How to change the world: Matthew 25 and confirmation

Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

I taught my first confirmation class in 1987. Twenty-five eighth graders explored the Apostles’ Creed for nine months! On Pentecost 1988, all 25 were confirmed. Afterward, all but three fell away. That’s more than a 90% rate of attrition. I’ve heard colleagues share similar stories. For most teenagers, confirmation has become a graduation from church.

My children, Sarah and David, were baptized on January 10, 1988, the same year my confirmation class became registered members of the church. The baptism liturgy spoke of the baptized belonging to Christ and the church — and my children experienced that during their growing up years. They were welcomed to the table, learned stories of faith, gave of themselves in service and enjoyed the warm embrace of the covenant community. They belonged.

My children were active participants in our church, yet neither consented to confirmation when it was “their time.” They were told that confirmation was about joining the church, but it seemed a contradiction. They knew that they had joined the church, members since their baptisms. If they already belonged to the church, why did they have to join a second time? So they sat out confirmation. Still, they continued to participate in the church throughout their teen years, offering their gifts in their unique ways.

My children aren’t the only young people who feel that confirmation doesn’t make sense. Rather than capturing their youthful imaginations with a compelling vision of Christian discipleship, we offer teenage Christians a contradictory message on church membership. Who can blame them for leaving?

Alternatively, consider the vision offered by the movie “Pay It Forward.” On the first day of middle school, teacher Mr. Simonet challenges his students to think of an idea to change the world. The students complain that the assignment is too hard; Simonet replies, “Imagine that it’s possible.” His words inspire 11-year-old Trevor, who devises a plan to pay it forward, a pyramid scheme of good deeds.

Adolescence is the perfect time to challenge teenage church members to a compelling vision of compassion and generosity, a time to take healthy risks – like breaching the boundaries that divide people – in reflective conversations with trusted adults. The Matthew 25 initiative offers the church an opportunity to challenge its youth to change the world.

Imagine Matthew 25:31-40 as a confirmation service. As the nations present themselves before the throne, there is no creed, no profession of faith, no examination of their intellectual grasp of the Bible or church history and no declaration of church membership. The sheep, unaware of having done anything special, are invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). “Inheritance” implies a familial relationship; they already belong. Belonging has somehow resulted in behavior that reflects God’s character — “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

In the ancient church, “confirmation” designated the occasion when the bishop placed his hands on the confirmands’ heads and prayed for their strengthening (Latin confirmatio, “to encourage, strengthen”) in the Holy Spirit. Confirmation in the Matthew 25 church – the laying on of hands, prayer for the Spirit’s gifts, and anointing with oil – strengthens the confirmand’s identity as God’s beloved and vocation as a co-creator of good in the world.

Confirmation inspired by Matthew 25 reaffirms the meaning of baptism in its fullness:

  • Confirmation reminds the baptized and the church that they are already members of the body of Christ marked as God’s own. There is no junior or preparatory membership.
  • Baptism is an ordaining event, the moment of our commissioning to ministry in Christ’s name. Confirmation strengthens the baptized for the call to live not for themselves but for others. Together we are members of a priestly vocation through anointing with oil. We are God’s image-bearing stewards of the goodness and beauty of creation, empowered by the Spirit’s 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 God’s presence.
  • Confirmation reminds the baptized and the church that we are members of a covenantal embrace of mutual encouragement and accountability, strengthening the ties that bind.

Confirmation inspired by Matthew 25 is NOT about:

  • Personal salvation — the confirmands have already been saved by grace through faith.
  • “Joining the church” — people are joined to the church at baptism.
  • A “crash course” in Presbyterianism — there are other, more appropriate venues for such learning.
  • The profession of faith — teenagers do not have to prove they belong to Christ and his church by saying what they believe. They already belong through baptism.

Among the many stories my son David learned at church, “David and Goliath” was his favorite. He learned it in Sunday school and insisted we read it at home. Later, when he was 20 years old, David was diagnosed with cancer. He fought the disease for ten years. During his early treatments, David wrote a blog post about his experience. In it, he reflected on what David and Goliath meant to him, offering him the strength to fight the disease. His pastor read David’s blog post at his memorial service.

David’s church membership gave him a story that strengthened him for his battle. Through that story, David changed the world. He showed me how to embrace life when death lives inside you — by being a friend, offering his help to anyone who needed car repairs, through humor and music. His testimony strengthens me still.

I wrote the curriculum Commissioned to Change the World: Confirmation for the Matthew 25 Congregation with Presbyterian Outlook to offer a compelling vision for young people to join in the church’s ministry because the church offers them spiritual strength for their battles, whatever they may be. In so doing, we will discover our young people changing the world, the world that God loves so.