As many of you know, I have spent a good deal of my ministry in a variety of settings researching, writing, and advocating for (or against) the rite of Confirmation. It has not that I have been opposed to this sacramental rite in which many have called a “sacrament in search of a meaning,” but that I have been critical of how we (in The Episcopal Church specifically) have been preparing teenagers (and even adults) in making that reaffirmation of their baptismal promises.
When working with congregations and their youth preparing for confirmation, it had been my experience that a majority of the young people were less than enthusiastic about meeting on a regular basis for “preparation” and many were only present because their parents “made them come.” And after receiving the laying-on-of-hands by a bishop, these same young people rarely came back, having finished their formation and requirements to be a “Christian.” And those faith statements that often began with, “I don’t know if I believe in God, but I believe we are supposed to be good people”: The whole moralistic therapeutic deism piece explained in the research of Christian Smith. Isn’t Confirmation supposed to be one’s reaffirmation in the belief that Christ is their Lord and Savior and they will follow him as a disciple for the rest of their life? A tough statement that may not be so developmentally appropriate for a teenager who is still trying to figure out who they are and what they believe.
For the past couple of years the ecumenical Confirmation Project has been studying the aspects of confirmation. Youth, mentors, and parents have been interviewed. Practices and programs have been studied. I’ve been reading all the articles and recommendation that this impressive group representing the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American (ELCA), the United Methodist Church, and the African American Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) continue to share the results of this qualitative research.
- Design: Custom-designed and contextually adaptive confirmation cultivates learning environments where Christian tradition and life experience intersect. These ministries recognized God’s agency, appreciated church tradition, imagined new possibilities, and focused on discipling youth as they drew on available assets, addressed real challenges, and adapted to their context.
- Leadership: Faithful and committed leadership matters and is shared. Valuing its place in a life of discipleship, leadership was committed to confirmation, created a vision for it, and gave their energy to it. Each ministry had a champion spearheading the ministry, often clergy, while at the same time empowering and equipping others to contribute in big and small ways. This created a shared approach where all leaders embodied the vision and sustained the practice.
- Ecology: Confirmation is one aspect of a larger learning, discipleship, and communal whole. It is tending to the needs of the whole person. The family, faith community, and engaging with one’s faith in action in the world impacts the integration of a belief system and a life of faith that goes beyond adolescence.
- Curriculum: Relationships are a key element of the learning environment, more powerful than any printed curriculum. “That research shows that learned spiritual behaviors, such as compassion, forgiveness, or devotion, come from seeing those behaviors modeled by trusted people with whom they have a lasting relationship. This modeling of care for the other, illustrated by mentors in their care for confirmands, also teaches confirmands that we are not independent Christians, but part of an interdependent body of Christ. Christians cannot be followers of Jesus alone.” Kate Siberine states on a post on Building Faith.
In summary, what is the “purpose” of confirmation? To strengthen personal faith.
To learn more, sign up for the weekly report from The Confirmation Project Team or follow on Facebook. Also, download the Winter 2017 special issue of Episcopal Teacher magazine. There are lots of articles within this issue, including “How We Got Here From There” by yours truly that gives an overview of the history of confirmation.
Lastly, to get a more in-depth understanding of the roots of confirmation and best practices from an Episcopal perspective, please pick up (or download to your reader) a copy of Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Theologies of Confirmation for the 21st Century.