Confirmation Consternation February 27, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian discipleship, Church Leadership, Mission of the Church, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: Church membership, confirmation
Worship Connection posted an interesting article by Shane Raynor this week, Reinventing Confirmation. As I read it, I experienced a strange ambivalence — agreeing with many of the observations Shane makes while feeling like something was missing. Some of the insightful points in the article challenge the “one size fits all” mentality we apply to confirmation, the idea that all youth are all emotionally and intellectually ready to make a profession of faith at the same age, the artificiality and unnecessary pressure of making Confirmation a special service or event, and the tendency we have to make confirmation more about information than transformation. As I nodded my head in agreement to these points, it dawned on me that this critique of confirmation reflects a much larger, much deeper issue about our current understandings concerning church membership.
Shane writes, “Confirmation is a time when young people embrace being disciples of Jesus Christ.” I believe this is what ought to happen, but rarely does. Much of the focus of the confirmation process is on belief, rather than practice — a very one-sided and incomplete picture of discipleship. Most young people come out of their confirmation experience (and most adults, too, for that matter) with no clear understanding of the difference between a “Christian believer” and a “Christian disciple.” Confirmation should not merely be a time when we ask young people if they want to “join the church,” but prepare and test them as to whether they are willing to assume the lifelong journey of discipleship. I personally believe that we are currently weak in our membership preparation because we lack a sound, thorough, and ubiquitous catechesis to ground us all in a common understanding and experience (and, no, the brief questioning at baptism and joining the fellowship don’t count — a whole lot of people do not fully understand what they are saying ‘yes’ to in either experience…)
Shane goes on to note that confirmation has sadly become nothing more than asking the young people to take accept their parents faith. “Churches that practice confirmation use it a rite of passage where youth essentially accept their parents’ faith as their own.” This is accurate — the number one reason young people give for participating in confirmation is “my parents are making me” — but it sadly misses a deeper point. Confirmation isn’t fundamentally about what we believe, but how we will integrate and live our beliefs in the world. It is not so much accepting what mom and dad believe as it is exploring and understanding the covenant their parents entered them into as infants at baptism, and forming their own beliefs. It isn’t about “joining” the local church — it is about taking ones place in the body of Christ.
And that’s the biggest thing that bothered me as I read Shane’s article. His analysis is a heart-breaking reminder that for most participants confirmation is an individual experience. Oh, sure, it takes place in a group, but ultimately it is just one more in a long line of “me and my buddy Jesus” experiences that completely ignore that ‘church’ really isn’t a “me” experience, but a “we” experience. Too many churches approach confirmation as just one approach among many to get more members. The numbers game completely alters the deep, rich meaning of joining a community of faith. The confirmand does not simply make a profession of faith and a set of promises to God, but to the whole community of faith. The promise being made is to assume personal responsibility for the journey of discipleship in relationship with a whole congregation on the same path. Not only are young people pledging to love and respect God and Jesus Christ, they are agreeing to engage with a faith community — to pray with and for it, to be present and available to others in the community, to give of their time, energy, talents, and resources to participate in its holy work, and to serve within and beyond the confines of the congregation to be the body of Christ for the world. They now also pledge to be a witness — in word and deed, to honor and glorify God wherever they go — both individually and as part of the larger witness of the congregation. It isn’t all about them — it is also about God’s will and the larger community of faith. (We won’t even go into what the congregation pledges and promises to the confirmand– both at their baptism and at their confirmation — that falls by the wayside!)
The individualistic nature of confirmation, the emphasis on understanding information and professing belief, and the confirmation worship service that looks and feels like a graduation service have tendered one result: for the majority of confirmands the experience is not an integration process into the deeper life of faith in Christian community, but is the disintegration event where the young person drifts away from the church, for years if not forever. (I just want to throttle parents who say to little Jimmy or Jenny, “you’ll go to church with us until confirmation, then you can decide for yourself…”
Even in the modern age, many people view confirmation not as integration into the universal body of Christ and the local community of faith, but as the place where you get your hand stamped so you can get into heaven. (Don’t believe me? Ask around. Many parents feel the same way about baptism…) It is almost impossible to envision an effective confirmation process in a setting where their is widespread lack of clarity of what confirmation is for. Shane Raynor offers us some great pointers for redesigning the confirmation experience:
- meet young people where they are and help them move at their own pace
- make it experiential and formational, rather than so heavily informational
- integrate worship (and I would add, the regular practice of a variety of spiritual disciplines) into the formational experience of confirmation — just because kids have been in worship for years doesn’t mean they get worship at all
- make sure confirmation is about “readiness” not “deadline” — let young people join the fellowship as they prove themselves ready, don’t just mark a date on a calendar and herd them through like this week’s delivery of new Christians
- involve as many people as you can — congregational leaders, parents, mentors, etc. — to help build relationships grounded in faith and spiritual practice and support
And then, I personally would add:
- make it about radical discipleship, not just about membership in the local church – be very clear about what the young people are “joining”
- make it about integration into the faith community and the body of Christ, not only about a personal relationship with God
- make it about commitment to a way of life, not a set of beliefs
- don’t treat confirmation as a destination or an ending, but as a threshold into a deeper, richer, fuller engagement in the life of faith and the Christian community
- and follow up in loving accountability — don’t allow confirmation be that time when young people leave the church instead of the time when they become the church