Confirmation Consternation

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

4 replies

  1. Thanks Dan for your critical interaction with Shane’s article. I appreciate your points and will raise the ante to a position, that I am not sure I really agree with,but let’s give it a go for the sake of argument. What if we dropped infant baptism all together, or at least, refused to baptize infants and children to nominal Christians and non-professing members (and I mean, not the category according to our Book of Discipline–not just those who are not on the professing membership roll) –I mean all of those parents who are not living as missionaries and accountable Christians. (I’m sure a DS or bishop would want to excommunicate me for saying it!)

    Frankly, in my own family, in which both children were baptized as infants and who themselves are now grown and have families, one is a practicing Christian and one is not. Both were confirmed. So, even in a pastor’s family there is no pro forma guarantee that the sacraments bear fruit like a cookie cutter.

    As UM Christians we profess to believe that baptism is first, God’s initiative, but that human response is a necessary and subsequent requirement. (See our UM document, BY WATER AND THE SPIRIT) Maybe the sacrament as sign act of God’s covenantal grace needs to be tied more closely in time and experience to each person’s being immersed in the love of God and in the life of the Body of Christ. Maybe inclusion and participation in the life of the community with its missional and liturgical life needs to precede baptism. Maybe the United Methodist Church along with other churches need to recover as primary form of initiation the adult journey of faith that the ancient church called the catechumenate–a form of catechesis practiced in a preConstantinian culture where to be Christian was dangerous, risky, and countercultural. Maybe that is part of our crisis as church, that being and doing Christian is so safe and perceived be compatible with the culture that the choice to be Christian is normative and nominal, not edgy and cruciform.

    I think I still believe in infant baptism, but only when the church is moving into the cruciform love of God and risking its very life for the life of the world. Not many churches are on that journey just now. The institutional forms trump the radical discipleship of which you write.

    If you (all readers) want to know more about Protestant approaches to the catechumenate, see The North American Association for the Catechumenate— Very few of our churches are engaged with this approach, but I find it one of the most promising visions of church and formation of disciples that I know about. It does not apologize for being church and its liturgy, mission or means of grace. Indeed it immerses us in them! Indeed, its first converts will be the congregation that dares to do it and be it. And those seekers who come to the church are the evangelists whose question and stories as they learn to worship, pray, read Scripture and live the gospel for the sake of the poor and excluded will be the catechists and evangelists of the church. God does stuff like that.

    • In reference to Dan Benedict’s incredible comment: Sure, if you want to take all this that seriously… The widespread anti-intellectualism/nominal engagement in congregations as true “communities” are factors that join together to create an ecclesial environment where we really don’t know the gravity of what we say ‘yes’ to. Parents “get their kids done” (baptism) then force them to “join the church” (confirmation). The concept that these activities are viewed as nothing more than hoops to jump through on our way to heaven is rarely challenged, and the instructions given by pastoral leaders are often vague, at best. In my own seminary training, I remember one day talking about Christian baptism in a Church History course (nothing in Theology), and I do not ever remember talking about confirmation. As we so blithely sow, so will we reap. I think the idea to rethink infant baptism and the reaffirmation process at the onset of puberty are both worthy of investigation.

  2. I had read and pondered Shane’s article, but thought something was missing. I think I have found it in your additional comments. Confirmation is not only about personal relationship to God, but integration into the community of faith. It is commitment to a way of life. As the one responsible for confirmation in my church, I have been motivated to re-think some of what we do and say.

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