Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Kicking the Tires of Confirmation

I love – love – teaching confirmation.  Aside from typical middle school stuff – boys who haven’t learned to settle down and stop poking each other, girls who huddle in the bathroom mocking/liking the boys, the occasional forgotten assignment or lost Small Catechism, I’d put these kiddos up against almost any other confirmation class in the country.  When they decide to be thoughtful and attentive, they really are. They can condemn heresy (“Who’d want to be a Zwinglian? Is means is!”) or tell you about righteousness (“believing God not being good”), they ask great, mostly-on-topic questions, and on the whole, they are really just fabulous.  

I love teaching this age, because they’re actually hungry to learn – because it’s me in the classroom with 6 or 8 or 10 of them, and sometimes, once in a while, we have a moment where something just “clicks” for someone, and you can see it.  Their eyes light up, and there’s a second of recognition that this stuff is really real, and it’s really cool.  

I love confirmation because the kids care about one another.  Sure, there’s the requisite teasing and silliness, but at the end of the night, they’ll remember what was said an hour ago, and pray for one another.  They’re great.  

But I still feel like we’re missing something.  I expend a lot of energy trying to tell parents (and kids) that confirmation is not, not, NOT about checking items off a to-do list, or earning enough points to “graduate”.  Confirmation is not a sacrament, and being confirmed, or not, doesn’t make you a Christian, or not.  I try to plan the whole curriculum, and teach each class, around the idea that confirmation is about growing closer to God, about being able to say “yes” to the faith that they’ve been raised in, to “get it” in some perhaps small, but at least somewhat meaningful, way.  Which is why I still have “requirements”.  Even though confirmation isn’t about earning the right to graduate, I’m pretty comfortable saying that if kids aren’t in worship, if they aren’t learning – and practicing – how to pay attention in worship, if they aren’t figuring out how to lead devotions for the group, or taking time to love their neighbors, if they aren’t reflecting on what they’ve learned in class or worship, then it’s going to be pretty darn hard to have a substantial relationship with God.  We believe in a God who is incarnational – a God who came down here to earth and was a real, honest-to-goodness human being.  Who did and said certain specific things.  Who calls us into a relationship with him on the basis of his sacrifice, but who deepens and sustains that relationship over time by engagement with the means of grace, by a desire to “read, mark, and inwardly digest” his Word, by living as a follower and disciple of that God.  

This is what I want my kids to get.  This is what I want them to know.  This is the life I want them to have, even though none of us do it perfectly, and none of us is without sin.  I want them to know that forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation is for real – those promises at their baptism really did “take”, but that there’s more to it than that – or that there can be, if they’re interested, if they’re willing to take seriously the invitation to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)  But that’s a really big thing.  A really. big. thing.  I am asking them to try to wrap their hearts and minds and arms around a salvation, and an entire way of living, that is way bigger than them, and is unlike anything they have ever encountered.  And often, I am the only one nudging them in this direction.  

In common Lutheran parlance, confirmation is about “affirming your baptism”, “taking over” the faith your parents placed you into at baptism, “becoming a true adult member of the church”, and other such statements, that are meant, it seems, to make kids feel like confirmation is important and make old people feel like all is not lost and young kids today do still believe in Jesus.  

But there are two problems I see with this, the first being that many of them have no real faith to “take over” or “take charge of” from their parents.  Without being too blunt, a good number of children baptized in Lutheran churches today are brought to the font by parents who love them, and who have a vague sense of wanting them to be “good Christian kids who are nice and go to heaven.”  They bring their kids to church.  Sometimes.  On weekends when there’s not a hockey tournament out-of-town, and the weather’s not too bad, or we didn’t stay out too late at somebody’s wedding reception.  They teach their kids the Lord’s Prayer.  Possibly.  Sort of.  Most nights.  But the Creed? The Ten Commandments? Isn’t that what confirmation class is for?  By my reckoning, if I spend an hour per week in class with the kids, for two (school) years, I have spent 72 hours with them.  That's three days.  Three days may have raised Jesus from the dead, but I can no more teach 8th-graders to grasp the beauty and richness of the Christian faith in 72 hours than I can instill in them a love for Shakespeare in 72 hours.   

If “church” is an "extracurricular activity" in a child’s own home – then asking them to “take on the faith for themselves” after 2 years of confirmation class is like hoping they’ll one day decorate their spare bedroom the way mom did hers.  They might – if they happen to have similar taste to their mother, and a similar budget, and it reminds them of their mom and makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside.  Or they might not, you know, because they’re different people.  The vast majority of kids who play on hockey or dance teams will not play in college, and certainly not at the professional level.  If church is no more or less important in a family than hockey or dance, don’t be surprised when it falls by the wayside in college, just like other extracurricular activities.  So, to recap – we say we’re asking kids to “affirm their baptism” and “take on their faith”, but in reality, we are – not always, but mostly – starting from scratch and attempting to convert little baptized pagans.  

Second, we ask kids on their confirmation day, to be “adults in the faith,” or some such thing.  But at the age that most children are confirmed (13-15), they are not adults in any meaningful sense in any other area of their lives.  These are kids who still rely on their parents for transportation to the confirmation service itself.  They don’t pay their own cell phone bill, or buy their own food or clothing.  They are overwhelmed at the thought of having to pick a college and career in just a few years, and most of them cannot articulate with any degree of certainty more than the vaguest sense of what they’d like their life to turn out like.  They don’t do their own laundry, and the vast majority of them, in reasonably functional homes, are well aware that mom and dad are there to pick them up when they fall…or forget homework at home…or need money for that new cheer uniform…or forget to walk the dog…or lock themselves out of the house…or….  Not that this is not a bad thing.  We are talking about kids who are 14 years old.  This is not the olden days where marriage and kids and jobs and full-on adulthood is right around the corner.  But if they don’t do their own laundry or pack their own lunch or call their own locksmith, is it really fair to hand their faith over to them and say, “here you go!” ??  

Not that faith isn’t important.  Of course it is. It’s the most important thing.  Without a doubt.  But doesn’t that mean that we should give kids more support, not less?  Doesn’t it mean we should hold their hand a little longer?  Surround them with strong parental and community “raising in the faith” until later in life?  If you don’t learn how to do laundry before you go to college, you’ll figure it out quick when the bills for new clothes start piling up, or no one wants to hang out with you because your clothes all smell like dirty laundry.  But if you haven’t grasped hold of Christ’s promises, if you don’t really know where to turn when tough stuff happens – well, the situation might devolve more slowly than a laundry crisis, but it’s long-lasting impacts will be far, far worse, and likely far more difficult to correct.  

One of the problems in western society (and this is a whole other topic, so I’ll not dive into it too deeply) is that we largely lack “coming of age” rituals.  The biologic machinations of puberty or the attaining of a particular age used to be cause for celebration, for “entry into adulthood”; now they are a source of shame and embarrassment or wild expensive parties that rival weddings.  We haven’t the slightest idea how to teach our kids to be adults out in the real world – certainly not at the tender age of 14 – and so we settle for telling them that they’re a “real Christian, now” while ceding them zero control over anything else in their lives. 

Obviously there is way more to this than can be fixed in a day, in a year, in a single confirmation class at a single congregation.  There are huge cultural shifts at stake here, and patience, fortitude, and faithfulness is required on the part of parents, pastors, and churches.  But I wonder if we need to start by decoupling confirmation from middle/high school, and perhaps from a formal-program-ending-in-a-special-ceremony altogether.  What if we took all the resources – money, time, people – that we spend on a group of kids who haven’t even fully developed the executive processing functions of their brains – and transferred it to campus ministry, or young adult “programming”?  What if instead of thinking that kids who can’t even drive themselves to church on Sunday morning can honestly pledge to “decide for themselves to be faithful Christians and really believe this stuff and do it and possibly even die for it”, what if instead of that, we let kids be kids – taught them the basics of the faith – the Bible, the Catechism, etc – with no “end goal” besides the promises of God’s Kingdom in sight.  What if we, slowly, over time, taught them what it means to take faith seriously, how to integrate it into their lives, as their lives change?  What if we re-church-ified marriage prep, and spent as much time with soon-to-be high school or college grads as we do with pre-marital couples?

What if we stopped pressuring kids to “be adults” about their religious/theological/philosophical commitments and convictions when most of their own parents don’t even have that nailed down? 

Obviously I don’t have all the answers.  I mostly don’t even know where to start.  But these are just a few of the things I’ve been kicking around lately, and I’d love to hear thoughts from others, even as we pray, “Lord, may everything we do begin with your inspiration, continue with your help, and reach perfection under your guidance. We ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

1 comment:

Theresa said...

I love the idea of no end goal in immediate sight for middle school students. The Catholic church (at least out here) is moving toward a younger and younger age for confirmation, and it worries me, mostly because it makes we wonder if they recognize how many people are leaving, so they are trying to confirm as many people as they can before these folks leave. Maybe that's too cynical, but.... While I don't like the idea of tying confirmation to marriage prep (since people can/do get married at such a wide span of ages/maturity levels/etc.), I do wish it was less of an expectation that parents put their children through, and more of a separate choice that teens (or whoever) made on their own. One thing I appreciated about my parish growing up was that confirmation prep classes were separate from youth group meetings. Since I didn't get confirmed, I still got to go nurture my relationships with the youth group, still got to grow in my faith in that sense, still got to teach middle school religious ed classes, but didn't have to choose confirmation for myself to participate in those other things- those other things that really helped me feel a growing desire for and loyalty to my faith. For better or for worse, the youth group was the smaller of the groups, where good conversations happened, where we were supported as individuals. I never got the sense that that happened in the confirmation prep classes, because they were so dang huge.
I went through RCIA classes at my parish this past year- they were open to everyone in the parish, whether getting confirmed or not. I'm still not confirmed, but I still feel committed to my faith, my church, and growing in my relationship with God and all that means and requires.
What I guess I'm really saying- I love having options- being able to participate in my faith and choose what is best for me in when/how I commit to it. I'm glad I had consistent faith-growth opportunities before I went off to college, because it helped me take my college theology classes more seriously, and it meant I knew before college that I loved retreats and small faith groups. So confirmation or not- I think that the more we invest in our youth's spiritual growth, the more opportunities we give them to explore it in a variety of ways- this is what will ultimately grow the church- it's the investing, in all senses.

And speaking of retreats, I would totally go on a Creighton Alumni retreat, if they had one. It's kind of silly that they don't. I would totally go visit Iowa for that.

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