As a pastor involved in designing and delivering Confirmation Ministry, I recently read with interest Christopher Wesley’s book Rebuilding Confirmation: Because We Need More than Another Graduation (published February 2017). Below are some of the key points and learnings I took away, as well as some of my own reflections.
- Confirmation ministry is fundamentally relational. While the transmission of content (e.g. doctrine, Biblical knowledge) is a key purpose the overriding goal is the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ. Because it takes disciples to make disciples, connecting young people with other followers of Jesus who can live, share and model faith with them is crucial. The “informal” curriculum of shared life in Christ is as significant, if not more so, than formal teachings. As the saying goes, ‘faith is more caught than taught.’
- Less is more. It is better to focus on a few key aspects of Christian doctrine, life and practice in Confirmation ministry than to overwhelm young people with reams of religious information. Wesley writes of “narrowing your focus and teaching less for greater impact.” In my experience, it is infeasible and finally counterproductive to view Confirmation ministry as a comprehensive Biblical and theological course for young people … doing so ignores developmental realities and the “searching” dimension of adolescent faith. A better goal is to ground young people more fully in authentic Christian community and reassure them of God’s abundant love and grace in the midst of the messiness of teenage life and beyond. Through remaining in the life of God’s church beyond Confirmation they will have ample opportunities to grow deeper in theological and Biblical understandings. A lifelong perspective on faith formation views Confirmation ministry as one of a number of stepping stones on the path of discipleship.
- Give a “way out” and a “way forward”. Wesley stresses the importance of communicating to Confirmation students. “You don’t have to do this.” Young people who are attending reluctantly or without a sense of personal desire and conviction are unlikely to learn very much at all. It is better to give them a real sense of choice to ‘opt out’ if they do not feel ready or wanting. Giving them a real choice also encourages personal and authentic decision-making. At the same time (and even more importantly), it is vital to give Confirmation young people a positive vision of what God has for them as a young Christ follower. “You get to do this” … you get to experience a guided journey into the wonders and possibilities of the amazing life God has in store for his loved and treasured people.
- Develop healthy child and youth ministry around Confirmation ministry. Confirmation ministry needs to be seen as a one element in a continuum of ministry to children, youth and their households. In Wesley’s words, we need to provide an “on ramp” and an “off ramp“. Very often the health and effectiveness of pre-Confirmation ministry will underpin the health and effectiveness of Confirmation ministry. And the health and effectiveness of post-Confirmation ministry will affect young people’s post-Confirmation involvement. We need to pay attention to what comes before and what comes next.
- Get personal. Wesley stresses the importance of leading young people to reflect on who and what they wish to be. He writes of an application process where young people are asked, “What type of Christian man or woman do you envision on being in the future?” and “What steps do you need to take to get closer to God?” In other words, Confirmation ministry can be understood as a time of discernment about identity, character and purpose (“Who do you want to be?“, “Whom has God created you to be?”).
- Adult mentoring is key. Confirmation ministry should seek to surround young people with a web of relationships with adults who love them and convey to them the life and presence of Christ. Wesley writes of his own experience of a small group-based Confirmation model where adults engage relationally with young people. “A healthy Confirmation program has adult volunteers whom teenagers trust and respect. When the relationship is strong then a teenager will be receptive to what the adult has to say.“
- Adopt an “apprenticeship” mindset. View Confirmation ministry as an “apprenticeship in how to live life in and outside of the Church.” Give young people real opportunities to experience what it means to participate in congregational life and to serve and share in Christ’s name in the wider community. Move beyond a “service hours” requirement. Give Confirmation students genuine and meaningful roles and responsibilities in ministry and mission. And, of course, link them intentionally with adults who can show them what it means to “be” and “do”. An apprentice, by definition, needs a guide and instructor to teach, model and encourage.
- Cultivate spiritual habits or practices. Move beyond “textbooks to tools. … Too often we tell Confirmation candidates to read Scripture, pray daily and serve others without giving them the proper tools for success.” In other words, don’t just tell young people about the Christian faith, guide them into disciplines of faith practice through which Christ comes to them and they to Christ. In Wesley’s ministry context, the acronym S.T.E.P.S. communicates five key faith practices that are given focus in Confirmation ministry: (1) Serve in ministry and missions; (2) Tithe through sacrificial giving; (3) Engage in small group relationships; (4) Practice prayer and the sacraments; (5) Share through invest and invite.
- Encourage youth to share their faith. Invite young people to reflect on their own faith stories and what it means to share of themselves with others. Lead them towards investing in relationships with non-Christians and respectfully inviting others into experiences of church life.
I found much in the book which resonated with my own understandings. It also gave me some new ideas and suggestions. One area that I felt was largely missing, however, was sufficient emphasis on the significance of parent faith formation and involvement in and with Confirmation ministry. My own journey has led me to deliberately engage parents in the Confirmation learning process and conceive the home as a key context for faith practice and learning. I will share more about that at some future point.
I am interested in your thoughts and comments. Does any of the above resonate with you? What might you add? In what ways to do you see similarly or differently?