Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Confirmation Questions: What I Wonder After a Decade of Youth Ministry

It's that time of year again. Youth all over the country are hard at work wrapping up necessary requirements so to be confirmed as members in their respective congregations.

Youth have adventured through their particular tradition's contemporary rendition of catechesis, an early Christian practice when those to be baptized were prepared and instructed in the faith and Way of Jesus, and will soon share statements of faith before elders and peers.

It's that time of year again. Parents, elders, small group leaders, and youth pastors wonder- are they ready? Have we prepared them for life as a covenanted member within the local church? What will happen to the youth we have grown to know, love, admire, and embrace even through their awkward, anxious, and often unrelated curiosities that pop up at the strangest moments?

Will Confirmation Sunday be the last time we see the faces that have become so familiar?

As a youth pastor/director for the better part of a decade, a confirmation program coordinator and developer for the past six years, and a former confirmand in a mainline church tradition (ELCA), these questions have consistently rattled my brain. But there are others, too.

Here are a few confessed questions this youth pastor wrestles with every spring, in no particular order:

Do they know what confirmation is and that it's not synonymous with graduation?

Andrew Root writes, "Confirmation is not the end of a road or a final exam but the welcome and continued encouragement to keep seeking God.”* Do they know this?

But who are they? They are all of us, youth, parents, pastors, church members, elders, deacons, teachers, preachers, and anyone who makes up the body of Christ. So the real question is, do we know what it means to be confirmed? Confirmation is a new beginning in a pilgrimage of faith. Confirmation is a welcome on board the adventure of seeking, doubting, hoping, trusting, believing, and longing for the dreams of God made known to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to become our only known reality. Confirmation is a commitment to a new way of being in the world as we live into these very dreams alongside other members of Christ's church locally and globally.

Confirmation is claiming and proclaiming our baptismal vows.

When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train. As disciples, we do not so much accept a creed, or come to a clear sense of self-understanding by which we know this or that with utter certitude. We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone.” (Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 52)

Are they prepared?

Confirmation often breeds anxiety, as though youth are taking a final exam that determines their fate forever. Leaders are tempted to cram as much information and nuggets of wisdom into their developing craniums so youth can "pass the test." Youth sense this anxiety and begin to wonder the same, Am I prepared or ready? I don't know it all! I don't know enough!

But confirmation is not solely information preparation. Christian theology and reflections on Scripture serve a purpose far greater than data acquisition. Confirmation is preparation for mission. We learn about God, think about God, converse about God, question God, struggle with God, and discover about God so we can follow God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world.

Preparation then is less about knowing and more about being willing. When we ask, are our youth prepared to be confirmed members in the church, we really are asking, are they willing to begin a new life of love and service within the community of faith under the lordship of Jesus? If they respond in the affirmative, they are prepared. But the journey has only begun...and the tension between knowing Christ and making Christ continues if they are indeed willing. Let's aid them in their adventures of missional willingness.

Did youth write their statements of faith?

These narratives are not your son or daughter's third-grade science project. Parents cannot do it for them. These statements are theirs. These statements are raw and honest narrations of their faith stories as they understand it. They are best read with voices cracking and quivering, confident yet uneasy, because it is their story not ours... and not yours.

Still, these statements should not be written in isolation, rather in conversation with those who have been a part of their story from the very beginning. Talk with youth about their faith statements over dinner, in the car, when you rise, when you fall asleep at night, at home, and when you are away (Deut. 6:6-9). Be sensitive to glimpses of the Spirit's work in their lives as they illustrate what they believe. Maybe join them in the process and write your own profession of faith...or dig up one you wrote once before.

And by all means, keep the statements of faith. Maybe end them with an ellipsis...as they are still being written and forever being revised.

Do they know that their statements of faith can also be unfinished and unrefined?

Several years ago I sat across from an eighth grade boy at a local diner. His mom arranged the brunch with her son because he had so many unanswered questions and assumed he could not write a statement of "faith" in the midst of so much doubt and uncertainty.

We sat in our booth when I asked the waitress, can we get some crayons? The eighth grader looked at me with curiosity and confusion. I then flipped over his placemat and said, write, illustrate, question all over this blank canvas. Again, he was puzzled. I assured him he had the freedom to write everything and anything he had been wresting with, using color, words, symbols, and abstraction- mediums he preferred over your typical essay and prose.

He went to work and produced one of the more honest and brilliant statements I have seen still to this day. And when it came time for him to share his statement of faith- he brought the placemat and shared.

And in the center of his masterpiece, overlapping a cross, was a question mark.

I hope he kept this.

Will the congregation continue to journey alongside them?

Confirmation is also a new beginning not only for the youth, but also the entire congregation. We are to be reminded that our spiritual formation as adults is deeply connected to the spiritual formation of youth. Confirmation is an opportunity to reaffirm our membership commitments and renew the promises made when these very youth were baptized as children. Write a name down, or 30, and pray for them regularly, write to them consistently, and acknowledge their presence as often as you see them in the sanctuary or community. We are called to recognize and affirm youth not only when they are dressed pretty and presented before the congregation that one Sunday every spring, but also encourage and support youth every day thereafter.

What will happen to those youth who chose not to continue? Do they know they still have a vital role to play in the church and mission of Jesus Christ in the world?

Every year there are a few youth who get close to confirmation, only to decide at the eleventh hour that they are not ready or are no longer interested in taking the next step towards membership in the church. I consider these youth courageous. All too often youth who do not give two rips about faith and the church or share similar hesitancies, simply press on because "that's what you do and what my parents did when in eighth grade."

And we rarely ever see these youth set foot in the church again...at least not until they have kids of their own.

When youth do risk trumping the cultural assumption for mainliners, i.e. confirmed at X age or grade, and postpone the commitment, do we remind them that they still matter? Do we create space for them to grow into their membership at a different and adjusted pace? Do we remind them that nothing can separate them from the love God has for them in Christ, not even a hiatus from confirmation? Are we willing to meet with them with regularity and help them sift through all questions, confusions, doubts, and meanderings about Jesus, faith, church, and where was God when _______?

This is a personal conviction for my youth ministry of late.

Do youth know that they matter in the present witness of the church, not only the future?

One of my favorite elements of confirmation is that the praxis reminds youth they are full members of the body of Christ. They share equal voice, responsibility, leadership, and influence in the mission and witness of the church.

Youth are not confirmed as future members and leaders, they are embraced as present participants and witnesses to the good news of Jesus. Is the church willing to live into this reality and listen to their concerns and contributions for on-going reformations? Are we willing to make necessary adjustments to our language, liturgy, methodology, prioritization, and ecclesial expressions so to foster environments where youth both want to and can engage in church leadership and discernment processes?

Do we offer a church that is open to the movement of the Spirit and alive in youthful innovations and risky adventures?

I hope so. Unfortunately what we often present is a package with an expectation, this is what we are giving you. Like it, use it, appreciate it, preserve and protect it.

But what if what their dreams for the church now and in the future demands minor and major adjustments. Will we listen? After all, they are members.

The next few weeks I will be praying for all youth about to be confirmed and those youth asking if they even want to be confirmed. I am praying for their families, their churches, their supporting leaders and pastors. I am confident that the God who began a good work in them [and us] will carry it unto completion... whenever that day may be (Philippians 1:3-6).

I am also asking a lot of questions and reflecting on my own faith and membership commitments.

I hope you will join me.

May the pilgrimage of faith continue, especially as we welcome new travelers.

“Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s church. (Book of Order, G-1.0304)



The picture above is of Origen of Alexandria, believed to have been the originator of Christian catechesis. Funny story, he was eventually martyred as a heretic. I beg to differ :)

*A great chapter in, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, by Andrew Root and Kenda Dean: "Doubt and Confirmation."

**A great piece was recently written, "What If the Kids Don't Want Our Church?" by Derek Penwell.

***See another helpful resource by PCUSA pastor, John Vest, "Confirmation and MIA Youth."