In the Lutheran Church, as well as other protestant denominations, confirmation is regarded as a pretty big deal. Though not a sacrament like baptism or communion, the act of affirming ones baptism is viewed as a rite of passage and pretty significant milestone in the lives of middle school/early high school-age students.
The year(s) leading up to “Confirmation Day” is the time when students learn about and contemplate their faith tradition in order to own their beliefs and make holy promises that were once made on their behalf years ago when they were washed in the waters of baptism as an infant. Our particular program is three years long, spanning 6th, 7th and 8th grade – aligning with middle school in our county.
When a student enters the confirmation program, there’s a good chance their parent(s) went through confirmation, and their parent(s) went through confirmation, and their parent(s) went through confirmation, and so on, and so forth. This ritual is so steeped in tradition that previously disengaged students and families, some for many, many years, will come out of the woodwork to take part.
In my last congregation, I would #eyeroll when once-absent students and families showed up for confirmation orientation. My general thought was, “If the week-to-week life of the church has meant nothing to them up to this point, why do they even bother with these two years? It’s not like it’s going to make a difference.” I was not positive.
I can’t tell you how or when, but since then, my tune has changed. I know, it’s odd to start out cynical and end up with hope and empathy – outlooks tend to go in the other direction. But after reading time and time again over the past decade about the decline in churches and faith in young adults and at the same time witnessing a consistently strong participation in our confirmation program, I’ve come to realize that these years are too important an opportunity to waste.
As I’ve mentioned, families are already committing to this program. They will commit to coming out every Wednesday evening for two years, or every Sunday morning for three years, or to X-number of retreats over the course of however long so their child can go through this experience. If you’re not leveraging this level of commitment, you’re not only wasting your own time, but you’re doing a big disservice to your families and the students in your care. Before they even enter your program, take some time decide how you’re going to make these years count.
Define Your Take-Aways
What do you want your students to get out of the program? As an ELCA congregation, I need our students to receive all the Lutheran history and small catechism teachings. If I didn’t make sure that was offered, I’d have a lot of angry parents and congregation members wondering what in the world am I doing. Plus, that is all valuable, formative stuff to dissect and understand. But what I want the students to take-away from their time in confirmation looks different from what they need.
With the commitment to confirmation, you have a ability to communicate so much good to your students, as well as their parents. And they’re listening (consistent email is still very effective!)
What are your congregational values? What issues are these students dealing with and how can we provide counsel and space to discuss them? What do your parents need to know about their role in their teen’s faith formation?
My congregation’s mission statement is growing Christ-centered community through life-changing service. We value Christ-centered community as well as serving our neighbor. We are also very intentional about fostering cross-generational relationships, which looks like us finding ways to engage young people in the life of the congregation and equipping families to practice faith in the home. I see confirmation as an opportunity to make sure each of our students experience these values.
Finding ways to thread these values into our confirmation program takes time. And the way your program currently looks may not meet your needs. At my congregation, we believe families worshiping together is very important. However, when confirmation was on Wednesday nights, many families wouldn’t come back on Sunday. Instead of getting upset that they’re not coming to church twice a week, we decided to work with families and their busy schedules. Now confirmation is Sunday mornings, between the early and late worship. Moving to Sunday mornings also opened up a greater pool of adult and high school students to serve in the ministry, increasing the intentional cross-generational relationships. We’re constantly looking for ways to weave our values into the confirmation experience.
Communicate Your Expectations
Once you’ve decided what you want students and families to get out of the program, it’s time to set expectations.
Before confirmation begins in the fall of the 6th grade year, I mail home the expectations in July. Parents then schedule an August at-home visit with a pastor to go over the expectations and take part in a “Blessing for Entry into Confirmation” with the student.
It’s important to put expectations on the program. It may seem like a unnecessary barrier to some, but I repeat, confirmation is not a sacrament. You do not need to be confirmed to worship, to participate in high school youth group, or to be loved by God. Have we had students not participate in confirmation because of our expectations? Not that I’m aware of. We have, however, had a disengaged student decide to commit because the commitments showed that we took this confirmation-thing seriously. And we do!
With expectations, you’ll see many short term-benefits right off the bat. With the right ones, not only can participation strengthen, but so does consistency of participation. I have a feeling some churches without the built-in tradition of confirmation would give an arm and a leg for this kind of buy-in.
If you’re curious, here are our expectations for each student, committed to by each family:
- Worship regularly.
- Participate regularly in Middle School Ministry (MSM), Sunday mornings during the program year. A regular MSM includes 10 minutes of gathering time, a 15-minute lesson, and 30 minutes in small group. During Lent we visit other faith traditions.
- Serve at Coffeehouse once a year with your small group. Coffeehouse volunteers serve dinner for adults with developmental disabilities, generally on the last Friday of each month.
- Attend Confirmation Camp, following either your 6th or 7th grade year.
- Enter into a mentor-mentee relationship. All 8th grade students enrolled in confirmation will be assigned a mentor, based on similar interests, with whom they will meet three times to work toward a shared goal, benefiting the congregation.
- Schedule a conversation with a pastor prior to your Affirmation of Baptism (we treat each student to a smoothie/hot chocolate out at a coffee shop.)
It’s big commitment, but it’s doable. There is no separate middle school youth group, so parents don’t feel like they’re driving to church all the time. We have a Wednesday evening youth choir that meets weekly for those who want to sing and have another evening to be together. We want the confirmation expectation, and youth offerings in general, to be manageable enough that students have the capacity to serve and participate elsewhere in the life of the church.
Make it Worth it
Without a separate middle school youth group, I was told to make sure confirmation was “fun.” Although I make sure we have snacks and some elements of curated fun every Sunday, I believe what confirmation really needed to be was meaningful and worthwhile.
As I mentioned earlier, our confirmation program is three years long and includes the element of small groups. For three years, students meet weekly in their small group with an adult small group leader as well as a high school small group leader. The groups walk together for the entire three year program. The high school leader begins as a 10th grader and ends as graduating 12th grader, when their students are confirmed.
Can you imagine the depth of those Christ-centered relationships after three years together? Even if a student who came out of the woodwork for confirmation left the church after being confirmed, I believe the relationships they built in their small group would leave a lifelong impact. By the end of the three years, discussions around faith and the small catechism get to a level that just cannot be reached through classroom-style information transfer. If confirmation looks and feels just like school, is it worth it?
Define your take-aways, define your expectations, and make confirmation worthwhile. If you’re anything like me, your cynicism will melt away and you’ll find yourself appreciating the tradition, thankful for all the students God has entrusted to your care, and grateful for the parents you get to walk alongside, if only for a season.