Time for a Digital Revolution in Youth Education

The picture is not pretty. It is one of my favorite topics to comment on because it is one of the most important to the future of our community. In the Armenian Diaspora, the enemy is ignorance and a lack of knowledge. The distraction of a secular world and geographic expanse to our communities have weakened our Armenian educational system in America, particularly on the east coast and in the midwest. There are exceptions with full time schools and weekend schools that service local communities. Generally though, the symptoms evident are in Sunday and Saturday schools: declining enrollment, dedicated teaching staff (but not enough of them) and a lack of sustained commitment from the parent community. I will confine my comments today to our Sunday Schools, but first a brief comment about language schools.

Unless our language is spoken in the home, the decline of literacy is inevitable. I have found that a resurgence can occur later when young adults gain an appreciation of their heritage and a desire to acquire language skills. When it becomes a “pull” rather than a “push,” we win. Many young Armenians through their heritage education and relations with Armenia have developed a language interest as a part of their developing identity. More on that in a future column. 

Rev. Fr. Antranig Baljian of St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church surrounded by Sunday School students as he opens the monthly mystery box, February 24, 2020

Our Sunday Schools have always been a harbinger for religious and heritage (ethnic) education because of the integrated history of our faith and nation over the last 1,700 years. When we study Mesrop Mashdots or St. Gregory, we also learn Armenian history and vocabulary. The sad reality of our churches, both in the Diocese and the Prelacy, is that our schools have been in decline. The traditional methods of families attending church and the children attending Sunday School concurrently are in place but are a shadow of what they were a generation ago. We can use any barometer of measurementregistration, attendance, teaching skills and funding; the bottom line is we are not meeting the challenge.

A large part of the problem is that we really have not made the education of our children a top priority. We delegate to the incredibly dedicated, yet struggling teaching staff that are holding our schools together. God bless them. This is not their failure. Let’s take a moment to challenge the premise that it is a priority. Look at the minutes of parish council meetings, parish assemblies or Diocesan or Prelacy assemblies. How much actual time and resources are committed to reviewing the problems of education and applying innovative solutions? The answer is a disproportionate amount compared to its impact on our future. Is there any single greater variable to our future than the readiness of our children? If not, then how do we explain our inability to stop the decline? 

It seems most are satisfied with having some kids in the chancel or in the first few pews every week as a sign that everything is ok. An honest assessment would reveal that the numbers are half of what they were a generation ago. Fewer children are registering, and regular attendance is the exception. How can we maintain teacher morale when they prepare less and deal with wide swings in attendance week to week? What knowledge do the kids actually acquire in such an unstable environment? Is that knowledge sufficient to meet a threshold for functional literacy in our church? What is our future when only a few have the operating knowledge of the church? Are we doomed to “functional illiteracy” where we operate, but find it difficult to have the institutional skills to prosper? Before we continue with some possible solutions, I will mention that there are some bright spots in today’s church. The “immersion” programs that focus on regional and national education workshops, training and retreats have been very successful. They are training deacons, acolytes and choir members. Young people gather to discuss their faith and build social relationships based on the church experience. This is true in both the Prelacy and Diocese. They are garnering enough support to train leaders in various areas for many parishes. These young people apply their knowledge to altar service, choirs and other ministries. I applaud these efforts and wish to acknowledge them.

We need innovation in the under 12 domain. Innovate: to improve something by applying new techniques, methods and ideas. The immersion programs were breakthrough thinking when they started. New ideas, they took reasonable risks and considered the changing environment. The goal of bringing people closer to God through the traditions of the Armenian church did not change. Immersing ourselves in the teachings of Jesus Christ did not change. What changed is how children are learning and the environment in which we operate. Our Sunday Schools are stagnant because we have been reluctant to innovate based on the changing environment. Most of the immersion programs impact the teenaged groups and older. This is generally not the majority of Sunday School demographics. Children under 12 have essentially been offered the traditional education processes (with some noted exceptions in communities such as Bible camps). We know that building values is a function of role modeling (in the home) and repetitive patterns in the educational process early in the window. Why would we suboptimize our impact to the younger groups because our methods are outdated? It certainly limits the amount that engage in the immersion options, and many are lost in this transition.

The way to solve the problem of Sunday School education is to create an environment where the kids are telling their parents that they want to be there. Convincing parents to bring children who aren’t excited only worked in the lower ages. Many of our schools bear this out as they are loaded on the front end with registrants and then the ranks thin out as children matriculate to the upper grades. We must be willing to take risks, to try new ideas, to innovate. The goal is to bring the teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Armenian church into the hearts and minds of our children. Period. All options must be considered. Anything less undermines the goal of generational continuity.

Our church in America has traditionally opposed, either actively or passively, any change that takes children out of the traditional morning classroom environment. Again, most of the non-traditional options have been with the teenaged groups. With the pre-school to under 12 group, we are in need of a change that reinvigorates the commitment to learning. The pandemic has forced changes on us that may have been unheard of a year and a half ago. The introduction of Zoom or other streaming options was a necessity for some semblance of education. As we return to “normal” and our Sunday Schools open this fall, we will re-engage with the traditional classroom methods. The unspoken opposition to the “virtual” methods is that children must be physically in the church. I agree, but we must employ new ideas to support that need.

How many times have you watched children look at a video in a car or at home with incredible focus. It is amazing to witness their absorption watching Sesame Street or Curious George. I have always dreamed of an “Armenian church Sesame Street” where age appropriate programming is offered through a YouTube channel (for example) to educate on our Christian faith, Armenian church theology, the Bible and much more. The use of animation and puppets would connect with these age groups. If the programming was offered in the comfort of your home, audiences could be increased substantially. Building continuity is critical in the children’s interest. A weekday session could connect to the Sunday School classroom that week and then in turn lead back to the weekday session. Over time, the interests of the children and the needs for socialization will increase the desire to attend in-person on Sunday. The digital content availability would allow “make up” which is problematic today. At an absolute minimum, it will be a vast improvement over the current process.

Another advantage to this approach is the elimination of redundancy and dependency on teaching skills locally. The programming would be created by a nationally funded set of content professionals both for the weekday and Sunday lesson. No longer would we struggle with the uncertainty of how to manage the classroom variation in 100 parishes. The possibility of one process for both the Prelacy and Diocese would be a reasonable objective. Imagine thatworking as one. Local resources could be applied to projects or other offline activities. The advantages are seemingly endless. It is an example of applying what we learned from the pandemic with innovation to grow our impact. The Diocese has introduced an education process with great promise called Vemkar. So far, it’s focused on the teen and above age groups. This  work could be integrated into Vemkar as lower age modules. There are pockets of young professionals who are struggling to implement this vision: a young deacon in Massachusetts creating content for a local parish during the pandemic or another young man at the Prelacy with a vision for animation. There are others from our talented new generation. We must remove the artificial barriers that prevent them from connecting. Where is our support?

There are three functional obstacles to this vision: will, talent acquisition and sustainable funding. The will is our choice. Either we see the opportunity and seize it, or we will experience a slow decline. The talent exists either with established programming or building a permanent staff. Funding is always a question. Why is it that when Vehapars come to this country, we always have the time and the money to plan, yet we struggle to commit funds to our future? In fact frequently, millions are raised for whatever pet project our leaders articulate. If we can’t see the future, then perhaps we can pretend the Vehapars are coming and apply those resources to this effort. Seed money to hire the talents for content development and maintenance is a small amount to prove the concept and proper marketing to parishes. I keep asking myself, what is the point of our beautiful buildings, books and legacies if we don’t have the next generation? The power to change this picture lies with a different generation. Listen to those who one day will inherit the responsibility. Open your eyes to the challenge. Innovate so the beauty of our church will continue.

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.
Stepan Piligian

Latest posts by Stepan Piligian (see all)

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.