Why high school religious education? … Why not?

Responses to some typical statements about the religious education of Unitarian Universalist youth

“My youth don’t want to do curricula.”

Many youth advisors and religious educators have had this experience. You ask your youth if they would like to have a Sunday morning religious education class. They roll their eyes and complain that they already go to school during the week and don’t want a curriculum in church? They claim that they come to church to be with their friends. And, they may argue that they participate in social action projects and worship services, but that youth group time is their chance to “check in” with each other.

Now, if you are committed to youth empowerment, you may quit there believing that the youth have a right to determine how they spend their time together in youth group. But, are they making an informed decision? Ask yourself:

✓ Do your youth understand that Learning is one of the basic components of a balanced youth group?
✓ Are your youth thinking that a high school religious education class will only continue “Sunday school” classes and not engage them in subjects they want to explore?
✓ Are the youth listening to the voices of all youth in the group, some of whom may like the opportunity to learn more about other religions, moral issues, etc.?

Youth may not understand that learning is an essential element of youth programming; that they may find the experience stimulating; and that some less vocal members of the youth group may like the opportunity. As advisors and religious educators, we do not promote youth empowerment by simply letting youth alone determine the structure of their programs. We best mentor when we work with youth to ensure that they make informed decisions about their programming.

So, when your youth resist the idea of a high school religious education class:

✓ Make sure the group understands all of the components of a balanced youth group;
✓ Show them examples of high school curricula and actively engage them in reviews of the material; and
✓ Ensure that all voices are heard in the decision.

“Is there life after Coming of Age?”

Many churches have religious education classes for children up to the middle school/junior high years followed by a Coming of Age program. Then we often wrestle with what to offer youth after Coming of Age. Youth enjoy exploring new program opportunities, such as youth groups, district cons/rallies, and participating in the broader range of our church activities. However, we should encourage youth to also continue their religious education, even though they have completed their right of passage into young adulthood.

Why encourage high school youth to participate in a religious education class?

✓ Many Unitarian Universalist youth enjoy an intellectual challenge, especially if it does not replicate the school experience they face throughout the week. A high school class can engage youth with subject matter that is unique, interesting, or even controversial.
✓ By using facilitated discussion techniques and group activities, a high school class can help prepare youth for the seminar style of course they will often encounter in college.
✓ High school youth have the maturity and intellectual capacity to critically examine the purposes and principles of Unitarian Universalism. Doing so will help prepare them to bridge into our Young Adult programs and help our churches “Mind the Gap.”

High school mostly teaches the right answers to established questions. Religious education allows youth to ask questions that they cannot ask in school in a loving and accepting environment. Youth can explore a wide range of answers and learn to be comfortable with uncertain or ambiguous answers. In church, we can empower our youth to examine any idea and to take a discussion in whatever direction they like.

Coming of Age is not the end of religious education. In fact, COA should only be the beginning of a wonderful stage of youth in which windmills are for tilting, every subject is fair game, and all cultures and peoples are rich sources of wisdom and inspiration. We should always encourage the social interactions and activities of youth groups, but also be mindful of our responsibility to help our youth develop by expanding their intellectual horizons and by helping them build sound minds.

“What makes a good high school RE teacher?”

Choosing high school religious education teachers can be as challenging as finding good youth advisors – especially since the skill sets are not necessarily the same for both jobs. A youth advisor may serve well, but may lack the ability to make a class engaging and effective. Likewise, a good teacher will not necessarily be a successful advisor.

High school religious education requires more preparation than children’s RE for the simple reason that youth generally have more knowledge and more developed thinking skills. So, a high school teacher must be willing to put a little extra work into preparing for sessions. In fact, it helps if the teacher has the desire to learn themselves, since class preparation may require some background reading or research.

Another essential trait is an ability to think on one’s feet. Teenage youth often feel it is their sacred duty to challenge authority and established paradigms. So, a high school teacher must be prepared to both defend a position, as well as appreciate the points of view of the youth. A very effective skill is the ability to play devil’s advocate, challenging the positions expressed by youth in a supportive, constructive way.

Probably the most important ability is the capacity to mentor youth. In a classroom, a teacher must lead since youth must learn basic facts and concepts in order to fully understand an issue. However, a good Unitarian Universalist high school religious education teacher takes advantage of every opportunity to foster leadership in youth by:

✓ supporting the exploration of new avenues for intellectual and spiritual growth;
✓ encouraging youth to express and more fully develop their ideas;
✓ promoting youth to take on positions of authority at the church, district, and continental levels; and even
✓ helping the teacher lead the class in discussion and activities.

Sometimes, in our zeal to support youth empowerment, we lose sight of the importance of adults modeling organizational skills, intellectual curiosity, and other attributes we hope to foster in our youth. Empowering youth effectively requires not only the loving support of adults, but also their informed guidance, their wise counsel, and their active facilitation of learning.