In 2014, total attendance in Army religious education programs topped 1.5 million. This high level of participation was made possible by the work of Army chaplains, chaplain assistants, Directors of Religious Education (DREs) and over 12,000 chapel volunteers serving as catechists, teachers, youth advisors and study leaders. Studies show that participating in religious events, including religious education programs, helps reduce risk-taking behaviors and increase pro-social behaviors and personal achievement. Participation in religious events is also a predictor of resilience in times of trauma. Chapels contribute to Total Army well-being and resilience by providing comprehensive religious education and faith formation opportunities for all ages and a wide variety of religious groups.
Despite the ongoing need and demand, religious education programs are becoming increasingly more difficult to staff. Today's challenges include the highly mobile lives of chapel volunteers and Army-wide increases in screening and background check requirements. In light of these challenges, the chaplaincy is re-examining its religious education support mission.
New research findings are generating innovative approaches in garrison chapels across the Army. For example, early feedback indicates that congregation-based and intergenerational programs may be the key to re-vitalizing Army religious education. Congregation-based programs add an intentional, education component to regular aspects of a congregation's life together such as worship, fellowship, and community service. Intergenerational programs bring all ages together for faith formation and learning. Combining these approaches, with an emphasis on building strong connections between education and worship, builds lifelong faith, what researchers call "sticky" faith.
In response to this cutting edge research, DREs are honing their knowledge, skills, and abilities in congregation-based and intergenerational learning. To support the effort DRE, Sr. Michael Bochnowski, recently attended The Future of Intergenerational Christian Faith Formation: A Symposium, that drew 100 participants from four countries, twenty states, and twelve denominations. Symposium participants surfaced dozens of recommendations to promote and encourage successful intergenerational experiences that are being shared with Chaplain Corps leaders.
Chaplains and DREs are also implementing new program ideas. At Fort Knox, DRE Frank Leon is supporting an intergenerational program for the Samoan Chapel that attracts families who gather before morning worship each Sunday. According to congregational leader, Faleu Fatu, "Religious formation is important because it benefits the Families by helping them understand their heritage, customs, and culture. The Bible lessons strengthen spiritual growth."
At USAG Grafenwoehr, Garrison Chaplain, Chaplain (Col.) Mark Roeder, recently launched a series of monthly programs based on a curriculum resource, Living!, written by Army religious educator, Dr. Grace Yeuell. Each month the congregation gathers to share a meal, build cross-generational relationships, and participate in hands-on learning activities together. Rather than separating participants into age groups, Dr. Yeuell's resource emphasizes the importance of keeping the generations together for faith formation. Chaplain Roeder calls Living! a "groundbreaking program" for their chapel community.
At USAG Stuttgart, DRE Brian Merry is currently laying the groundwork for a Jewish community program. This program will focus on family tables and emphasize the significant role that gathering around the table has always played in Jewish faith formation.
Congregation-based and intergenerational approaches are proving to be particularly effective at building faith that lasts. They have the added benefit of reducing the demand for volunteer teachers. Volunteer teachers can now become co-learners with their families and fellow congregation members. In addition, these programs offer relief from background check requirements because families are learning and growing together.
Re-vitalized religious education programming benefits the Chaplain Corp's core competency to "nurture the living." One recent participant in a chapel intergenerational program stated, "It is so great to have this opportunity to learn with my kids. We are growing in faith together and it's fun." Such a positive response is a promising sign of faith-fueled resilience for the future.