It can be incredibly powerful to think of confirmation for the young people in our congregations as a rite of passage – a year of transition, a year of becoming something new, a year of shaping and living into their identity as an adult believer in Jesus Christ.
The problem with relying solely on that image is that it can mean a congregation expects students to experience confirmation in isolation — venturing into the wilderness of faith, emerging wizened in the ways of faith expression and ready to take their place as an adult member of the church. And yet after their joining the church as adult members, we exile them back to youth group and Sunday school as if they are still not quite yet ready to participate in the full life of the congregation.
It’s not atypical for a congregation to wait with fevered anticipation for Confirmation Sunday when they get a first glimpse of these newly created church members, trying earnestly to see if they can sense or see in them a sign of the change that they have undergone in the past year.
The “rite of passage” image is helpful in thinking of the responsibility of the congregation in the lifelong journey of young people in our churches in that it reminds us that much of what they bring to their confirmation year has been given to them by their congregation, and much of how they live into their new life as adult members of the church will be nurtured and empowered by the congregation.
But it is just as important to pay attention to the ways that the congregation can be an active part of this passage from one role to the next. It is a transition that happens best not in isolation, but in constant engagement with a community of faith.
A connected church
Over the past several months as we have been shaping new confirmation curriculum for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we have recognized that this year of formation is also a year of discernment and a year of connection. How can we help young people and their congregations grow closer together during this process? Being Presbyterian means being connected, and so the curriculum dedicates time and resources to engage the larger congregation in the confirmation year. It also provides students with opportunities to learn and explore the story of the particular congregation they will join and its witness in the world.
Before we share some of the ways that we have found success in bringing the congregation to the classroom and the classroom to the congregation, it is important to remember that confirmation may be a yearlong process (or less), but the relationship between a student and her congregation typically starts years before.
If confirmation is about transitioning from one way of being part of the church to a new way of being part of the church, we remember that any time a child is baptized in the church, the whole congregation promises to help teach this identity to this child:
Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ,
promise to guide and nurture this child by word and deed,
with love and prayer, encouraging him/her to know and follow Christ
and to be a faithful member of his church?
These promises have inspired generations of Sunday school teachers who cite their promise to nurture children in the faith at the moment of their baptism as their motivation for teaching these same children Sunday after Sunday. But of course we know that children are nurtured in their understanding of faithful membership just as much in the “un-curriculumed” life of the congregation as they are in the classroom. Children learn the compassion of membership when their family is visited by a deacon during a time of crisis or illness. A child learns about the importance of stewardship when he helps his parent usher at worship and collect the morning offering. A child learns about mission in the ways we describe our mission partners and the issues we engage. Children learn hospitality in the way they are welcomed at fellowship events and in worship.
A portion of our baptismal liturgy calls on the congregation to “remember” our own baptisms in the celebration of the sacrament as a moment to reconnect with our own baptismal identity. Wouldn’t it be similarly powerful to include time in the liturgy of confirmation to call upon the congregation to remember the day they promised to raise these young people in the faith, giving thanks for the ways that nurture has led them to this day?
Students need to know that the congregation is invested in them and that they are valued and have purpose in the larger body. During one confirmation class, Rachel asked whether the students knew if they had been baptized. Most of them knew, one was confused by the question and one shrugged. “I don’t remember. How would I even know?” Rachel made a note to check the church’s records, but of the confirmation mentors jumped in, “I know you were baptized.” The student looked incredulous. “How?” “I was there,” she answered. “I asked the congregation if they would love and nurture you. Why do you think I’m here today?”
Once the confirmation year begins, the most essential way that the life and character of the congregation is brought into the classroom is through the engagement of the students’ mentors. Pairing students with adult mentors for confirmation is one of the hallmarks of Presbyterian confirmation, yet in most churches mentors are not used to their full potential.
In some respects, the most valuable way to think of mentors is as an expanded teaching team for confirmation. Too often the mentor relationship is merely tangential to what is covered in the classroom. Maybe one homework assignment involves interviewing one’s mentor. Maybe for one activity, mentors are invited along for a fieldtrip or project. But really, mentors can serve as a consistent conversation partner with students throughout their confirmation experience. Students can use weekly conversations with their mentors to process and interpret the material learned in the classroom. Mentors can provide a real-life context for topical conversations about Scripture and membership. Parents can rely on mentors to help be mindful of any adaptive work that is being done for students who need their confirmation experience tailored to their needs.
Often when choosing a student’s mentor we think thoughtfully about the ways that a mentor fits the needs of a student and has the potential to challenge or stretch a student in a particular way. But it can be just as helpful when looking at the full team of mentors for a confirmation class to make sure that the whole group of mentors represents the fullness of your congregation and provides opportunities in the classroom for students to be exposed to a variety of faith and life expressions within your community. This helps students imagine different ways to be part of the church.
A meaningful context
We have come to expect that good confirmation curriculum will teach students about how we worship as Presbyterians, our history as part of the Reformed tradition, the ways that we hold one another accountable and build the church together through our polity, as well as the ways Presbyterians reach out into the world in compassion.
But when we cover these topics and teach these lessons void of the local church context in which students have been nurtured and in which they will commit their membership, we can turn them into little seminarians aghast at the ways their church might not be exactly following the “rules” of worship or our tradition. Moreover, such an approach ignores and fails to value the experiences and the contextual knowledge many of our students bring to confirmation.
While a good curriculum will cover these topics, a good confirmation experience gives students an opportunity to explore how and why these traditions and values are lived out in your own congregation.
How do we connect the theory with practice? Bring current worship bulletins into the classroom and discuss not just about the meaning of the sacraments but the meaning behind why your community celebrates the sacraments the way it does. Tell the stories of John Calvin or John Witherspoon, but also share stories of the men and women who founded and built your own congregation and the ways their vision shaped who you are as a church today. Look at a map of where Presbyterians are at work in the world, but also look at a map that shows where your congregation is engaged in mission in your local community.
A good confirmation experience both helps students see themselves as part of a larger national and global church as well as an essential part of their local church.
So if these are some of the ways we bring the life of the congregation into the classroom, how do we bring what it going on in the classroom into the life of the congregation? The possibilities for this are unlimited, and for each congregation it might look a little different. Key to any of these is intentionality.
Here are some ideas:
- Find members of the congregation who are willing to intentionally keep your confirmation students in prayer over the course of their study and exploration. Intentionally mention them in your congregation’s life of prayer, whether in worship, Bible studies, small group gatherings and even youth group, asking students to be in prayer for each other.
- Intentionally invite students to take an active role in worship leadership throughout their study – and not just on Confirmation Sunday. Confirmation students can be invited to light Advent candles, assist in home communion that is taken out to members or read Scripture in worship once a month.
- Provide opportunities for the work that students do in the classroom to be shared intentionally with the congregation. Articles for newsletters can update the church on what is happening in the classroom. If a lesson calls for the group to write a prayer together, work that prayer into a subsequent worship service. A church could even give a confirmation class a bulletin board in the building where they can consistently provide updates to what they are learning and how they are progressing in their work.
- Consider ways that confirmation students can have an upfront seat for the governing and decision-making of your congregation. Invite them to attend a session meeting – and not just the one at which they are examined for membership. Give students responsibilities during congregational meetings – as vote counters, resource distributors or report makers, and invite them to lead the congregation in prayer.
In all of these examples, students learn that their voice counts within the congregation.
Planning for membership
At the start of each confirmation class, Rebecca would ask her students to share something that they were most looking forward to after their confirmation. Again and again students shared that they were looking forward to the moment in worship when they could check the “member” box in the attendance pad in the pew. While this is a charming thing to say, too often this is the limit of how we find ways to engage confirmation students as new members after they have been confirmed.
When churches welcome adults as new members, we often pepper them with opportunities in the church. Do we extend the same enthusiasm to our youth? Work with your committees, church leaders and volunteers to imagine places, projects and even committees where your confirmation students can live out their membership vows. Before they are confirmed, help students discern four or five things they would like to try in the life of the church. Help them schedule at least one thing in the month immediately following confirmation.
While thinking of confirmation as a rite of passage may work well for an individual student and her classmates, a more appropriate image for the congregation is that of a cycle — not the life cycle of the individual students, but the cycle of the congregation. Every congregation who wants to be an active part of the transformation of confirmation should at all times be engaged in the work of nurturing faith in their children, intentionally contributing to and being open to the real work being done in the confirmation classroom, and consistently practice the work of hospitality and grace that comes with welcoming new members to the work of the congregation.
Rebecca Kirkpatrick is associate pastor for adult education and mission and Rachel Pedersen is associate pastor for children and families, both at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Together they are writing “Big God, Big Questions,“ the new confirmation curriculum for the PC(USA), which will be released in the fall of 2018.