My new column in the United Methodist Reporter is on the practice of confirmation.
Confirmation is one of those practices that has enormous formative potential for youth. Sometimes churches take confirmation very seriously. When that happens, confirmation does a lot of work in helping to initiate adolescents into a mature form of discipleship.
But all too often, confirmation is looked upon as a burden—one of those practices we feel obligated to do but to which people don’t really want to commit themselves fully. The results are predictable: confirmation becomes a rite of passage with no real substance underneath. Churches still practice it because of the vague sense that it is important, but no one (pastors, parents, or children) take it seriously as the chief avenue of adolescent Christian formation.
I’ll offer a rather extreme example of the latter, which is an anecdote I share in my column. I know a pastor who discovered upon arriving at a new appointment that all the children in the church from the second grade and up had been confirmed. He interviewed the sixth graders to see what they had learned from their ‘process.’ He found that none of them were familiar with even basic terminology from the Christian tradition (like “Trinity”) or Methodism (like “John Wesley”). They had apparently gone through a confirmation liturgy one Sunday, but it wasn’t clear to my friend whether there had been any class sessions at all. My friend refused to speculate much on what had happened — perhaps out of respect for the congregation—but it sounds to me almost as if his predecessor was looking to pad membership stats on a charge conference report one year.
If confirmation becomes simply an empty ritual performed once a year—form with no content—then we are much better off simply not doing it at all. The danger of having a confirmation service with no actual catechesis is that we’ll communicate the message to youth that there is something spiritually beneficial in just going through the motions. Clearly, that is not the case.
On the other hand, if we actually invest time and energy into making confirmation a central, vital part of our ministry with adolescents, then the result could be important indeed. Sarah Arthur has written about just such an approach with confirmation in the chapter she contributed to Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church. She argues that it takes an investment by an entire congregation to reach confirmation’s full potential. The church has to see confirmation as central to what it is trying to do with youth. And along with that, Arthur suggests that confirmation should be seen as a way to integrate youth into the full range of the church’s ministry (bucking the tendency to treat youth ministry as some semi-independent operation that the rest of the church doesn’t have anything to do with).
We’re all well aware of the challenges of ministry with teenagers and young adults. But we tend to make that ministry more difficult than it has to be by treating people in those age groups as if they don’t want to be a part of the larger church. What if the church was what they desperately wanted and needed, it was just that the developmental stages they were experiencing in life made everything in their lives more difficult? I suspect that to be the case. And while confirmation is not a cure-all for all problems in youth and young adult ministry, it is an important way to ground teenage boys and girls into the life of the church at a crucial point.
But all this requires confirmation to be a truly catechetical, truly formational process. That will take a real commitment by the congregation to achieve. But you know what? Our kids are worth it.