In my first year as a youth pastor, I was handed a dusty old curriculum that I’m fairly certain had been around when I went through confirmation myself. The pastor simply said, “Teach them what it means to be a Methodist.” I had nine months, not including holiday weekends, school vacations, or important nationally televised football games, to make this happen.
The experience wasn’t great for me or, more importantly, the students. The curriculum didn’t help, of course. Neither did my rookie youth pastor ineptness. But the biggest issue was that neither I nor the congregation had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve with our confirmation program. Was it a one-time event akin to a graduation or were we readying the students for a lifetime of faith? When June came around, I was relieved. We’d checked off a major box on the church to-do list—with both a cake and pictures in the newsletter to prove it! And yet I was already anxious about the coming September, when everything would reset and I would once again have to plop a generic worksheet in front of my students and say, “Okay, so we’re Methodists….
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that confirmation in The United Methodist Church is hit or miss. Some churches have vibrant, multi-year programs that act as a flagship for the rest of the youth ministry. Others are in the same boat I was in. UMC churches run programs lasting anywhere from nine months to a single weekend. Across the board, budget and resources are limited. I get it—I’ve lived it! But we’ve let money and staff turn confirmation into an assembly line that we use to confirm students year after year without ever really asking why we’re doing it. And if we don’t have a clear answer to this question, how can our students ever hope to passionately articulate their own faith
As Methodists, the intentional focus on personal accountability and discipleship is in our DNA. As a result, confirmation is the opportunity for students to affirm their baptism, join the work of the church, and make a public commitment to their continuing life of faith. We’re asking students to take time—whether a weekend or a year—out of their lives to deeply consider what it means to claim the name Christian. And when we make it cursory and rote, we lose the power of having middle schoolers stand up and publicly embrace the calling to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Making confirmation a meaningful part of our youth programs takes both courage and intention. While there are likely hundreds of ways to do this, let me offer three.
First, we can’t be afraid of student faith formation. They have real questions and a genuine desire for their faith to mean something. We do them a huge disservice if we pander to those questions with pre-formulated answers or limit their ability to ask them in the first place. Yes, we might not know the answers. And that might be okay with our students.
Second, we have to make confirmation a priority in our ministries. Or, taking it a step further, we have to make it the priority of our ministry. What would it look like to use confirmation as the entry way into our ministries? What if we stopped all the flashy programs meant to attract students, put all of our cards on the table, and said: “This is where we start.” Of course, doing so will fly in the face of what some parents and even some pastors consider to be effective ministry. But confirmation is the bones of what your students need to actually engage in all of those other parts of ministry in meaningful ways.
Finally, confirmation has to be more than just a short-term program. It has to stretch its way into all other parts of our youth programming. Maybe that means yearly post-confirmation classes or reunions. Or maybe it’s something as simple as confirmation refreshers–mini-lesson blocks that remind students of not only our distinct Methodist heritage, but also our calling as Christians. Maybe it’s including older students as mentors for current confirmands. All of this reinforces the idea that confirmation is not the end of something, it’s the beginning.
When speak the words of baptism, we promise to surround our young people with a community of love and forgiveness so that they may grow in their trust of God. Doing confirmation well is one of the many ways we keep that promise.