–by Directing Pastor Christopher Ritter
Confirmation has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my ministry. We pastors are given several weeks with adolescent youth who are in the very process of deciding who they want to be in life. The parents are on board. The church is watching. We end up offering them a stale and stilted little denominational religion class seemingly designed to avoid the real question: Are you going to follow Jesus or not? We parade them before the church to say what we want to hear and afterwards wonder why they never come back. This happens year after painful year.
A while back my frustration level reached such a point that I was almost ready to eliminate confirmation altogether, thinking that perhaps we could at least end the hypocrisy of pretending we somehow introduced these kids to the Christian life. Instead of giving up, we chucked the old curriculum, grilled a few sacred cows, and designed a system we could feel good about. Here are some things I am learning:
1) Don’t go too young. We set the minimum age for confirmation at eighth grade. Adolescents mature at greatly varying rates and there are many younger youth who are simply not ready for the experience. We also want to use confirmation as an opportunity to gel a group together and get them ready to enter our senior high ministry together. Another reason for holding confirmation until later is that there are some parents who foolishly view confirmation as the end goal of church participation. Make them wait for it.
2) Set the expectations with the parents and the youth. We have a well-publicized informational meeting about confirmation that parents and youth are expected to attend. We acknowledge, first, that the kids are likely only there because their parents insisted. We stress that while parents might make the decision about participation in confirmation, it is only the youth that can decide whether or not to profess her/her faith in Jesus. I pledge my full support to youth who might find themselves at the end of confirmation not ready to commit to either the church or Jesus (two of our thirteen youth took me up on this offer this year). We also set the expectation that making a commitment on Confirmation Sunday means following up with regular attendance and participation in the life of the church. This is confirmation into the church, not graduation from the church. I also point out to the parents the lunacy of de-emphasizing the spiritual development of their students during high school.
3) Make it relational and experiential. We start with a weekend mission trip. There is something about getting the kids in a van and driving a few hours away from home to serve others that knocks the crust off the kids’ hearts and lays a foundation for relationship. Watch the youth closely and have a time on the mission trip to state publicly how you see God in each one of them. Go to a church that is doing ministry better than your own, even if it is of a different denomination. Show them things they have not seen. Include time throughout confirmation to pray over the youth and let them experience the power of the Holy Spirit. Get the church praying that the students would have a living encounter with Jesus during confirmation. Have the parents sign up to provide food and start each session with breaking bread and strengthening relationships.
4) Teach Jesus, plain and simple. Two years ago we started using the youth version of The Alpha Course as our curriculum. We love the simple topics: “Who is Jesus?”, “Why Did Jesus Die?”, “How Can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?” This is not a time for minutiae. Let’s stop trying to make kids “churchy”. Offer them Jesus and give ample opportunities to respond personally. Five years ago I tried to cover church history, ecclesial architecture, the liturgical calendar, and many other things that having little to do with following Jesus. If they have an encounter with Jesus, they will pick up the other stuff on their own. If they don’t, none of it matters anyway.
5) Don’t waste your time building denominational identity. This last year was the first that I did not talk at all about the organization and history of our denomination. I admit that it hurt a little. When looking at what to include, I needed a real gut check. If you set John Wesley in front of a group of adolescents, would he spend any time talking about himself? The conference system? Our system of deploying clergy? No, Wesley would give them Jesus. So should we. Of course, if something from Wesley’s life happened to illustrate as aspect of following Jesus, that is fair game. Giving the youth a compelling confirmation experience focused on Jesus will speak more about your identity that a thousand denominational lessons.
6) Give them a taste of church and ministry. Part of the confirmation experience is taking a Sunday to shadow me through all three of our morning worship services. The confirmands read scripture and assist in worship. If they have a musical talent they are invited to share it. The morning with the pastor allows them to meet their entire church family, receive encouragement, and plants the seeds for considering a ministry vocation.
7) Having confirmation mentors is the best idea that doesn’t work. We have given up on recruiting adult mentors for confirmation youth. The level of engagement that each mentor offered was so varied that it created a distraction from the core program. Making mentoring work with our Safe Sanctuary policy was also a perennial challenge. If you want to assign mentors, I suggest that you do so at the end of confirmation. That is when follow up is really needed. The people the students most need to connect with is each other, the pastor, adult youth leaders, and the older youth of the church.
8) Infuse the entire experience with testimony. We have a surprise visitor each week to confirmation which is usually an older youth or college student sharing about how they are living their Christian faith. We have also had adults share about how they came to faith in Jesus. Pastors and confirmation leaders should freely share their own faith stories. Testimony is more powerful than abstract theological concepts.
9) Give permission to disbelieve. I give multiple opportunities for the youth to pray to make Jesus their Lord and Savior. Toward the end of confirmation, someone else leads the group while I meet with each youth in turn. This is a time for great sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. This is not their final oral exam. It would be easy to ask the question in such a way to elicit the response I want. I give room for disbelief. We structure Confirmation Sunday to allow for various responses, while celebrating their journey. Ending the confirmation classes with a Holy Spirit night at a special location was a great addition to our program this past year.
10) Make Confirmation Sunday a celebration of the journey of faith. Some youth are ready to profess Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Others may only be ready to share a Bible verse they have found meaningful. At whatever stage they find themselves on Confirmation Sunday, we present them a Bible and lay hands on them while they kneel and their family members and friends stand in support of their journey. Some join the church that Sunday and some do not. I had doubts about how we would make this all work until we actually tried it. It was refreshingly honest and honored each youth’s journey. It was as simple as “Some are professing their faith and joining the church today and some will do this at a later time.” If a youth has a faith testimony to share, Confirmation Sunday is an awesome time for that. Don’t neglect to preach the Gospel that Sunday as there are lots of visitors present.
In my congregation confirmation is the one youth ministry in which I directly participate each year. With our changing way of doing things, I value the pastoral relationship I establish with the youth and their families through the confirmation process. If we can do nothing more than give the youth a positive experience with church, we have built a bridge of faith they can cross as they are ready. Above all else, pray and get the church praying that the Holy Spirit will move in the lives of the students during confirmation… Because People Need Jesus!
View lots of Confirmation 2013 pictures at http://www.facebook.com/GeneseoFUMC