A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to lead a workshop at the Paris District Training Event. My workshop was on “Leading Confirmation in Small Membership Churches.” In line with the title of the workshop, we had a “small” number of persons attending the session, but since the class I’ve heard several people asking more questions about how this important step in discipleship can work in places where it might be viewed with curiosity, suspicion or doubt. So I want to take a few posts and lay out what I shared in the workshop and invite your input, feedback, and further questions so that we can learn from one another.
Perhaps you’ve heard something like this before:
A Jewish Rabbi, a Baptist Preacher, and a Catholic Priest were having problems with a horrible influx of insects in their places of worship. The Rabbi said, “I’ve tried setting traps, but they are able to avoid them.”
The Baptist said, “I tried calling local pest control agencies, but that has no effect.”
The Priest said, “I’ve been able to get rid of them.”
The others asked, “How?”
The Priest replied, “Simple. I simply baptized and confirmed them, and haven’t seen them since.”
The perception of confirmation that many have is that after young persons are confirmed they leave the church or the Christian faith in general. And the unfortunate fact is that some churches have used confirmation as a mere ritual and go through a predetermined set of motions ignoring the very intent of confirmation, which is designed to be a period of formation of the youth, their parents and sponsors, and even of the church community as a whole.
But before we dig too much deeper, let’s first unveil a simple understanding of what confirmation is, because for many, especially some small membership churches, ‘confirmation’ may be a new concept or practice or perhaps is something that we tend to only associate with the Roman Catholic Church. But many traditions in the Christian faith, including our own (United Methodism), have incorporated confirmation into the life of the church for centuries.
What is confirmation? Simply stated, confirmation is the rite at which a baptized person, especially one baptized as an infant (though non-baptized people can go through confirmation and then be baptized if they were not prior), affirms Christian belief and is admitted as a professing member of the church. In The United Methodist Church, confirmation refers to the decision a person makes to respond to God’s grace with intentional commitment, publicly (re)affirming his or her baptismal vows before the congregation.
We’ll unpack the details of the how we do confirmation in a future post in this series, but I wanted us first to have the basic understanding down. So that’s the “What is it?”
The next thing I’d like us to consider is the answer that many of you or many of the folks in your congregation may be asking, “We’re not Catholic…” or “We’re just a country church…” “Why would we do confirmation?”
Let’s admit some realities about small membership churches in our context in west Tennesse/western Kentucky: the vast majority of small membership churches in this area belong to what traditions? Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal of various sorts, and us (United Methodists). Of these, only United Methodism has a heritage that has any sort of substantial usage of confirmation as a practice. And the very real truth is that because of this, many of our rural, small membership United Methodists will seem to find more (though certainly not everything) in common with other churches of similar sizes in the surrounding area of different denominations than with a medium or large membership church of our same tradition. Sometimes this is true of medium and larger membership churches as well, but it is especially the case for us small churches.
And so it is that for many rural UM churches ‘round these parts of the world, including the one I grew up in, confirmation, just as is the case with infant baptism, is something that is not widely embraced. But if you can break down some of the barriers and misunderstandings then often (though not always) people will be very open to trying something new. (Or maybe I’m being too naive.)
And the primary way to talk about and encourage it is to couch the language of the confirmation process as it was and is intended to be: that is, confirmation is about discipleship.
What is the mission of The United Methodist Church? “…to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We’ve talked about making disciples in simple platitudes. Confirmation is one way of actually putting some legs to this mission statement. And that’s the “Why do confirmation?” Because when done well, it provides an opportunity to make disciples of Jesus who will transform the world.
It is true that many in times past have not really taken their vows seriously after confirmation because much of the modern world was and in parts continues to be about the consumer mentality and treat membership as something that doesn’t really mean anything except that it gives you some nice benefits. Or at times it is because the youth felt as though the decision was forced upon them…by their parents, grandparents, or perhaps their pastor or youth leader. But two things need to be noted here – one is about the way young people in today’s world seem to be geared, and the other is about our approach to welcoming youth in confirmation:
- Young people today want to make a difference in the world in real, systemic, transformative ways that past generations of youth honestly did not had to nearly the same degree. I was speaking with the lay leader at one of the churches I serve recently and he shared the nature of the conversation that he hears his 14-year-old daughter have at the lunch table with her friends at school. They’re talking about politics, faith, philosophy, corruption, power, difference-making. What did we talk about when I was in middle and high school? “Hey, did y’all see Saturday Night Live this weekend? Man, I love Chris Farley when he does that Matt Foley skit ‘LIVING IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!!!’.” But youth these days are tackling big, world-changing issues. I believe that many people in churches of all sizes recognize this, and we heard it from Gil Rendle last year at Annual Conference as we’re moving into this changed mission field. Many times it is through missional opportunities that people are introduced and incorporated into the process of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. The question is no longer so much, “Do you want to come to my church?” but rather, “Do you want to help me make a difference?” Young people want to make a difference.
- Therefore, that has a significant bearing on the second thing to be noted at this point: our approach to young people makes all the difference in the world. It’s not, “Hey, we want you to go through this so you can be members just like us mature adults who know what’s what.” Rather it is, “We all have much to learn. We would like the opportunity to learn from you as you grow in faith and learn from God and maybe some from us too. Would you be open to that and explore the possibility of making a difference in the world for Christ?” It’s no longer, then, about mere ritual. We’re talking now about discipleship and mission.
We’ll get more into the “what” in posts to come, but what are your thoughts? What are other good reasons you can support and encourage confirmation in a church that might not have ever done it before? What are some helpful approaches you’ve seen or heard with how to approach young people (or adult seekers, for that matter) who might be appropriate candidates to go through confirmation?