffer the communication consequences. Programming could be done locally, regionally or even nationally to minimize constraints. We have many talented content designers in our communities that could create or subcontract attractive programming for each age group.

Summer Bible Camp participants are “Zooming Towards God” as Sts. Vartanantz Church in Providence adapts to the times.

A second phase would include face-to-face socialization of local students and parents. It would be an opportunity to meet each other, build friendships and establish the beginning of a sense of community. Priests can visit homes as a follow up. This does not replace the traditional Sunday School. It is a supplement provided by the national church with the participation of local parishes. It moves beyond the endless debate of what to do that has delayed recovery. Live streaming is a technology that can bring the clergy and bishop into a direct role as part of the programming. I believe that in a relatively short time our churches could report not only the traditional statistics of our Sunday School, but also hundreds of online students through creative technology applications. Eventually, we will find that families we thought were lost may find their way to physical presence at worship services. Content must be developed that is attractive and substantive. This is not simply a video conference of current classes. The decline has been long; the recovery is also gradual. We must have the patience to reestablish interest. This also eliminates the growing problem of not having “community churches” where there may be interest, but the commute is too difficult for participation. We must be willing to change our thinking if we are truly committed to the goal.

Where will the resources come from? First, we need to establish that the amount of money we spend as a church on Christian education in no way equates to a commitment to the future. It’s as simple as that. The Diocesan budget for 2020 is approximately $4.7M in total. The funds allocated to “Christian Education” (the area relevant to this proposal) are about $116,000 or about 2.5 percent of the entire diocesan budget. The vast majority of the spending (more than 80 percent) is for NYC staff salaries and benefits. There may be small amounts of funding scattered in other line items but in total do not alter the reality. This is not about affordability as we are constantly told. This is about choices and priorities and about vision and investing in a future. Frankly it is embarrassing and must change with specific changes in direction. This funding level must grow to at least 10 percent of the total in order to have the content and creative resources required for this outreach. The Prelacy budgets are proportionally smaller but comparable. It is not difficult. It simply requires a change in our view of the future and an alignment of our spending to that vision.

Today’s rhetoric and reality are grossly misaligned. This is a formula for continued decline at the expense of our dedicated local parishioners and future generations. We are doing a disservice to our children. It is a strong message. We need a course correction now! I would call upon the Primate/Prelate and respective councils to display the vision and courage to open the door for fresh thinking. You must empower a new generation to reverse this decline.

Who are the beneficiaries, and what are the risks? The immediate beneficiaries are the hundreds of children that will be exposed to the light of our faith and church. Immersion programs such as St. Nersess, Datev, camps and retreats will benefit from a larger “feeder pool” of youngsters. Today there are only 24 ACYOA chapters (seniors) out of 44 parishes. This is the 18 and over age group. How do we expect to keep our post-secondary school children involved if nearly half of the parishes don’t have an organized group? I believe this reflects on the years of decline in Sunday Schools with less children matriculating through high school. Perhaps increasing participation through innovation will also boost the young adult programs. It is natural that their identity will grow with programming that reflects the digital age that is such an integral part of their lives. Although this program is designed to attract incremental students, some current Sunday School participants may opt to participate. This would have to be managed, but we should not preclude dual participation. The incremental benefits will far outweigh any risks. This is an opportunity for intermarriage families to view our church in a progressive and “modern” manner and limit the prevalent identity issues. We also have the opportunity to share content between the Prelacy and the Diocese which will reduce the investment burden and promote “one church” in our Christian education. For those who feel this is programming outside the physical structure of the church, please remember that these are students who have left or have never been a part of our church. Do we want to continue presiding over a decline? Sometimes asking the basic questions brings us closer to the truth.

[RELATED: Feed the young or perish. Our future is here.]

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.

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