Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 16, 1988, p. 271. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
A new look at the purpose and method of confirmation, along with some appropriate suggestions that Willimon has put into practice in his own ministry.
As I met with the Christian education committee that evening, I could not hide my displeasure at the thought of spending three long months of Thursday afternoons trapped with a group of unwilling teen-agers in our annual confirmation class. Despite my earnest efforts to make sessions on the sacraments, church history, the Bible, ethics and beliefs interesting, the last thing on earth these youth wanted was to be put through two more hours of school every Thursday during Lent. I couldn’t blame them. For me and them, Lent is the season of bearing the cross of confirmation class.
I couldn’t help recalling an Episcopal friend of mine saying, "Confirmation is a second-rate junior high commencement ceremony after we have marched the kids through a series of boring classes and then laying-on-of-hands to graduate them out of the church."
"Can’t we come up with something better?" I wondered aloud to the committee.
"One can’t devise appropriate educational methods." commented one laywoman who teaches youngsters for a living, "until one has first defined what it is that one wants to teach. What is the ‘end product’ of this confirmation? What do you hope to accomplish?"
I responded with a thought off the top of my head. "All I want is a group of youth who may one day grow up to resemble John Black." (A true "patriarch" of our congregation, Black is every member’s idea of how a Christian ought to look.)
"That’s it!" she said. "All we want is a dozen youth who, in their beliefs and lives, come to look like our best Christians."
"Now how on earth do we go about doing that?" asked another.
We put our heads together and created a confirmation method that might meet our goal. We agreed on a number of points:
1. The goal of confirmation is discipleship: training people to resemble more closely, in their lifestyle, beliefs and values, disciples of Jesus.
2. We want our young people, instead of knowing more about Christ, to know and follow Christ. Therefore, confirmation must require more than the elementary mastery of a few facts about Jesus, church history, the Bible, etc. Confirmation class should do nothing less than equip young Christians to be disciples.
3. Christianity is much more than a "head trip"; it is a way of life together. The total person is engaged in it. Education for this life must therefore be experiential and personal, suggesting that confirmation doesn’t end our growth as Christians. Our youth are already Christians. They are not ignorant of the faith; they have already been trying to live as Christians. Confirmation continues and strengthens Christian growth already begun.
4. Most of us became Christians by looking over someone else’s shoulders, emulating some admired older Christian, taking up a way of life that was made real and accessible through the witness of someone else. So, while books, films and lectures could be used in confirmation class, they should only supplement the main task of putting young Christians in close proximity with older Christians -- "mentors" who invite these younger Christians to look over their shoulders as they both attempt to live as Christians.
At the set-up meeting during the first week of Lent, the youth met their guides, and the Journey (as we called it) began. To each pair we gave a list of learning activities which had been devised by the committee. We told them to proceed at their own pace, and to follow their own interests. The activities could be completed in a few weeks or three months.
Among the 15 activities were:
Read the Gospel of Luke together. As each of you reads at home, note the passages you find interesting, confusing or inspiring. Every two weeks, get together to discuss what you have read.
Attend Sunday services together for the next three months. After each service, discuss your reactions, questions and impressions.
Get a copy of our church’s budget. Find out where our money goes. Discuss how each of you decides to make a financial commitment to the church.
Attend together any of our church board meetings during the next three months. Decide what congregational board or committee you would like to be on at the end of the confirmation process.
In your own words, explain "why I like being a United Methodist Christian." Discuss two aspects of our church about which you would like to know more. Ask our pastor or church librarian to help you find this information.
Attend together a funeral and a wedding at our church. After the service, discuss where God was at this service, and why the church is involved in these services.
Spend at least 15 hours volunteering at Greenville-Urban Ministries, or one of the other service agencies which our church helps to support. Why is the church involved here?
Actually, I did far more work during the process than I would have if I had simply conducted classes. I kept checking with the teams on how things were progressing. One young person dropped out of the process. A number of guides needed frequent encouragement and advice. At the end of Lent, I met with each confirmand for an hour to discuss what she learned and what she still needed to know. On Holy Saturday, the Saturday preceding Easter, all guides and confirmands met at the church for a late-night vigil. They viewed a movie on the church and then held a prayer service in the sanctuary. At dawn on Easter, they participated in another service, followed by breakfast.
At the 11 A.M. worship service, each guide introduced his or her confirmand before the congregation and described one thing that this young disciple was bringing to the church -- some aspect of personality or talent. Then each confirmand thanked the congregation for one gift -- perhaps a church school teacher, a helpful sermon or the church basketball team -- that had helped her grow as a disciple. Each confirmand’s guide, parents and I laid hands on the young person as I pronounced, "Jane, remember your baptism and be thankful." "John, remember . . .
After using the new process for another year, we were convinced that it achieved our intended results. The church needs to realize that one of its greatest resources is its ability to bring generations of disciples together. Confirmation should give youth an opportunity to confirm their developing faith, but perhaps more important, it should provide the church the opportunity to confirm the developing young Christian -- to say, "You are one of us already. God has plans for your life. We want to take time with you to give you the skills, insights and experiences you need to be faithful."
Part of the beauty of this approach is its suitability for people at any age, at any stage of their faith journey. It suits the half-willing 12-year-old or the earnest 19-year-old. It can be done with one candidate or a hundred. It moves us from the inappropriate classroom model to a master-apprentice one. Its activities can be devised to suit the particular characteristics and mission of each congregation.
Recent studies suggest that most mainline Protestant churches have become the last stop for youth on their way out of church. We are doing a poor job of retaining our young. Of course, the sources of the problem are many. Yet I believe that a renewed engagement with our young people, through a new look at the purpose and method of confirmation, can be a big part of the solution to a pressing problem.