Confirmation Questions and Thoughts

I have received a number of comments and questions about my article in the May 2009 issue of THE LUTHERAN (copy on right entitled “Confirmation Sucks”). People are saying, “good to know, but what’s next?”. I have received enough feedback along these lines to prompt me attempt some answers and send them in to THE LUTHERAN. In the meantime, however, allow me to share some thoughts. The following words were in response to a specific question that was posed to me.  I simply have ‘cut and paste’ my answer into this post. I’m curious as to how others feel we should, if necessary, change confirmation.

My response…

My background will give you insight to the lens through which I look at this issue. I went to Wartburg Theological Seminary, served as Team Leader for two large ELCA congregations (worshiping 1600 per weekend or more), consult an ELCA congregation in Youth Ministry and work in the corporate world of Organizational Development (designing and delivering training initiatives for the company). This experience has taught me to first look at the goal of a given department, team, or ministry. We can do that by asking some questions.

Why do we have ‘confirmation’?
What is the purpose?
What is the desired outcome?

Without getting into the theology of baptism according to the Augsburg Confessions and so forth, let me say that from a practical standpoint, all ministry is to some degree about faith formation. How that ‘faith formation’ happens can be accomplished through an endless number of styles, programs, strategies, etc. So, if the ministry of confirmation is first and foremost about ‘faith formation’, then we have the root answer to our first set of questions.

Now the question is, “How do we build and nurture faith in people of this particular age group? How do we form faith in Jr. High students?”. This is a fundamental shift already. Do we call this confirmation any more? Are we doing age based ministry? Who should be involved? Do we have classes? Are they even classes? Maybe they are just meetings? What do we meet about? Do we learn anything? Maybe plan activities?

To solve this I point to the Youth and Family Institute (no this isn’t a commercial). They work with individual congregations to develop plans and strategies that are congregationally based, unique to that culture that focuses not on traditional programs and methods, but on faith formation for our youth. Sometimes traditional programs and methods work very well, sometimes we have to be innovative and come up with something brand new. That ‘something’ may work in Florida, but not in Oregon. So I REALLY believe that this shift in confirmation in not about selling another book or program as many have done in the past, but rather asking a difficult and honest question in each faith community. “Are we effectively forming faith in our youth?” The answers, the brutally honest answers usually are humbling.

That is a LONG way to tell you what I have done and what I have found effective. Here is what has worked for me.

1. Confirmation – a ‘bait and switch’ – People still drag their kids to confirmation. Although they do this for the wrong reasons, it still is an opportunity as a church to minister to families and to youth. Use it…Parents who drag their kids to ‘confirmation’ are doing it because that is what their parents did to them. They think we will teach them word for word, line for line the Small Catechism. That they will serve 80 service hours over the year and wear a white dress-like garment so they can properly light and extinguish candles. Parents themselves hated doing this when they were kids, but they still put their kids through the same torture. I actually had two names for my Jr. High ministry. Life-long Lutherans knew the ministry as Confirmation, everyone else knew it as High Voltage. They were one in the same (I’ll describe what it consisted of in a bit). To Lutherans it was comfortable, to non-Lutherans or non-church attenders, it was…comfortable and fun.
2. Relationships not Lessons – Yes we still gathered and had lessons of some sort. We even used very traditional Lutheran materials, but that was only a façade. Our small group leaders were not required to know the material and prepare lessons in the same way a teacher prepares lesson plans. The leaders were trained to build relationships, to be ‘pastor’s, not teachers. There is a significant difference. There is a ton of research (biblical and cultural) that shows that ‘faith is caught and not taught’, that ‘faith is formed through personal trusted relationships’. If this is true, then we do not need teachers, but relationship builders. Leaders would be required to write notes (snail mail and e-mail) to everyone in their group every two weeks. They also attended events or activities with the group. It was about building relationships.
3. Personal not just Corporate Faith – The only other requirement of the leader is that they were able to ‘tell their faith story’ or give their testimony. In a healthy relationship with kids/youth, questions are inevitable, hard questions. The hardest question for Lutherans (in my experience) to answer is, “Why do you go to church?”. In other words, they are asking, why are you a Christian? Can you answer it? Leaders need to tell the story in all of its gorey detail, honestly and un-edited. The Bible is full blood, sex, murder and deception for a reason, because it is real life. We need to tell how God is a part of our ‘real life’ as well. This is tough, but critical. Once this happens, and it will if relationships are built, now we have a solid educational platform. To be honest, now the education of ‘confirmation’ makes more sense…teach away.
4. Edutainment? Absolutely – Many youth ministries are accused of being more about entertainment and not enough substance or actual education. To this I plead completely guilty and I’m proud of it! Why not have a blast? Why not be silly? Why not create an environment that kids want to invite their friends to? Why not play crazy games, get dirty and wet? Why not have a good time at church? Why not?? Parents ultimately came up to me asking what we are doing because their daughter or son absolutely did not want to miss High Voltage/Confirmation? Remember, they generally hated their Confirmation experience. They can’t believe their child loves theirs.
5. Not an Experience of God, but God of Our Experience – This not my phrase. I first heard it from Leonard Sweet. I really like it. In all things point to God. Whether relationship building, story telling, being goofy, getting wet, praying being silly, answering questions about sex, masturbation, or homosexuality, we did it all in the name of Jesus…always.

This isn’t clear I know, but they are a few points that I always fell back on (and I typed this really, really quickly-sorry if part of it doesn’t make much sense). They worked for me. Again, the challenge is that it isn’t ‘ministry in a box’. You need to have the time and talent to innovate, create, strategize and plan around clearly defined goals. You need to build relationship with kids and parents. Start a dialogue and create an environment where people are having such a good time being a part of a God community, that they are willing to tell others about it. That is a sign of success.

I would be happy to give you more specific ideas for your culture and congregation and/or answer more questions on this site!!