Richard R. Osmer and Katherine M. Douglass, editors
Eerdmans, 208 pages
Reviewed by Katherine A. Stanford
What are we doing to help form the faith of our young people? Posed by the multidenominational Confirmation Project, this question has challenged parents, youth and leaders for decades. Having journeyed with confirmation classes over the past dozen years as they wrestled with the big faith questions (Who is God? What does it mean to follow Jesus? Why do I want join the church?) I was inspired by the authors’ insights to do some outside-the-box thinking about the ways in which our church strengthens the faith of young people through the confirmation process. The book affirms that the “custom-designed and contextually adaptive” confirmation ministries they studied were especially meaningful. All shared the ability to appreciate and honor church tradition while imagining new possibilities and encouraging discipleship amid their students’ everyday challenges.
“Cultivating Teen Faith” makes clear the Confirmation Project’s researchers were not out to offer up new lesson plans or the latest methods for bonding with youth over s’mores in the woods. Instead they synthesized practical theologies and flourishing practices, observing that the “exuberant life we saw on display in confirmation programs across the United States and the inertia that weighs down many American congregations on Sunday mornings almost defy comparison.” Youth, parents and pastors across five mainline Protestant denominations supplied 7,000 responses to a national survey and the research team visited 24 congregational and camp confirmation programs already identified as effective by their denominations (African Methodist Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and United Methodist Church).
The researchers focused on a youth faith commitment they identified as “believing, behaving and belonging,” supporting their findings with some illuminating tables and graphs sprinkled throughout. One chart represents the differences in the “top 10 most important topics among parents, leaders and youth” (spoiler alert: teens are more interested in learning about God/the Trinity while their parents and leaders emphasized the sacraments). Another graph identifies faith in the home as the single most impactful predictor of flourishing teen belief. “The Role of Families in Faith Formation” chapter surprised me by offering a helpful sample letter leaders might share with parents as they embark on the confirmation process with their youth, a sort of inspirational manifesto for worried or wearied families: Be brave, share your faith story, pray with your child. I shared part of “Building Deep Relationships That Matter” with our church’s confirmation mentors: “Our findings are clear that most young people are not looking for new friends. They are looking for faith, and they value the mentor relationships that help them understand the relevance of faith in their lives.” Amen to that.
“Cultivating Teen Faith” offers a joyful confirmation of the myriad ways in which faith communities are strengthening our young people’s yearnings to grow closer to God. The editors note: “The word confirm comes from two Latin roots: firmare, ‘to make strong or steadfast,’ and con, ‘together.’ In other words, confirmation means ‘to make strong or steadfast, together.’ We can work with that.” We can, and we should. In a world that so often entices teens to conform to peer or parental expectations, the Confirmation Project affirms that the practice of confirmation matters — it actually strengthens young people’s faith in God. And what could be more hopeful for the future of the church than that?
KATHERINE A. STANFORD is associate pastor of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia.