Posted on March. 3. 2024

BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly



BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly 

interchangeable terms? The church goes beyond the spiritual needs of the diaspora, given the unique relationship between our faith and our heritage. The vast majority of our communities in the diaspora are centered around a local parish with a complement of patriotic, philanthropic and educational organizations. It is rare to see a community in the Armenian diaspora without a functioning church parish. When our survivor generation came to these shores, they brought their familial lifestyle with them, which was centered around the church. Even today, as changing demographics expand our community base into other geographies, the establishment of a new community usually begins with a mission parish. This reflects not only the importance of spirituality in Armenian life, but specifically the importance of the institution itself in sustaining the diaspora. In the absence of the church, our communities would operate as several loosely connected secular organizations. 

Harry and Elise Markarian of Providence bow their heads in prayer in front of their computer as Sunday School class began in 2021 

The church should never take its communal importance for granted and neither should members of the community. There are several barometers of the sustainable health of the church. We can look to spiritual health, outreach programs, financial stability or parish membership. These are all important and contribute to the overall picture, but I believe that the engagement of the youth is one of the best indicators of vibrancy and the future direction of this institution. Ironically, the youth represent the future but are underrepresented in the decision-making processes of the church. We assume we know what is in their best interests. This is one of the reasons why I am always interested in the health of the Sunday school programs. Traditionally, our Sunday schools are designed to offer Christian education according to the teachings of the Armenian church from preschool through high school. In some parishes, high school students are blended with other programs, such as the ACYOA in the Diocese. Using Sunday schools as a barometer of a community’s health, we should be very concerned. Usually our proxy decisions for the youth work, but in times of rapid change there is dangerous latency. Such is the case with the digital revolution as it relates to education. 

Our Sunday schools, whether in the Prelacy or Diocese, have been in decline for a few decades. We can use almost any metric to illustrate the points of regression. The number of students according to registrations has declined consistently since the late 70s. Registration is actually a more forgiving measurement, since it simply tells us who signed up in September but does not account for the inconsistent attendance week to week. We have teachers in every community who prepare lessons weekly only to have the students attend inconsistently. Imagine the challenge of teaching with less kids and a different group week to week. One of the ironies is that a significant emphasis has been put on curriculum and other teaching material. We are well prepared in this area, but it has not slowed the decline. This week I had the pleasure of speaking with someone who taught Sunday school for many years and recalled when the parish Sunday school had 400 students; today, it has a small fraction of that. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example. Most of our parishes are experiencing this tragedy, and we have parishes that do not have a Sunday school. What can their future be? There are many dedicated volunteers in parishes and staff at our Diocese/Prelacy who have discussed this problem at retreats, teacher training seminars and conventions. The challenge has received significant attention, but we seem to be pushing the wrong buttons. Are we reaching the intended audience? 

The data tells us that Christian education is simply not as important to the current generation. By debating the symptoms, such as competing sports, assimilation or intermarriage, we have provided ourselves rationalizations to explain away the problem. We have not lost the children. There are hundreds who find joy in our schools. We have lost the parents. They are making choices other than a church education for their children. Many cave to the peer pressure that sports on Sundays are vital to their child’s development. I have never understood why our clergy are not more direct with parents, articulating that this is not in their best interests. Our priests can say this as a part of their ministry without being accused of being judgmental. We are trying to solve this problem in our churches through teacher training, curriculum and activities. Yet the problem is in the home. Until we find a way to build spiritual families, they will never understand what they are missing. We ask our families to pray together during meals. How many families even share a meal amid their overly scheduled lives? In recent weeks, I have shared some thoughts about the importance of change for maintaining vitality and relevance. We need a new approach with our Sunday schools. We have pilot programs for church membership and stewardship integration. Why are we not piloting new programs that bring God and the Armenian church into the home for our parents and children? What would that look like? Here are some ideas to consider. 

An increasing number of students have no home experience to attract them to church. No connection has been made to draw them to Sunday services. We rely on the commitment of the parents, which is a diminishing proposition. Most parents, however, will prioritize what interests their kids. If there was something exciting happening in their homes relative to Armenian Christian education, it may provide the connection that is missing today. The argument that a church education is more important than conflicting social or athletic events has not worked. Children must discover the value in their homes. 

Our educational practices must reflect what these children are used to in their daily lives. They are growing up with web-based learning, streaming programs and digital integration. This is how our children are learning during the week in their public or private education. In the simplest form, we must design digital programming for the home that can be viewed by parents and children and open new doors for families. Imagine the possibilities if students connected to streaming platforms, YouTube channels or web-based programs using age appropriate animation and other graphic tools. The children would have weekly programming during a window of time, maybe 2-3 weekdays. Soon it would become a part of their weekly schedule, if done professionally. Episodes would be connected to Sundays for continuity and building interest. Animation is a proven method of building interest and teaching primary grades. Interactive programming would focus on the needs of secondary students. Instead of watching programs that serve as babysitters, older students could equally become hooked on innovative educational programs that focus on Armenian Christian education. Make it fun, connect with characters and tell the stories. Students could receive merchandise of important characters through the Diocese/Prelacy. In addition to a hundred stuffies that kids collect on their beds, there might be a St. Gregory or St. Hripsime. With more children participating in the primary grades, there will be a foundation for transitioning to the secondary grades. This is an area of significant attrition today. These are just a few of the possibilities. 

One of the objections to this type of programming is that everything must take place in the church. I am suggesting that in order to achieve a breakthrough, the programming should be under the control of the church but not limited to its four walls. Some of our more traditional leaders do not understand how young minds learn today. I don’t think that any of us in the adult community actually fully understand it, and for this reason, we should consider focus groups with students to feed the development process. It would be a closed loop process of adjusting to what works and what doesn’t. We should ask ourselves: Is it riskier to the health of the church to maintain the same approach or to focus on the core of the issue – the home? This would represent a significant shift in funding, resources and leadership. Programming could be national or regional, thus relieving some of the redundant burden in parishes. A pilot program could be launched in a few parishes before full implementation. There are two critical elements to this strategic shift. The focus will be building interest in the homes that will be reflected in participation, and content will be designed to connect with the existing digital culture that our children understand. We love our church, and its future should be our motivation. Our methods must be better aligned to current educational vehicles. This will not alter the theology or the history of our church but open new doors for its acceptance. We are experiencing a tragedy in that so few have experienced the beauty of our church and what it has to offer. I have heard the term “irrelevant” too often from those who have left the church. It hurts me to the core to observe the gap between ignorance and substance. We must do better if we are to pass a healthy institution on to the future. We are stewards during our time on this earth. 

Utilizing different teaching methods does not compromise the essence of who we are. On the contrary, it honors it by providing new avenues of knowledge acquisition. Once our children establish a better connection with an educational opportunity, we will begin to see the creative branches blossom, with our students offering prose and poetry as expressions of their experience. I have watched carefully how my grandchildren learn. It is different from my generation or even my children’s generation. The goal of current educational methods is to establish a passion for knowledge within the students, and once that is established, their self-motivation will take them to new heights. With digital programming, our children will better identify with the content and position themselves for peer expression in the near future. Absorb and express is a powerful two-step method to bring Armenian Christian identity into the fabric of children’s lives. It starts with the will to change our approach. 

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