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Book Review: Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, Part 3

Part 3: Where Does It Take Place?

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In her book Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, Karen Tye discusses the beginnings of the Sunday School, and the reasons it became relegated to formal Sunday morning classes exclusively.  In this section, she encourages us to expand our vision of Christian Education beyond the traditional Sunday morning box, to examine the one-room schoolhouse model , and the homeschooling concept of education.

The one-room school model is firmly fixed in American history, as it was the way early small communities collaborated to educate their children.   This form of education is certainly custom made for the small church school, which must of necessity have groups with a range of ages, as did the one-room schoolhouse.  In this sort of setting, older children learn while helping younger ones, and younger children have the older students as ready-made role models.  Each student learns at his own pace, and receives individual attention from the teacher, and there is very little presented in the group lesson format. 

When talking about the one-room school format, Tye emphasized the importance in having “quality of space”- attractive areas with reading circles, posters at children’s eye level, and comfortable chairs and sofas or plush carpets to sit on.  She discusses how the people of the parish can help in the program, perhaps not as regular classroom teachers, but as visiting educators, who can present certain aspects that you wish to cover, or who could do crafts with the children, for example. 

She raises the problem of budget, which is a common one in so many of these programs, where there may be little or no money allocated for Christian Education.  In the smaller church, it is easier to approach individuals in the parish for donations of items or money for curriculum or supplies.  One does need to be careful not to settle for second rate curriculum or supplies just because of budgetary restraints or smallness of program- the children of the smaller church school are just as deserving of a quality program as those in a larger one.

The home school model of education is not a new one either, going back even further in history, to when all children who received schooling at all received their education at home, from parents or tutors.  Here we are reminded of the fact that parents are supposed to be the child’s primary religious educators- something we have largely forgotten since the advent of the Sunday School.  If you don’t believe this is valid, think about how there were still many vibrant Orthodox Christians at the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, despite several generations under Communism, which had all but totally suppressed the Church for seventy years.  Who did the educating during this period?

In the home-school mode, learning outside of the classroom is often the way to go.  Education does not have to go on just Sunday mornings, or on Sunday at all.  Nor does it need to happen once a week, but can take the form of field trips, weekend camping trips, “retreat” days, and many other forms.  The small church school is fortunate in one way, and that is that it can convene virtually anywhere,  at any time,  and when field trips are wanted, there is no need to rent a large bus and pay several hundred dollars.  Small church schools simply find a couple of parents with mini vans and good car insurance, and off they go! 

While looking at both of these alternative educational possibilities, Tye emphasizes the importance of the worship service as a time of education as well.  This arena is almost limitless.  The icons around the church can be explained for example, with the teacher touching on the life of the saint portrayed, how icons are made, what icons are for, how icons are treated by Orthodox Christians, what part they play in the service, and so on.  The priest’s sermon or the Gospel reading can be the basis for a learning experience too.  I remember when about twelve or so having to give a little report on what the sermon was about each week, and then discussing it with others in the class.  Even the bulletin can be a teaching tool, not only for children, but for adults as well.  And discussions about what goes on at the liturgy are almost a given for Orthodox children.  Here the priest can help out too, which is always a good thing, as it brings him in closer contact with his younger parishioners.  Because the time of Christian Education is not limited to Sunday morning using non-traditional means, it is easier for him to become actively involved in the program.

A more flexible program also allows for much more interesting learning experiences, which can take place at different times and places.  When doing a unit on liturgy for example, the children can be taught to make prosphora, or for the truly adventurous, be shown how the beeswax candles are made.  Older children can be taught to make a prayer rope, and good directions for this are found on a VHS tape made by the nuns at Ellwood City.   These possibilities are endless too.

Tye encourages us to make use of the liturgical structure of the church, that wonderful calendar which pulls our faith together each year.  Feast days and local celebrations are wonderful times to have educational experiences as well, with children actively participating, whether it be helping out at the festival, or with the chanting on Holy Friday.  It is so much easier for this to happen in the smaller church too, where things are simpler, and red tape at a minimum.

With either of these two models, we are encouraged in this chapter to think about our worship space, and how it can be used for educating, and for promoting Christian Education.  We should also consider, Tye says, how the bulletin can be used to educate, and what events of the parish can be teachable moments for the children , all the while evaluating how we can make these things happen in a practical way.  With careful consideration of these ideas, we can build a much more meaningful and workable educational program for the children and youth of our parishes.

Review by Catherine Sullivan