What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Families

December 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

Providing religious education for children and supportive religious community for families.

This is one of the biggest challenges we face, as we all know. Lots of meetings are too small to have any families and so they are not likely to attract new families who are searching for a religious home, especially for their kids. Too often, meetings don’t have any adults who are not themselves parents to teach First Day School, and as a result, the parents too often end up teaching their own kids. If they are new, they often don’t know enough Quakerism to feel confident to teach it. And of course, they would prefer to be in meeting for worship.

The only solution, really, is for the meeting to make an up-front commitment to provide First Day School no matter what, staffed by Friends who are not those kids’ parents. And then, if you don’t already have one, be prepared to start a First Day School as soon as a family arrives—that First Day. (Or, if you have the money, you could hire a teacher, as my meeting has done this year for the middle schoolers.)

The big obstacles to staffing a First Day School are: too few Friends willing to give up meeting for worship, too few Friends with the temperament and/or experience needed for dealing with children, and a perceived lack of curriculum—lack of confidence in what you could teach.

Not much you can do about the first two except pray. For the third, though, there really is no excuse. There is a lot of curricular material out there, and for all ages. So much in fact that combing through it all is its own obstacle.

I really like what my meeting’s RE committee has done. Quite a few Friends, both parents and teachers, took the Faith & Play/Godly Play training, available from Friends General Conference. This gave them an approach, confidence, a strong sense of First Day School community, and content. They developed a two-year framework for covering the Quaker essentials, timing topics when possible with the Queries we read every second First Day in both meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship. And they meet regularly to map out the details for the next few months, both in terms of content and teachers. They include Bible study in every lesson.

This is ideal, to me: it is Quaker religious education, rich in Quaker content. It includes the biblical foundation for our faith. And it is strategic: after two years, these kids have touched all the Quaker bases at their level of understanding, and then they go through it again at their new level. This approach raises competent, confident young Friends.

Way too many meetings shy away from Quaker and especially biblical content. I understand. I myself, with some help from at least one other parent, prevented my then-meeting’s First Day School from teaching the Bible. When those kids became young adult Friends, they came back to us and complained that they hadn’t learned anything and that we were lucky they were still around. And a lot of those kids aren’t still around, my own kids included.

I was so wrong to do that. And my meeting should not have let me do it. We owe it to our children to give them a real foundation for their religious lives. And we have such a fantastic foundation to give them! They may let it go. They may actively reject it or rebel against it. Fine. But they will know who we are and they will know who they are, if they leave. And when they stay, they will know what they are doing as Friends.

The all-too-common alternative to teaching real content is to teach “Quaker values”. This usually means the testimonies, plus the unspoken social attitudes common in Quaker circles, taught through example, osmosis and behavior control: liberal political leanings, tolerance, embracing “diversity”, making nice and avoiding conflict, using passive aggression when you really are in conflict, and the other affects of white middle-class culture. Too harsh? Maybe.

Still, it is the case that Liberal Quakerism increasingly defines itself in terms of “Quaker process” and “Quaker values”, rather than in terms of content, the rich legacy of our tradition.

A few years ago, after being laid off during the Great Recession, I thought I would like to volunteer as a guest resource in local Quaker schools. And here in the Philadelphia region, there are a lot of Quaker schools, most of them under the care of some meeting.

I visited the websites of literally dozens of Quaker schools looking to identify their religion faculty to contact. There were none. Out all those schools, only two had religion faculty, and only one or two more seemed to include religion or Quakerism in their curriculum in any way. I couldn’t believe it.

We hear their ads on NPR all the time, and they all tout their (Quaker) values as essential to their model of education, though they usually leave “Quaker” inside the parentheses. And I bet they do a good job of teaching these wonderful values. But where is the Quakerism? And don’t tell me that most of their students aren’t Quakers. That doesn’t stop the Catholics.

This simply reflects the way Liberal Quakerism in general is progressively abandoning its content for its values. Well, we can’t do anything about those schools. But we can make sure that we teach Quakerism, its values and its content, to our own children.

We should be teaching them something else, too, something that I feel is even more important than our faith and practice. We should help them find their own spiritual path. We should help them to recognize spiritual experience when it happens to them. We should not just teach them about the Light within them, but help them discover it for themselves.

For the youngest ones, this will mostly mean, I think, leading them to the Light in the conscience, that voice inside them that alerts them to wrong action, that prompts them toward love and peacefulness and reconciliation, rather than toward anger and resentment. This is “values” instruction”, but not as a list of outward principles to live by, but as the movement of the Spirit within their hearts toward love.

For the older ones, especially around middle school, we can go deeper. My first conscious religious experiences happened in seventh grade. Looking back, I see that I was groping at least by sixth grade, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. Our role should be to help kids recognize G*d at work in their lives and in their hearts and souls.

As with virtually any instruction, nothing works better than stories. And we have so many great stories to share. First there are all those stories in the Bible, especially the prophets, first-hand accounts of hearing and answering the call of God. And the story of Joseph the patriarch—all about family, conflict, and reconciliation.

And then we have our own Quaker prophets: George Fox, John Woolman, Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Fry, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Bayard Rustin, Larry Apsy, Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree, John Bellers, William Penn . . . the list just goes on and on. Stories of real people waking up to the Light within them.


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§ 3 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Families

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Steven: I noticed that you never mentioned Jesus Christ in your discussion of content to teach young people. In the final analysis, He is what it is all about!

    • You’re right, Bill, a serious omission. Though I myself can’t say that Jesus Christ is what it’s all about, at least not without clarifying what “Jesus Christ” means.

      And before we could teach that Jesus Christ is what it’s all about in First Day School, I think we would have to check in with the parents. I believe that it’s properly the role of the parents to teach “what it’s all about” and we can’t presume to know, at least not in the liberal meetings I am acquainted with.

      I suspect that a lot of our parents aren’t clear themselves “what it’s all about”. Many of them may have come to us to find out. More pointedly, many may have brought their children to us so that we can teach them.

      The family used to be the center of Quaker religious life, but no more. I suspect that most of our families have no family devotional life at all, may not have ever thought about it, and would feel somewhat at a loss if they did think about it.

      Do we have any help to offer them? I suspect there may be some resources out there for family devotional life, but I haven’t looked. So I guess I will, now.

      Meanwhile, back to your comment, Bill. I suspect that you may feel that Jesus Christ being what it’s all about is so essential a truth that a meeting shouldn’t really have to fuss about it. But at least in our liberal meetings, we just can’t assume such a thing. And we are not likely to come to unity over what “Jesus Christ” means, or for that matter, “what it’s all about” in more general terms.

      So we need a good, deep conversation between the parents and children, the RE committee and the meeting at large, about these things.

      I actually have taught the gospels to teenagers, myself, and I love it. Like Jnana, I find it very rewarding. But I don’t teach doctrine. What doctrine would I teach? As I read the Bible, much traditional Christian doctrine isn’t actually in the Bible (for example, parts of the Apostle’s Creed), and the rest is open to a wide range of interpretation. Whose Jesus would I teach, doctrine-wise? Paul dominates traditional Christian theology and I think he was almost totally wrong about Jesus. About Mark’s Jesus, anyway. And Matthew’s Jesus. Even Luke, who was so friendly to Paul and influenced by him, gives us a Jesus far different than Paul’s. Then there’s John the Revelator. You get the idea. Your Jesus and mine are almost certainly different. And so with our First Day School parents.

      Instead, like Jnana, I try to give some context, and then let the kids explore on their own terms what the text means. My goal is to help them define good questions, at the least, maybe begin to find some tentative answers for themselves, and hopefully instill an eagerness to go home and share their thoughts and questions with their parents.

      In the meantime, our religious education and ministry and worship committees should start thinking about how to guide their families in home religious life.

      When I was a kid, we read through the Bible about one and a half times, one chapter at a time after dinner. We went to church every Sunday. Mom would fix a big breakfast (my brother and I had a paper route, so we were up early and we came back to home-baked sticky buns or pancakes). Then we went to church, my parents to choir rehearsal and Jim and I to Sunday School. Then to service, and home to a mid-afternoon meal. Right out of Norman Rockwell.

      That’s not likely to work for families today. But what will? Time to find out.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    I love doing Bible study with the teens, when we have them.
    I sit down on the floor in the middle of the circle, in the middle of the action. Since we have several contemporary translations, I have one kid read a section from one, which we then discuss or question. Then I have another reread part of that from another translation and move ahead a bit in the text. Are there any differences suggested in the translation? In meaning?
    Pretty soon some deep questions arise, ones that we adults (always team-teaching) are sometimes unprepared for. Good stuff.
    It’s text-focused, multiple interpretations welcome. I want to go beyond conventional readings, and the kids are sharp.
    We have fun, and I know we’re getting somewhere when they start seeing this as movies or music …
    Bible, yes! As I tell them, it’s not a children’ book …

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