Confirmation: your youth ministry’s malformed, misunderstood poke at faith formation

cross-of-candlesAsk in the right circles away from the hubbub of the youth room and you’ll quickly learn a simple truth about the confirmation process in Methodist youth ministry: no single effort carries more weight in the spiritual life of a UM youth. It’s where they’re outfitted for life, carefully and painstakingly trained for the journey ahead. It’s what it’s all about in a lot of cases. Here we shine.

That’s probably why across Methodism there’s such a clear understanding of what that process looks like in the local church. What it means. Who leads it. Equally sarcastic fourth descriptor. You get the idea.

Many if not most churches are making this up as they go. Does it need to be clergy led? What materials do we use? Are we supposed to make up our own? When is it supposed to take place, and for how long? And what does “confirmed” mean, anyway? Is that just a fancy way of saying that they’re joining the church? Or making a profession of faith? Most churches eventually arrive at some version of their own answers to all of these questions; at the end of the day, somebody cares about it enough to mash it into definition.

At my own church we’re still getting our heads around it. When I came on at my church confirmation was on pause, having taken a year off due to genuinely more pressing matters in the life of this local congregation. Most confirmation program efforts I’ve observed or talked with other youthworkers about come down to some blend of how-we’ve-always-done-it, what the current pastor thinks is important (if anything), and whatever opinion the youthworker might bring (if any). With two out of those three being brand new voices in the conversation (the pastor & I were in our first months at the church) and having come from a church with a relatively weak background in confirmation, I contacted the previous senior pastor here for some background on how-we’ve-always-done-it. There I found some surprisingly refreshing advice on how to proceed. He said, “Kevin, I could walk you through everything we did and why, but in a lot of ways you’ll be chasing ghosts that don’t matter. The most important thing you can do in your confirmation process is to do everything on purpose.” On purpose. On purpose is different than right or even well. On purpose gives room for trial-and-error, room for making a mess to find a few treasures.

So we blew it up.

One thing I’d never liked about confirmation in general was the feeling that some families seemed to think they were getting their kids “stamped” for the kingdom. When does it start, when is it over, when does grandma need to show up and dab at the corners of her eyes with a tissue as Sally gets baptized (or accepts the baptism of her infancy, if she’s a lifer). Many families would emerge from the woodwork for this time and then vanish again as soon as their kid had completed the important bit of business known as confirmation. It’s always troubled me that in a denomination forever emphasizing journey and relationship through grace and community our confirmation efforts seem to have such a distinct beginning and ending. Here we begin, here we end; I hope you got it, because we won’t mention it again.

So we’ve stretched our process over three years, and that’s where things get a little weird. What is confirmation? Is it the education that leads to or edifies a profession of faith? Is it the moment of joining the church? And when do the Methodist Men get to give out bibles in a 3 year process?

For our purposes, we’ve stopped asking that question and, in the spirit of on purpose, have begun addressing things like this: each year of middle school for 6 weeks in the spring, our youth will experience an intentional discipleship effort guided by the official UMC confirmation resource Credo (not a commercial; just telling you what we’re using) in 2-hour sessions on Sunday night. Through individual conversations then and throughout the year, we will work to come alongside our youth in their spiritual journey. At whatever point a youth is ready to make a profession of faith, they will be encouraged to do so publicly before the congregation and enter into that beautiful covenant relationship of community. If they make a decision during the six weeks of confirmation, we’ll celebrate with them at Easter, our traditional confirmation Sunday. Any who have made professions of faith previously in the year will return on Easter to be held before the church again. If any wish to join the church (or their families with them), that will also take place. Oh, and the Methodist Men will give a bible to any youth beginning our confirmation process–that just makes more sense to me anyway.

This year we’re also adding a camping trip that serves as a confirmation retreat–open to middle & high school youth, reemphasizing the importance of community in faith development and making sure that we don’t let a middle school process be the end of that kind of intentional conversation. Sure, spreading out our confirmation process over three years has created some wrinkles. But we’re doing it on purpose. Even if we can’t tell you what confirmation is.

How does your church process confirmation? What do you love about it? What concerns you?

Peace,
K

5 comments

  1. This is a great article and I really like the intentional and serious manner in which you approach confirmation. We are in the process of stretching ours out to a two year process. Best of luck with what you are doing.

  2. I personally have loved developing the confirmation process here at my church. This was a whole brand new concept for me because most of my experiences have been in the evangelical churches that have never offered this. (Looking back, I remember thinking – We need to create more intentional “rights-of-passages” for this teens instead of the “hit-or-miss” approach. Little did I know my mainline counterparts had this figured out a long time ago.) I saw this as an opportunity to develop an intentional “right-of-passage” to bring my new 7th graders into the life of the church. It has really worked well. The class itself has evolved quite a bit over the years. Right now we have a class that meets on Wednesdays for a year (November-April). We also do 3 retreats. Each of the confirmands have an adult mentor who is not family related. The classes involve a lot of YouTube videos that pertain to the topic being discussed, powerpoint, 7 quizzes, worksheets, and daily Bible reading. We have also developed an on-line course so if they have to miss the class for sports or homework they can just make it up on line. This year I developed parent discussion guides and mentor discussion guides so that they can have intentional spiritual conversations that are designed for each topic being discussed.

    I can see how this can be seen in a negative light as an old tradition that is dying out. But I would encourage you to look at it with a fresh perspective and start from scratch. What would your confirmation class look like if you could make a 21st century class that would communicate to teens with the tools and technology that they are most familiar with? It is fun when you look at it in a new light. Feel free to contact me if you would like to talk more about what we do here.

  3. We offer confirmation classes to our middle school youth (grades 7/8) every other year. We offer it in 3 retreats and a few field trips, and a mentor outside thier immediate family to walk along side of them….We try to offer relevant and real wyas for the youth to apply what they learn to their lives. We use movies to show them concepts in ways they can connect to….each confirmation class brings a new set of movies because each class is different.

    Retreat 1: Focus: God, Christ, Holy Spirit, and Church
    Retreat 2: Our EUB heritage (we are a former EUB congregation so that is important here) and Spiritual Disiciplines

    The first 2 are held at church….

    Retreat 3: Confirmation class trip to Georgia…. we visit the MLK Jr Center (and talk about UM participation in social justice issues” and then head to Savannah to see where John and Charles Wesley did minsitry ( and talk about the church’s part in aboloshing slavery/ splits in the the church because of it,etc) and then head to St. Simon’s Island to Epworth by the Sea and Fort Fredericka, and Christ’s Church to learn more about the Wesleys and expereince the UM Museum at Epworth.

    This approach has been so life changing for the kids that they have asked to participate in the Georgia Trip again so this year we are adding a “reaffirmation” piece to the trip for them.

    The mentors participate in the Spritual Disciplines retreat, our field trips (messianic synogogue, and religious art exhibit trip) as well as study the confirmad’s chosen Bible Verse and attend worship elsewhere with the kids to gain perspective on the UM church in relationship to other denominations…..

    All in all, I feel that we give students enough information and experience that they can confidently stand up and affirm their baptism, or to say No, I’m not there yet!

  4. Confirmation at Soapstone UMC is offered to students in the 7th or 8th grade. We stress to families that this is just the beginning of a journey for life long learning in the church and that students should sign up when they are ready (not when the parents want them to participate). We hold a confirmation Sunday school class during the traditional school year where we use the Credo curriuclum with a blend of other experiences – our worship director teaches the seasons of the Christian year, we teach about our worship service and the students create their own service coplete with bulletin, and a church member with an MDiv teaches Bible history. Students are also asked to attend a fall retreat where we spend time on group devleopment and curriculum through small group work and then we hold a Confirm weekend at our church with other churches from our conference. here the Foundation for Christian Formation leadership team teaches the vows of church membership and students get to connect with other youth from across our conference learning about the United Methodist Connection. We also hold a field trip in the fall to a jewish synagogue where they attend a worship service and meet with a Rabbi to learn about our Old Testament roots. We host a group service project and each family is asked to do a family service project in the communtiy. On top of these two service projects each student is asked to offer 5 service hours to our church through ushering, working in the nursery, helping in the church offices, etc… Our one downfall is that since we changed our ministry to this format less of our students are connecting in other ways to our overall youth ministry. That is something we are currently reviewing.

  5. Thanks for reporting this article. We do ours with 6th graders over a school year during Sunday School. We use the Credo material plus the Re:form material. We also include extra times of retreat, mission, worship learnings and a four week emphasis on what we can learn from other religions and how to look at interfaith ministry.

    Two new things we are putting into place- group mentors. 2 adults having a small group of 4-5 confirmands and mentoring the group. And adding in a 6 week component to the 7-12 grade curriculum to discuss again and talk more about some of the major components of confirmation as they get older.

    We will see how it works!

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