We’ve talked about some of the basics of the confirmation process and the “what” or content that needs to incorporated into this discipleship formation. However, I realized in the last post that I forgot to post any resources to check out in terms of using curriculum from a United Methodist perspective. The primary one for United Methodism that you’ll see advertised at Cokesbury is Credo. Also be sure to check with your pastor or district office, who might have a resource director who might be able to make an additional option or two that are specifically designed for United Methodists.

Credo: United Methodist Confirmation Curriculum (Photo credit: cokesbury.com)

Credo: United Methodist Confirmation Curriculum (Photo credit: cokesbury.com)

So let us now move on to this last part of this series, where we will examine the procedural and logistical matters pertaining to confirmation. Know that these are just recommendations, some of which will be more general while others will be quite specific, so adapt it to your own context as necessary.

Also, I want to offer a big thanks to my Superintendent, Dr. Joe Geary, who passed along many of these pointers to me:

–Finding the Right Age–

One of big questions is regarding age. At what age is a youth ready for confirmation? Be sure to use the language of “youth” and never “child”…using “youth” or “young person” helps us adults as much as it does the young person to orient our minds toward the reality of their growth and maturity and that their input is significantly valued. St. Paul talks about “milk then meat” as the process of growing in discipleship. Saying “youth” or “young person” rather than “child” affirms to everyone involved that they is ready for the meatier content of the Christian faith and journey.

With that said, the most ideal time in a young person’s life for entering confirmation is when he or she is in 7th grade or later. There are exceptions as some curriculum recommend ages 11-14, so if someone shows remarkable maturity then beginning them in 6th grade might be acceptable. But it’s best, in my mind, to maintain a clear starting point for the youth of your church so that there’s no sense of competition or failure among youth or their parents. Because “If their daughter Suzie got to go through when he was in 6th grade, why is my son Joe not permitted until next year?” Best thing is to set a boundary and stick to it. If a problem arises and persists, then gather the leadership of the church to make a change across the board rather than just making one or two exceptions.

–Orientation Session–

Have a session of orientation for the parents/guardians and sponsors, ideally the week before your sessions start with the youth. This orientation does at least four things:

  1. The parents/adults see and receive the materials that their youth will be using throughout the process.
  2. It eliminates most surprises about expectations of the process. If need be, offer an entire adult confirmation class to the whole congregation so they’re acclimated to the process for themselves and may become more open and excited to incorporate it into the life of the youth.
  3. It addresses the basics of what confirmation is and isn’t; including its relationship to baptism – i.e., there won’t be “rebaptism” for those baptized as infants.
  4. It lets the parents/guardians/sponsors know that youth will not necessarily be getting on and/or coming off at the same point – that is, it’s a community thing, but each youth will make their own decision based on their readiness (or not) to embrace the Christian faith more fully in confirming or professing it themselves.

–Individual Sessions with Youth–

Around the session(s) when “commitment” comes up, the pastor or youth leader should have a 1-on-1 conversation with each young person asking about their readiness to make the commitment or not.

  • The idea here is to allow them the most amount of freedom in making the commitment. Having their sponsor or parent/guardian there can very easily lead to coercion
  • Remember: welcoming presence and invitation, not high octane, high pressurized coercion to make a decision
  • Provides opportunity for the youth to raise questions they were perhaps afraid to ask in a larger setting
  • Accountability: remember the importance of ethical boundaries by remaining visible to others but not that others’ presence influences what the youth say(s)

–Length/Schedule Confirmation Class–

The ideal length of a confirmation class is at least 8 weeks. I’ve known some that do a whole year. Follow the guides and supplement as needed with other materials or “field trips” and work with your youth leadership to make the schedule out. Some things to remember and communicate to all involved:

  • This is a commitment of the parents and mentors too!
  • Parents should choose a mentor in consultation with pastor – mentor should be non-family member.
  • Ideal to take at least 1 field trip out of town – visit a place of worship with a difference expression of faith than expected in your setting. Examples: Roman Catholic Mass; Eastern Orthodox worship; Jewish synagogue; Anglican/Episcopalian service – bodies from which our tradition comes
  • This experience(s) will help youth see several of the aspects of our faith, observe similarities and dissimilarities with other faith traditions, and to discover in person the continued expression of some of our story’s elements and past – where we came from.

For each session it’s ideal to carve out a 2 hour block with a 15-20 minute break with prepared snacks

  • Sunday afternoons from 4-6pm has proven to be a fruitful time for many, but adjust according to the needs and schedule of your community

–Rehearsal–

At the end of the confirmation class, when you have all the decisions of who will be confirmed and/or baptized (if the confirmand wasn’t baptized prior), make sure to do a rehearsal of the service (Baptismal Covenant I – UM Hymnal, 33ff.)

–Employing our Connection–

Now for small membership churches, sometimes it is difficult to do the class for just one or two students, or such a number might make them feel more pressured one way or the other. In cases where there are very few young people in the congregation, here are some ideas that might open the door for the possibility of clustering with other small membership United Methodist Churches in your area:

  • In Benton County, Tennessee (where my current appointment is located), we United Methodist clergy have met and decided that Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly would be a great location to have the sessions. So if there is a retreat center or campground nearby that would be hospitable, use it!
  • Meet at the various churches who are participating in the confirmation class.
  • Rent a space or find a hospitable place – just be sure the background noise, if any, can be kept to a minimum.

It comes down to this reality: We are a connectional church – while small United Methodist churches do have things in common with small churches of other traditions, when it comes to discipleship we can be mutually supportive of other small United Methodist churches and resource with one another. Let’s use the connection to our advantage, which by the way, is a significant reason why it exists!

–Others??–

What other ideas or aspects pertaining to the details or procedure of confirmation would you include? Anybody have best practices you would recommend for such settings?

In the last post, I introduced a basic understanding of what confirmation and why it is a valuable venue for making disciples in the church. Now, let’s dig a little deeper and talk about the basic and essential parts of confirmation.

One of the first things you should do is to take some time reviewing resources or curricula to follow, and then decide, along with the youth leadership of the church, which one to use. It is best, in my mind, to start with resources that have been published and proven to benefit the confirmation process because coming up with or writing material on your own is daunting and it would be far less time consuming and stressful to slightly amend (if necessary) the schedules that the resources suggest than to start from scratch. People in our United Methodist tradition have spent LOTS of time and energy and good thinking, writing, and planning into these resources. And do please use United Methodist materials (or resources from whichever tradition your church belongs to), even if mentors, parents, or even the youth find themselves at times at odds with parts of our theology.

As a guide for find the right curriculum, here are some of the basic components of the content that is to be taught in the confirmation courses:

  1. Knowledge and understanding of the Christian story
  2. Core beliefs of United Methodist Christians
  3. Exploring vows and commitments

The words to describe these parts may vary from resource to resource so don’t be too legalistic about it. For instance, in one church I attended before entering ministry, the new membership course for adults was 3 weeks and was based on these 3 primary aspects of confirmation. The 3 sessions were called “What it means to be a Christian,” “What it means to be a United Methodist,” and “Exploring spiritual gifts.” Even for most adults who were joining the church, those 3 weeks weren’t nearly long enough and we didn’t get to address some of the things we really needed to, but there was opportunity for discussion for those who had further questions. But confirmation for youth at that church lasted longer as they expanded on these three elements. And we won’t uncover it all now as you can see how each resource handles them in detail, but we can go over some of the ground you’ll need to cover.

Confirmation is like a guided path (photo credit: 1ms.net)

Confirmation is like a guided path (photo credit: 1ms.net)

1. Understanding the Christian story is learning about the basics of Christian faith and theology, and also examining a bit of our particular tradition within the larger Christian story. In growing in such an understanding, questions that will guide healthy conversation with youth and/or adults will include:

  • Who is God?
  • Why do we speak of the Trinity when we talk about God? And how best do we understand the Trinity?
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Who is the Holy Spirit?
  • How do we understand creation and our role/relationship to it?
  • How do we define sin?
  • What is redemption?
  • What (or who) is the Church?
  • What role has and does Scripture play in the Church?
  • Who is John Wesley and what is his story?
  • Who are others in the history of our heritage we can learn from?
  • What is a relationship with Jesus and how do we live in it?
  • What does it mean to be transformed and transforming?

Teaching about Core United Methodist beliefs will involve discussing more about our doctrine than our history, which is more a part of our story. But talking about United Methodist beliefs will include:

  • The various “motions” or “modes” of grace – prevenient, justifying, sanctifying
  • The relationship between grace, faith, and free will
  • What we believe about the mysteries, or sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper)
  • Why we baptize infants
  • Why we don’t rebaptize persons
  • What it means to have an “open table” at Communion rather than a closed Communion, and why
  • Why we believe women as well as men can serve as clergy
  • Why our clergy are “appointed” by a bishop rather than chosen/called by the local church
  • What it means to be a “connectional” and “global” church
  • Learning the other various aspects of worship
  • Discovering a Wesleyan way of reading Scripture and understanding the Christian faith – this often includes speaking of the key sources that guide us in our faith and understanding: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (or what is termed the “Wesleyan quadrilateral”)

The third component is to talk about vows and commitments. When you get to this point, you’re nearing the time of when you can converse with each youth as to whether they are ready to make this step (to profess/confirm/reaffirm their faith in Christ). But talking about vows and commitments needs to include some vital parts, which are things that are asked in the worship service when they will be confirmed:

  • We’ve talked about “sin” and “evil.” So now, what is it to renounce wickedness, to reject evil, and to repent from sin? And how do I live these actions out?
  • What does it mean to accept freedom and power from God to resist evil, injustice, and oppression?
  • What is it to confess Jesus Christ as my Savior and to put my trust in and serve Christ?
  • How serious are these promises I’m supposed to be keeping?
  • Why is loyalty to the United Methodist Church a part of our membership vows? How can I strengthen its ministries within and beyond my participation in my local church?
  • How can I support the church through my prayers?
  • How can I support the church through my presence? Is it just coming to worship on Sunday? (It’s more – attending in worship, in the life of mission and discipleship of the church, etc.)
  • How do I participate by giving my gifts to the church? Is this all about money? How can I discover my “spiritual gifts” so that I can use them to benefit the church?
  • What are some ways I can offer the church my service?
  • How can I be a more effective witness for the kingdom of God in my community and world?

You can now see why 3 weeks is simply not enough to dig this deeply. And each of these are vital matters to consider because, in my experience, youth are asking at least these sorts of questions and MANY more!!

What are your thoughts? What would questions would you add (I didn’t intend to be completely exhaustive, so I might have missed some key elements)?

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.

At confirmation, hands are laid upon the forehead upon the confirmand (Image credit: picstopin.com)

At confirmation, hands are laid upon the forehead upon the confirmand (Image credit: picstopin.com)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

I am picking up here where I left off in the “Infant Baptism and the Bible” series. For the first part, see this. Or for more, just click on the “baptism” tag on the right hand side of the page.

When Carrie and I lived in Wilmore, there was one Sunday morning that I turned on the TV and watched the first few minutes of a sermon given by a preacher in Lexington that was broadcast on a local channel. In a sermon on baptism, the preacher opined a great deal about how infants “don’t know what’s going on in a baptism like those who are able to make a conscious decision are” and how wrong infant baptism is. He even suggested that infant baptism had pagan roots and declared that it is a “heathen practice.” And as if his lack of doing serious homework about the history and tradition of infant baptism wasn’t enough, I suppose he hadn’t considered that what he was about to say next went directly against the logic that he was spewing. In the very next sentence he began to make a connection between the practices of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New. He said, “just as circumcision was the outward sign of an inward change in the old covenant, so was baptism the sign of the same in the new covenant,” drawing on the connection Paul makes between the two practices in Colossians 2:11-12. (Ummmmm…Maybe he didn’t know about the practice of infant circumcision?)

Of course, opponents of infant baptism typically do not appeal to such a strong connection between these two practices, but the analogy between them is worth exploring and is part of the reasons why United Methodists baptize infants (see more in this official document of the UMC). The connecting point between them is that they are the distinguishing signs, or seals, of the covenant(s) God makes with God’s people. In making covenant, God initiates the relationship and agreement, through giving grace and making promises that would be unattainable through mere human effort or merit. Nonetheless, there are expectations of the covenant people to maintain their end of the covenant, which involves obedience to divine commands, living holy and loving lives in response to God’s gracious actions in claiming and redeeming the lost or enslaved people.

When God established covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (and therein changes his name to Abraham), God says that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham/his descendants. The commandment given to Abraham was that every male offspring from his line should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The covenant seal was to be given to males born in the lineage. Were the infants aware of the expectations they would be expected to meet when they were circumcised? Of course not. But they were taught from the beginning of their lives that they were an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And that there were expectations of being the people of God for those who had been given this grace: expectations including continually turning to God and the ways of God, offering sacrifices for the ways in which they failed to live into their expectations of the covenant, as well as being a “light to the Gentiles.” For Abraham and Ishmael and for the uncircumcised Israelite men about to enter into Canaan (Joshua 5), the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (much to their pain) when they were adults or older youth, as they were about to embark upon the fulfilling of the promise. For every other male born into the lineage, the rite was to be done in infancy.

When God established the new covenant through the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus with those who identify as followers of the Christ, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. Baptism is the liturgical language used to describe Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14, Mark 10:38-39 to name a couple). At the birth of the church (i.e., Pentecost), Peter urged the crowds to repent and be baptized that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His very next statement is that this promise is for the people who respond and for their children. By this, I see already the seeds of where the practice of infant baptism is congruent with this new covenant established by God in Christ. In baptism, we are washed in water and born of the Spirit and this, I read, is not just for adults but for children too. And much of what could be said above re: circumcision can be applied to this new covenant, sealed in baptism. That they (and we) are taught from the very beginning that we are an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And there are expectations of being the people of God for us who have been given this grace in Christ: to live a life of continually turning to God and God’s ways through repentance and confirming or professing one’s faith to the community; receiving the grace of reconciliation and renewal offered through the body and blood of the Lord by partaking in the meal that celebrates the new covenant; and being the “light of the world” that stands in need of this grace.

There are a couple of differences worth mentioning, too. 1.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between ethnic distinction. When entering into the waters of baptism, there is no need to attempt to change your appearance, skin color, or ethnic identity. The good news is for all peoples. 2.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between genders. Whereas circumcision was a rite only done to males, baptism is for male and female, for in Christ there is no distinction (Galatians 3:28).

For the crowds gathered at Pentecost and for the world who was about to hear about the gospel of Jesus for the first time, the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (without the pain of circumcision) when they were adults as they were to receive the promised Spirit. For every other person born into a family of this faith, the rite could very well be done in infancy. “The promise is for you, and for your children…”

"All ages, nations, and races..." (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

“…people of all ages, nations, and races…” (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

Thanks for tuning in. More to come as we’ll look more at the book of Acts next time…but don’t let that stop you from commenting or or raising questions in the mean time! 🙂