A history of confirmation
In the early church, adult converts entered the catechumenate, a sometimes-three-year period of instruction. The culmination of this initiation was the new Christian’s baptism and first communion. At this service, a bishop representing the church universal placed hands on the convert and prayed for their strengthening in the Holy Spirit. Hence the name: In Latin, confirmatio means “to encourage, strengthen.”
Over time, infant baptism became the norm. And bishops could not always be present at all baptisms, which would sometimes delay confirmation by years. So, Protestant Reformers repurposed confirmation as a non-sacramental instructional period before church members’ first communion. Adolescents who learned the church’s creeds and professed faith were welcome to partake in the Lord’s Table. This pattern, known as “communicant’s class,” persisted into the 20th century. The significance of the laying on of hands and prayer for strengthening receded.
In the 1970s, churches recognized Holy Baptism as the fundamental rite of membership. All baptized persons were invited to the Table regardless of age. Confirmation, no longer preparation for communion, became a time for adolescents to “confirm” their baptisms and become active members of the church.
The problem with modern confirmation
Most confirmation-age youth who have grown up in the church are some of their congregation’s most active members, participating in Sunday school, children’s choirs, VBS and more. They regularly profess the church’s faith when they join in the Lord’s Supper or reaffirm their baptismal covenant. To claim that youth become active members of the church during confirmation discounts their sense of belonging and frames confirmation as an ending rather than a beginning.
Psychologists, sociologists and brain researchers repeatedly tell us that adolescence is not a time for making lifelong decisions and commitments. It is a time for trying on different identities and practicing decision-making. Teenagers need safe spaces and a community of support and encouragement as they grow into mature faith. In other words, they need the kind of community signified in the “Laying on of Hands” prayer found in “The Book of Common Worship:”
O Lord, uphold your servants by your Holy Spirit.
Daily increase [strengthen] in them your gifts of grace:
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,
the Spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.
Perhaps, rather than trying to engender a sense of responsibility in youth and meeting the church’s membership needs, we could meet our teenagers where they are. At the time when teenagers are just beginning to explore their identities, perhaps the church could seek to embrace them as they are and confirm them in their God-given identities! Young people are made in the image of God, a gift of grace, their foundational identities.
When we remind people of their identity as the beloved of God, we offer not only comfort, not only acceptance but a vocation. All human beings are created by a God who intends good (Genesis 1:27). We are God’s image-bearing stewards of the goodness and beauty of creation. When we shift the focus of confirmation away from institutional membership and towards God-given identity and purpose, confirmation can become an exploration of what it means to be a responsible world citizen.
Confirming young people in their God-given identities and vocations does not magically happen during a single worship service. Development of character takes time with space and permission to fail and succeed. This support is two-fold: through prayer and a mentor-sponsor relationship. The covenant community holds them close and holds them accountable as they grow into their God-given identities and vocations.
A Proposal: Transform Confirmation from “Graduation” to “Commencement”
1. Celebrate the commencement of adolescence with the laying on of hands and the prayer for strengthening in the Spirit. Youth need wisdom and courage to endure adolescence. They need to practice making wise choices. They also need to practice generosity and sharing the gospel by small acts of service. They need help choosing friends, ones who will support them in faithful living. They need encouragement to risk the acceptance of their peers for their morals.
The minister and mentor/sponsors lay hands on the confirmands’ heads, the symbolic place of wisdom. The hand on the head provides us with the sense of being strengthened by another’s touch. A bond is made; the Spirit in one touches the Spirit in the other. Laying on of hands and anointing with oil are ways the church says we are with them and for them.
2. Remove the “question and answer” profession of faith from confirmation. The public profession of faith binds institutional membership to confirmation, which is problematic given the primary role of baptism for membership. In recent years, the profession at puberty has become a forced exercise in expressing personal faith, often with no semblance to the historic faith.
There are other options for inviting the baptized to make a public profession. During middle childhood, the impulse to belong is vital. (Calvin thought ten years old was an appropriate age.) Later in life, the church member may profess faith upon the occasion of growth in faith maturity or particular service in Christ’s name. Additionally, the interrogatories are always appropriate for the corporate renewal of the baptismal covenant and at adult baptisms.
3. Transform the confirmation class into regular training sessions for mentors/sponsors. They represent the congregation in establishing a sustained relationship of prayer and support with the youth.
I do not discount the importance of education in the faith for teenagers. However, by emphasizing pastoral concerns in training the confirmands, confirmation no longer needs to bear the weight of a crash course in Christianity.
4. Host a weekend retreat for the confirmands and their mentor/sponsors to kick off the confirmation process. This gathering focuses on introducing the youth/mentor pairs, defining confirmation as prayer and community support, and encouraging the pairs to covenant together. (I have written a retreat for the Presbyterian Church Camps and Conferences Association and Presbyterian Mission Agency that accomplishes these three tasks.)
5. Establish regular meetings between the mentor/sponsors and confirmands during adolescence. Make these occasions a prayerful time of listening and empathizing with the confirmand. Periodically review the quality of your connection and determine the future of your relationship. You could also gather all confirmands and mentor/sponsors quarterly for group building, Bible study and assessing the church’s relationship to the dominant culture. Perhaps young people will want to profess their faith to respond to their experience with their mentor/sponsors.
I believe this reimaging of confirmation ministry would celebrate the lives and gifts of young people as they enter adolescence, provide a constant, prayerful and nurturing connection with the church through the mentor/sponsor and allow congregations to give better focus to the role and purpose of the public profession of faith.
And who knows? It may also stem the tide of teenagers “graduating” from the church.