Guest commentary by Nina Simone
Each spring, somewhere between the end of the Super Bowl and opening day at the baseball fields, were a visitor to stop by a Presbyterian church on any given evening he or she might very well encounter a group of 13-year-olds and a leader, empty pizza boxes, a fair amount of chaos and a divergent set of goals.
While confirmation and the program that precedes it does not necessarily occur in each congregation annually, the practice is established enough within this tradition to evoke memories from adult Presbyterians and varying emotional responses from youth and parents.
Confirmation, the rite of initiation within mainline Protestant churches in which young adolescents enter into full confession and affirmation of faith, continues to be as varied in theological understanding as it is in practice. Some churches see it as a training ground in denominational identity, while others view it as another step in the discipleship process of youth. While some congregations rejoice over the commitment of these young “members,” others hope that a seasonal change in programming allows youth some fresh opportunities for formation. Yet, as culture transitions into a post-Christian context, the church has begun to admit that, all too often, what was intended to be an entryway into mature participation within a congregation has instead become a form of “graduation” out of the church.
When studying both the history of confirmation and the recent trends, three major challenges to the understanding of confirmation as traditionally practiced begin to emerge:
- A lack of theological clarity regarding confirmation,
- The influence of the contemporary stage of adolescence on the timing of confirmation, and
- The traditional rooting of confirmation in a Christendom-focused context.
Each contribute to the need for new conversation about the practice. While one can quickly argue that confirmation in the 21st century needs both adjustment and innovation, perhaps it simply needs enlivened understanding on the relational components of the process and a renewed perspective on formation for the changing world.
A brief history of the theology and practices of confirmation
Around the third century, confirmation (which was unified with the rites of baptism and the eucharist) held weighty meaning. Participants were required to take part in a vigorous three-year process of catechesis, or formal training. At the time, choosing to belong to the church contained such social and spiritual ramifications that it was not a decision to be made lightly. Between 500 and 1500 a.d., there was a decline in significance as confirmation lost its connection with other rites of Christian initiation and came to be rationalized as a “second stage” or completion of baptism, an understanding still held by Catholic and Anglican churches.
With the onset of the Reformation of the 1500s, Protestants rejected the sacramental standing of confirmation and chose to replace it with a course of instruction that continues to be a model for many confirmation programs today. Martin Luther contended that baptism “needed no perfection” and emphatically denied its status as a sacrament. Luther understood baptism to be fulfilled continually – as Christians continually lived out faith. Believing the Christian life benefited from education, Luther devised the Shorter Catechism to provide all baptized Christians with a concise explanation of the church’s doctrines and teachings. Similarly, John Calvin asserted that only baptism and Holy Communion were sacraments, regarding other rites as “empty show,” and advocated education as the means by which one learned both to submit to God’s authority and to live as one of the spiritually elect.
Influence of adolescence
The Presbyterian Church carries on this tradition of education while still grappling with a measure of sacramental weight within confirmation. Though not a sacrament, one must be baptized to be confirmed. And for the many youth who were baptized as infants, confirmation marks the first public participation in the liturgical life of the church of their own volition.
But it is often parents, not youth, who articulate the desire for confirmation and motivate engagement in the process. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, society shifted in ways that irrevocably altered the dynamics of the initiation process. During this period, adolescence emerged as a distinct stage, bridging childhood and adulthood. Two factors contributed to this change: the Industrial Revolution, which displaced young people from the work force; and prolonged education, which provided a new social role for youth. From the time of Luther and Calvin until this shift, young people at the age of confirmation were already making significant contributions to the economic well-being of their families. By the time they entered the catechetical class, they were essentially adults.
Fast forward to 21st century, the numerical age of those entering confirmation appears to be the only factor that remains unchanged. An eighth grader, in our society, cannot hold a job and is required to be in school full-time. Adolescence is not promoted, even within the church, as a period of growing responsibility and independence, but one of exploration, self-discovery and social growth. Even faith development theorists describe adolescence as a stage of differentiation from the parent’s faith, not a time to affirm commitment to their nurturing community.
Yet, other voices would argue that the contemporary season of adolescence is a time ripe for theological affirmation. The cognitive development that occurs during this period, involving abstract thinking, self-reflection and identity-formation, appropriates key space for the formation of faith and values. Adolescents see the world beyond their families and homes, ask questions and grapple with hard ideas. The church bears witness to the work of God in the world around them and the church speaks to their questions and doubts through its beliefs and practices.
A Christendom-focused context
Too often, the implicit hope surrounding the young confirmands is for them to stay “in the church.” As culture shifts into a post-Christian context, the church must shift its understanding of discipleship to be both missional and universal.
John Vest, Union Presbyterian Seminary professor and author of “It’s Not Conformation: Confirmation Sermons from the Front Lines of Post-Christendom Youth Ministry,” writes: “If Christendom was the establishment – legal or cultural – of church as a broker of power and influence in Western societies, post-Christendom is the disestablishment and dislocation of church from this position of privilege. Because youth ministry works directly with emerging generations, it is very much on the front lines of this massive cultural shift that is forcing the church to reconsider and redefine its place and sense of mission in the world.”
How then can we enliven and re-imagine the most significant faith experience the church offers these youth on the front lines?
Case study: The Confirmation Project
The Confirmation Project, founded in 2014 and led by Princeton Seminary alumnus Katie Douglass, “seeks to learn the extent to which confirmation practices in five Protestant denominations in North America are effective for strengthening discipleship in youth.” One of its major purposes is “to offer new theological thinking about confirmation and equivalent practices, inviting congregations to think in fresh ways about the nature of Christian discipleship and young people.”
The project has conducted extensive surveys and analyzed the comparative answers between parents, students and leaders. Some questions ask participants to prioritize confirmation goals in categories such as strengthening personal faith, learning more about God and the Bible and learning theology. The Confirmation Project also studies and promotes confirmation curriculum and creates podcasts and other materials that drive the conversation surrounding this topic.
Reflecting on the work of The Confirmation Project, I find that while the challenges to confirmation are real, the conversation remains hopeful. But more particularly, in listening to stories of those who have been confirmed, a theme emerges that differs from the information revealed by historical trends, research or attendance statistics. Repeatedly, when asked to describe their experiences, young and older adults alike speak of quality of time and relationship, not of liturgical memories or educational content.
“I remember getting to go into the pastor’s office.”
“I remember the retreat we went on, just us, with the church staff.”
“I remember my pastor telling us his testimony, of how he felt a call to ministry on his life, even after he had chosen a different career. I remember how he explained it was possible to change directions.”
The stories these confirmation students shared with me provide an alternate script to the struggle over theological clarity, sociological dynamics and church identity. Confirmation, whether intended or not, has become a season, when those whom society mandates unable to offer commitment, responsibility or often the skill of remaining seated while listening have been set apart, lifted up and prioritized by the church, relationally. Echoing the work of Jesus in the Gospels, who continually chose relationship with those possessing the least amount of social capital, perhaps a radical new role of 21st century confirmation then, is to continue to proclaim purpose and importance over these adolescents through unexpected relationships, even as the social economy pushes them to the margins.
Lisa Kimball, a steering team member of The Confirmation Project, writes: “Confirmation is not a sacrament in search of a meaning. It is an opportunity for a life-shaping encounter with the church.” As post-Christian, 21st century digital culture expands the divide between adulthood and childhood, should the church also look for how to be unexpectedly shaped by adolescents? In her book “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass describes the Fourth Great Awakening many believe describes our current religious era:
“The Fourth Great Awakening is not a quest to escape the world. Instead it moves into the heart of the world, facing the challenges head-on to take what is old – failed institutions, scarred landscapes, wearied religious, a wounded planet – and make them workable and humane in the service of the global community. … The hard work is the possibility.”
Who today moves more naturally into the heart of the world than adolescents? As the church grapples with its identity and role in this new era, we might find unexpected leadership in our youth. Confirmation practices should then invite the church to move with adolescents, teaching, supporting and guiding them, even while learning to listen and create space for their reflections from the “front lines” of massive cultural change.
From its earliest inception, confirmation has been influenced by its social location. Confirmation today can become enlivened and re-imagined as a practice, building on its rich history and tradition by emphasizing an atmosphere of mutual discipleship brought forth in the safe and fertile ground of surprising relationships.
Let this practice be a picture of the church that welcomes and affirms our youth, even as they begin to consider their place within the church.
NINA SIMONE is studying Christian education at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.