I'll start with my experience growing up. I was raised a Catholic, and attended Catholic school. So five days of religious education was deemed plenty and I did not have to attend Sunday school. Of course for the Catholic church attending Sunday school did not mean missing the service, Sunday school was usually before or after the service so the whole family could attend mass. Mass serves the following purposes:
- To receive communion
- To gather as a community
- To lift our voices in songs of praise
- To hear the good news
When I became a UU my understanding didn't really change with the exception of communion. There are still times where I don't get much out of the service beyond gathering in community. If I am preoccupied because of job stress, or other problems I may not be focused enough to process the sermon, but I do listen. As they told me when I was a kid maybe it will sink in later. Singing is still usually a highlight of the service.
I could not imagine being told as a child anything along the lines of "you're smart , you should get something out of church" which seems more like a trap. It's a trap that is often set in UU churches in other contexts as well "You're a compassionate human being, of course you support [insert political agenda item here]". I am making a mental note to myself to never say anything along those lines to my daughters.
My opinions regarding youth in services became solidified when I was a YRUU advisor. I had learned that about 90% of youth raised as UU do not grow up to become active members of UU congregations when they grow up. In discussing this with youth I found that many of them had very little familiarity with "adult" worship services. Youth in religious education classes would get to know other religions by going on trips to visit other local services. the teachers were astonished when the youth said they had no experience to compare the "other" services to. Eventually they decided a "visit" to the home congregation was in order. When i discussed this with young adult UUs they expressed feelings of discomfort going into their home congregations. Would they be accepted now? Were they grown up enough? Was it ok to stay beyond the first fifteen minutes? The way we as UUs currently raise our youth it has a very poor rate of growing our UU community.
My solid opinion got mushy after a while. There were two things that helped me think about it differently. First was an e-mail from a thoughtful young woman who was born and raised a UU. She was not a member of a UU community, but she still would claim the identity UU, held fast to the values she was taught when growing up, and had a spiritual practice involving close friends which was similar to her experience as a youth in Sunday school. As much as I would have liked her to be an active part of a UU community I would have a hard time defining her current choices as a failure on the part of the UU community. A wonderful young woman was raised, where's the issue?
In fact after reading the thoughts of this woman it led me to deeper questions regarding my own participation in UU congregations. UU services filled a void in my life for Sunday morning worship, do I feel the need to instill a void? Am I really gung ho about being a UU, or is this just the least offensive option to fill the void that I have found? Do UUs really have a message of salvation that is important for the world to hear? All really good questions to ponder.
The second thing that made my opinion get mushier was having kids. At their current ages sitting through a Sunday service would be a constant struggle, and they are happy with the alternatives. I do think it makes sense that someday they actually join the community in worship, I'm just not sure that day is today. For now the first fifteen minutes or so seems good enough.
I do think that UU youth who have gone through a Coming of Age Program and signed the membership registry should be treated as members of the community (minus of course an expectation to pay dues). It seems very odd to me to celebrate their joining the community only to send them away on Sunday mornings.
At this point my opinion would be that youth (not infants) would probably be better off going to RE, until they are older. But I do think any youth who is interested in joining the service should be welcome. If they are interested by all means encourage it. In fact I wish it were easier in most congregations for parents to both bring the kids into service and have religious education as an option. About the only way I know of that would allow this to work would be to attend multiple services on a Sunday morning, one for the RE and one for the worship.
As a final note. Unlike my thoughts regarding infants in worship services my thoughts regarding youth are much more guided by principle. It would seem that the answer to the question about where youth belong should be answered by fundamental question about our community. What is the purpose of our worship service? Is it a lecture and a concert intended only for those who can fully appreciate both? Do we wish to grow the UU community? Is it important to raise a generation of UUs that not only identify as UU but want to join our congregations? And of course all of this would be with the understanding that individual needs and desires of the youth should be respected.