If you’re a parish priest in the Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran tradition, you’re no doubt quite familiar with the following scenario. Carter and Mckayla— brother and sister— have, within the last few months, turned 13 and 11 years old respectively. Since then, you’ve gotten at least three phone calls from their mother— a stay-at-home-mom and part-time accountant who does women’s roller derby on Saturday nights and shows up sporadically to church. She’s putting gentle but, nonetheless, persistent pressure on you to run a catechism class so that so that her kids can get confirmed as soon as possible. She’s not doing so because she believes that getting confirmed is an indispensable next step to her children’s journey of faith. Rather, she’s doing so because her parents (the grandparents of young Carter and McKayla) are applying pressure on her in a manner that is far less subtle— hounding and nagging her at every weekend barbecue and, in general, making every family reunion miserable.
You know that your Bishop will be touring the region sometime within the next few weeks and is scheduled to hold a confirmation service at a neighbouring parish. So, with this looming deadline in mind, you hastily throw together a crash course in Christianity, stripping the curriculum down to its very bare bones, and— for the next few Thursday nights— inflict it upon a group of five or six, bleary eyed adolescents who would rather be anywhere than in a church basement, listening to you drone on about the definition of a sacrament. In the end, the Bishop shows up and performs some quaint, archaic ritual that most involved barely understand. The boys wear ugly ties and the girls wear dresses that their grandmas have picked out; photographs are taken; the obligatory ham and egg-salad sandwiches are served followed by cake. And, after that night, you never see Carter, McKayla or their parents again. (At least, not in church, anyway). Sadly, this is what confirmation has become.
But imagine if this weren’t the case. Imagine if the rite of confirmation— along with the necessary preparatory classes that precede it— did not mark the end of a young person’s life with Jesus but, rather, a fresh new beginning to it? Imagine if confirmation resulted in— not more empty pews— but a lifelong, life-giving involvement in the ongoing mission of the church community? No doubt, this beautiful ideal is lightyears removed from the all-too typical scenario laid out above. The question is: How do we end up so tragically missing the mark? That’s what I’d like to explore further in this post.
Failure 1: Forced Confessions
In my opinion, our first tragic mistake is this: we make confirmation into something that we force upon our children, literally against their will. The absurdity of this is highlighted when we consider what confirmation actually is— a rite which involves a Christian’s personal confirmation of her baptismal vows. During the ceremony, the candidate is required to state publicly that she believes in the central tenets of the Christian faith as laid out in the Apostle’s Creed and that she will— having carefully counted the cost— follow Jesus as one of his disciples. Needless to say, to force such a confession out of a child borders on cruelty. In one confirmation class that I ran, the parents actually told their atheist daughter that unless she went ahead with the ceremony— publicly professing a faith that she did personally believe— the family would not be going to Disney Land that spring! Of course, that’s a far cry from the tactics employed by Spanish Inquisitors but just think of how much it belittles, not only the rite itself, but the integrity of the child.
Before I begin a series of confirmation classes, I make sure to meet with each of the candidates with their parents present to explain the following: “Yes, your mom and dad can make you do all sorts of things that you don’t like— including going to confirmation classes. However, they cannot make you get confirmed. Getting confirmed involves publicly stating that you (not your parents!) believe in the core teachings of the Christian faith and that you (not your parents!) intent to follow Jesus as his disciple. If this decision is forced upon you, then it is not a true decision.”
Failure 2: Cutting Corners on the Catechism
Secondly— out of a combination of both laziness and expediency— we fail to offer confirmation classes that are rich, thorough and engaging. After all, there are so many pressing demands, not only in the ministry of a parish priest, but in the lives of the average twenty-first-century teen. With all of these competing demands, the temptation is to cut corners on catechism— scaling down a program that ought to be at least six months long to just six weeks. The result is a presentation of the Christian faith that is superficial, patchy and incomplete. With such a shallow grasp of gospel, we then toss the kids out into the most secular civilization the world has ever produced, expecting them somehow to retain some semblance of a Christian identity. In my opinion, that’s comparable to teaching a kid how to do the doggy-paddle in a backyard swimming pool and then throwing him into the North Atlantic expecting him to swim.
Instead, our confirmation classes need to be biblically and theologically rich, emotionally and intellectually engaging and— above all else— relevant to the complex life of a twenty-first century adolescent. It should cover the broad and colourful scope of salvation history— from the creation of the cosmos out of nothing to the healing, redemption and restoration of all things. It should involve a passionate wrestling with the word of God. Don’t just read them the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers. Give them scripts and costumes and have them act it out. Don’t just talk about the Jews as God’s chosen people. Attend sabbath prayers at the local synagogue and have the Rabbi offer a tour. Don’t just tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Take them to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter and have them live it out. Make the word of God come alive for them. And, most of important of all, do all within your power to bring them into a meaningful, life changing encounter with Christ. Needless to say, all of this can’t be accomplished in just six weeks. The adult teachers of the confirmation class need to invest months into this process.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason why the priests themselves must design the curriculum and teach the class. If they aren’t gifted in teaching; if they’re not able to relate to adolescents; if their pastoral responsibilities prevent them from investing the necessary time and energy into the catechism, they need to delegate the ministry to a team of competent laypeople. There are all sorts of adults in our churches who, with a bit of training and permission, could thrive in a ministry such as this. They need to be trusted and given the chance.
Failure Three: Not Building Mentoring Relationships
Our third and, perhaps, greatest failure is this: We have not used confirmation class as a means for building trusting mentoring relationships with the young members of our churches.
Again, this involves a significant investment of time. It takes time out of each confirmation class to chat with the candidates, giving them the freedom and the space to talk about whatever it is that happens to be on their mind. How does Matt feel about getting cut from the hockey team? What does Adam think about the new Avengers movie? How has Kayla been coping since her father got that job out west? When kids feel free to talk to you about their lives— from their trivial interests to their deepest hopes and fears— then they also feel free to talk to you about their true beliefs regarding God and Jesus, heaven and hell. They learn to trust you and trust is what healthy relationships are all about.
These relationships are what ultimately bring young people back to church after the date of the confirmation itself has has come and gone— the sense of fellowship and camaraderie with their peers; the sense of being loved and accepted by their mentors; the sense (however vague and ill-defined) that the Holy Spirit is somehow present in this community, working in the hearts of everyone involved. This is what encourages somebody— youth or adult— to remain engaged in the ongoing life of a church community, following in the footsteps of the Master.
By Terence Chandra