Faith in Action: Discovering the purpose and potential of confirmation

I spoke with a pastor not long ago who told me a shocking story about confirmation. He had arrived at a new appointment one June and discovered that—in his words—“all the children from second grade and up were already confirmed.”

If you are familiar at all with the practice of confirmation, that statement will strike you as odd. How could students as young as second or third grade be confirmed? And why would this pastor’s predecessor have confirmed all the children in his church en masse?

Could it possibly be that there is a magic confirmation curriculum out there applicable for students from age 7 to age 17?

Andrew Thompson

Unfortunately, no. The new pastor wanted to find out how much the children in his church had absorbed through their “confirmation.” So he questioned the sixth-graders, since that is the age when many churches consider children ready for the confirmation process.

And what did he find? Mostly, that no sixth-grader in his church was familiar with basic terms connected either to Methodist practice (such as “John Wesley”) or to Christianity generally (such as “Trinity”).

As he put it to me, “They didn’t seem to know any of the basics of Methodism or Christianity.”

It is a regrettable incident. It points to a real failure in ministry. But it gives us the opportunity to think about confirmation with respect to two important considerations: its purpose and its potential.

One way to think about confirmation is as a rite of passage. And it is that. It signals both to the children being confirmed and to the congregation that these are young disciples who are ready to take full part in the ministry of the church.

But thinking of confirmation primarily as a rite of passage is not sufficient. It has a greater purpose. Confirmation ought to be a deeply formational event in the lives of those who go through it. It should be a time when they are taught the disciplines of prayer and Bible study. It is the best opportunity for adolescents to gain exposure to the wider field of ministry and mission—in which they are expected to take a part as professing members of the church.

Confirmation is a time for confirmands to learn about what the church is really for, and to take their place in it. That means confirmation is an opportunity for the church to bring home the heart of discipleship for a group of people who have just become able to grasp what that really means.

Sarah Arthur, a popular author in the areas of youth ministry and Christian devotion, has written about this deeply formational purpose of confirmation. She devoted a chapter to that topic in my book, Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press, 2011).

Ms. Arthur contends that “churches struggle to reach youth because congregations presume that youth are uninterested in the church’s traditions, rituals, narratives, grammar, and practices—in short, its way of life.”

For her part, she doesn’t believe youth are uninterested at all. At times, there are challenges to communicating and relating with youth. But this is about the reality of adolescent development. It’s not about a native disinterest on the part of the youth.

Regardless, pastors and congregations often fail to craft a confirmation process that could really be formative for children. They fall into the “rite of passage” rut where all sixth- or seventh-graders go through a short curriculum with a little ceremony at the end of a worship service that marks them as “confirmed.”

And then there are the outliers—such as the example I began with—that suggest some pastors even use confirmation as a way to bolster membership numbers.

Confirmation’s purpose is so much greater than this. But to see what it could be, we have to realize that its purpose is largely still just potential. Ms. Arthur believes that when confirmation is approached as a primary vehicle for the formation of youth, it can be “a powerful experience of enculturation . . . into the body of Christ.” For that to happen, we need to unlock the potential that will allow confirmation to really have an impact in the church.

Churches should consider emphasizing and expanding their confirmation process so that it becomes located at the center of the church’s ministries of Christian formation. We should ask ourselves what confirmation might potentially become for our youth if we did it not over six weeks but, rather, six months. Or even a year. And we need to be careful about choosing a curriculum that has real spiritual substance to it.

We need to give confirmation the serious attention it deserves. Not just from the pastor and the parents of confirmands. But from the entire congregation. We’ll be more liable to do that once we realize just how important confirmation can be to the faith development of the children involved.

If we want confirmation to be a rite of passage in the best sense, then let’s make it a rite of passage that leaves a lasting impression. Let’s devote our energy to really shaping youth through their minds, bodies and spirits. That’s going to take buy-in from the whole church. But you know what?

Our kids are worth it.

Dr. Thompson is an assistant professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter, @andrew72450.



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