Chapter 7: New Life in the Congregation
Evidence indicates that Protestant ways of thinking about the church, family, and sexuality have lost meaning and may actually interfere with the capacity of church members to respond to change in the family. The family as a social institution is not extinct. The Protestant ideal of family is inadequate when dealing with life in a changing culture and can mislead the thinking of pastors about Christian spirituality.
Even though the Bible is an ancient book, it offers ways of thinking about the world that can still be considered a guide to Christian faith. The general attitudes and ordering of values in Scripture contain timeless wisdom about God’s relationship to the people of God and the world. When viewed as a general guide to faith rather than as a collection of specific teachings, the Bible can provide a basis for theological reflection and dialogue about every aspect of life for contemporary Christians.
“Family Pew” Illusions and Spiritual Formation
Changes in family life affect all church programs, from habits of worship to women’s associations. Response to these changes is not likely to have much long-range impact on the life of a congregation if the traditional “Sunday School and Church” program structure is not evaluated first. A recent study of “effective Christian education” by Search Institute concluded that:
Christian education in a majority of congregations is a tired enterprise in need of reform. Often out-of-touch with adult and adolescent needs, it experiences increasing difficulty in finding and motivating volunteers, faces general disinterest among its “clients,” and employs models and procedures that have changed little over time.1
With a few notable exceptions, most congregations are still organized as if the premise of “the family pew” is true — that church members are Christian because they learn Christian attitudes at home, knowledge of the Bible in Sunday School, and attend worship regularly. The leadership structure in most congregations operates as if a three-way division of labor between parents, Sunday School teachers, and pastors still exists and is adequate to the spiritual formation of children and youth.
If “Sunday School and Church” is the formative experience in a congregation, it is very likely that the people of God are being formed by a structure that perpetuates dualistic thinking about Christian faith, about the work of Christians, the nature of the church, and the role of pastors. This once vital tradition was more effective when Protestant values were more dominant in American culture than they are now. But the very nature of the division of spiritual formation of Christians between lay leaders in the Sunday School and pastoral leaders in the church leaves people with the idea that Christian faith can be learned by attending classes.
At one time, Protestants were more familiar with biblical language and the content of the Bible than they are today. Many learned to pray by attending weekly prayer meetings. Regular Sunday evening services were used for hymn singing, Bible study, and social ministry concerns. When the churches were the social center in small towns and villages across the country, it was not uncommon for whole families to attend worship services two or three times a week.
Where the older cultural patterns are more intact, the Sunday School is better able to function as a school where people learn about the Bible. However, knowledge about the Bible is only the first stage in learning to reflect about life in the light of Scripture. The use of the Bible as a guide to faith for a congregation is a lifelong learning process that can be practiced every time members gather as a congregation.
As the person set aside by a congregation to be their spiritual leader, the pastor is the person most responsible for interpreting the life of faith in the light of Scripture. This means more than interpreting Scripture in sermons. It means that the people need to learn how to reflect about their lives and the life of the congregation in the light of Scripture. One of the ways a pastor can help people learn to think biblically is through leading Bible study groups. Another is by opening all church-related meetings with Bible study, meditation, and prayer. This is not just the pastor’s responsibility, but if the pastor does not model this kind of Scripture use, the people cannot be expected to exhibit these attitudes and practices.
All of the work of the congregation — the committee meetings, the youth groups, teacher training meetings — are occasions for Bible study and meditation guided by Scripture. This use of “biblical knowledge” is practiced in congregations where members understand that Christian faith is a way of life that includes a personal sense of responsibility for the welfare of others, both in the congregation and in the world. In these congregations, there is a connection between:
education content that blends biblical knowledge and insight with significant engagement in the major life issues each age group faces. Effective adult education emphasizes biblical knowledge, multicultural and global awareness, and moral decision making. Emphases for youth include sexuality, drugs and alcohol, service and friendship.2
Curriculum writers, Christian educators, and pastors should know from experience that finding better curriculum material for Sunday School teachers does not transform persons. Yet, it is tempting to get caught up in the hope that it is only the print curriculum that needs to be changed. Denominations encourage this illusion in their continuing efforts to produce and market a new curriculum every three to four years — sometimes without even evaluating the effect of the old curriculum on learners. By itself, a curriculum has very little impact on learners. That is due, in part, to who the learners are. It is also due to the way curriculum is used by teachers and to whether the teachers are communicating faith to their students.
All aspects of church life educate people about the life of faith. Technically, curriculum refers to running a course, as in following a preset course in a race to its end. The pastor, the person charged with giving order to the life of a congregation, sets the course in a congregation. This suggests that the pastor’s role as spiritual leader is to make an intentional effort to help the people live in faithful response to God. This includes attention to their way of thinking about life; to their use and understanding of the Bible; to the influence of their teachers, friends, and family; and to what they can learn about relationships from life in the congregation.
When the pastor’s responsibility is seen as the spiritual formation of a congregation, this means that the pastor will be concerned with the purpose of every part of the life of the congregation. The various educational ministries are essential to spiritual formation, but education for faith is not limited to what happens in Sunday School. In most congregations, Sunday School has outlived its original functions, but that does not mean that it cannot be revitalized. With leadership from the pastor, Sunday School can be an introduction to Christian spirituality through learning about the Bible and Christian tradition.
The following questions can be used to assess the present quality of spiritual formation in a congregation. They are indicative of a general approach to spiritual formation in which the Sunday School is only one part.
1. Where do members learn to love the Word of God? Are they learning the content and meaning of Scripture? Are they learning what it means for them, the church, and the world?
2. Are teachers able to convey their own faith in Jesus Christ by their attitudes and actions, by the way they teach?
3. Is the congregation a place where people know that they are loved by God because members care about one another and are able to forgive one another?
4. When church members gather, is prayer a natural part of their life together?
5. Do children and younger persons learn attitudes characteristic of Christians from being with the adults in this congregation? Do ways of relating, concerns expressed, and work done express attitudes of goodness, kindness, peace, and joy?
6. From whom do congregation members of all ages learn that every Christian has gifts for ministry, that their service to others is essential to faith?
People learn from what they hear, what they see, and what they do. There are many reasons why people attend church. Despite all appearances to the contrary and misunderstandings about the nature of the church, members are looking for God. Most people want a pastor who can help them reflect on their need for God. They need a pastor who can help them see the presence of God’s grace in life, someone who encourages them to express their faith. This is the purpose of every gathering in a congregation. The work agenda will differ, but the point of gathering is always an expression of love of God and neighbor.
When the people of God gather in a congregational setting, they are being formed into a people of God through participation in worship, study, fellowship, and mission. These activities are not optional to Christian spirituality; each one is necessary to a full experience and expression of faith in Jesus Christ. Participation in each area is not limited to one age-group only. From early childhood to late adulthood, Christian faith is best learned and expressed when people are active in worship, study, fellowship, and mission.
Spiritual Formation Through Liturgy
A spiritual imbalance will inevitably exist in a congregation where members are not expected to be as spiritually disciplined as the pastor. Role confusion in a church is more than an inequality of power between pastors and people. It is not just a difference of opinion over decision making in a congregation. The deeper issue is the genuine spiritual power recognizable in a pastor who, as the spiritual guide of a congregation, has faithfully practiced the traditional disciplines of Christian faith. The issue is not just which ministry belongs to laity and which ministry belongs to the pastor. The real issue is far more basic. It is a question of how people become intentionally Christian in their life orientation, attitudes, and values.
In a congregation where most adults are not committed to study or to regular worship, the pastor may be the only adult who is regularly nourished and challenged by Scripture. Every member needs similar opportunities for spiritual formation. Just as pastoral care is the work of all members of the congregation, so is regular study and preparation for worship.
The Word of God comes alive as a congregation hears the Word in worship and preaching, learns what the Word is about through study, and discovers what the Word means as it is experienced through life in a fellowship of Christians. It is in hearing and experiencing the meaning of the good news through regular participation in corporate life that people begin to see and think differently about life.
Educational programs in many congregations proceed on the unexamined premise that Christian faith is formed in the hearts of little children and young people through the influence of “the Christian home.” This overlooks the formative power of the church as the first family of Christians where teens and adults from all kinds of families can experience the quality of love and forgiveness they need to sustain family life. This kind of faithfulness to family commitments is facilitated through liturgy that gives order and meaning to the lives of church members.
People are formed by the repeated acts that give meaning to their lives, by the events that touch their hearts.3 Weekly worship is a time when members can bring their lives before God. In addition to the gratitude, joy, suffering, or sorrow that they bring to worship each week, members of families also come to worship with hurt or resentment from family disagreements and differences. They should be able to get perspective on themselves through participation in Word and Sacrament. Commitments are renewed, wounds are healed, and disappointments are left behind when people go away from the fellowship of Christian sisters and brothers. Fellowship is a reminder of God’s love.
Rituals mark the passage of time. They are markers that measure the meaning of a life. The seasons of the Christian year — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost — can give form across the years of a lifetime to the predictable events of life.
The recovery of worship organized around the seasons of the church year among Protestants may be a healthy sign of movement away from family life-cycle events as the major concern in the worship of a congregation. When the calendar of the church year governs the themes of worship and the selection of sermon topics throughout the year, the people of God can reflect on the events of their lives according to the moods of the seasons of the church year. When the seasons of the church year set the mood for corporate worship, events in the life of Jesus become the prism through which all else is reflected.4 But when the civic calendar and family-life celebrations govern the worship of a congregation, it is much more difficult for the pastor to convey what it means to reflect about all of life in the light of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Christian spiritual disciplines are learned through experience and practice. All Christians need to know what they believe. But what they believe may not become integrated into lives lived in relationship with God if they do not worship regularly. The meaning of new life in Christ can never be exhausted for believers. The experience of new life is formed and reformed as all of life is looked at and interpreted with reference to the various movements in the life of faith, ritualized every year in the celebrations of the church — Christmas, Easter, Pentecost.
Keeping the seasons of the church year gives tempo, theme, rhythm, and balance to the lives of the faithful. The message of new life in Christ is always the same — that those who believe have been given new life through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Regardless of what is happening among biological kin in any given week, members of the Body of Christ are helped by remembering that God loves and forgives them as they participate in the incarnation; the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the birth of the church; and the giving of the Holy Spirit.
As is the case with the language of spiritual formation, some Protestant pastors have an aversion to keeping the seasons of the church year. Some believe that Catholics and Episcopalians make an idol of a liturgical form of worship. But any worship form can become an empty ritual valued only because it is familiar. When loyalty to civic and family values interferes with loyalty to Jesus Christ, serious consideration should be given to the possibility that a nonliturgical, so-called “free” worship tradition may reinforce “family pew” loyalties.
When observed with regularity, the celebration of the sacraments can be time of renewal, a time that marks new movements in the life of faith. As visible signs of God’s love and forgiveness, baptism and the Supper can extend the horizons of believers from limited visions of the church as local and particular toward a sense that they belong to the whole communion of saints. The baptismal water, the bread and the cup, are present reminders that Christians are called out, cleansed, and constantly renewed as they participate in the eternal love of God through their membership in the Body of Christ.
Like worship, the sacraments may seem like dead rituals in the life of the church today. But where the hearts of believers feel gratitude for the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Supper can seem like union with Christ. The Lord’s Supper is the time in the life of a congregation when the power of God’s love to overcome the forces of evil and death is held up to eyes of faith. It is the corporate celebration of God’s love, in which all isolation and differences are — for a moment — overcome.
The liturgy of Word and Sacrament is a form through which the Spirit can breath new life into the people of God. The repetition of prayer, Scripture, hymns, and sacraments over a lifetime — or some part of it — can take root in the heart. The words, the music, a particular way of seeing the world can become part of the life of a congregation.
The Christian way of ordering life through liturgy is not likely to establish the themes and rhythms of the lives of members unless they are in the habit of regular worship. Members who worship sporadically are much less likely to be able to see the world in a new way, given the power of intellectual, moral, and social values of the world in which they live most of their lives.
Planning for New Life in the Congregation
The work of a pastor can be described as responsibility for Word, Order, and Sacrament in the life of a congregation. Historically, this meant giving order, or spiritual direction, to the life of a congregation. Today, order usually refers to church administration. The only reason for church administration is to organize a congregation so that members will be able to express and experience the power of God’s grace in their lives.
There is strong evidence that the focus of spiritually alive congregations is the ministry of all Christians. Where the pastor clearly articulates the purpose and identity of a congregation, members know what it is and understand that they have a place in the mission of the congregation.5 Where a congregation lacks a sharply defined mission, members may serve on committees and attend meetings for which they can state no purpose. Programs and committee structures can continue for generations simply because they are the local tradition.
There is a connection between the way people understand their church-related work and the importance they attach to worship. If members do not relate church-work to their own spiritual formation, there is no pressing need for them to worship. The way a congregation is organized can work against positive spiritual formation. It is not unusual for people to complete a term of service on a board and then disappear. They say they are “burned out.” Why? Many Sunday School teachers do not worship regularly. Why not?
Many congregations have trouble finding volunteers to staff traditional church programs. Some say that there are fewer willing workers because so many women work. However, that doesn’t explain common attitudes about church-work. Some people regard their church work as one more civic duty. Parents take turns teaching Sunday School as they take turns being Scout leaders. Members may regard election to office in a congregation as a reward for service in less important leadership capacities.
This is not to say that no one in a congregation thinks of their church-work as stewardship to God. Hierarchical attitudes about the importance and power associated with different kinds of church-work make it difficult for pastors to convey the idea that different gifts for ministry are suited to different offices.
Ministry in the congregation can be an expression of faith, but for many it may only be church-work. A task-oriented, businesslike approach to church administration may get work done. But why does anyone do the work of a congregation? The church consists of people who need to know God’s love for them far more than they need more work to do. It is important for a pastor to be aware of what happens to the faith of members as they participate in leadership positions in a congregation. Pastors and people are formed by the work they do. For both, church-work can be a contribution to the life of a congregation, an expression of their faith. But it can also be only an uncritical repetition of local tradition.
It is one thing to be aware of the way attitudes have been shaped by dualistic thinking about Christian faith. It is another to try to change attitudes and values. People can change if they are helped to appreciate how their faith is limited by old ways of thinking. This can happen when they begin to see their world in a new way because of positive experiences with others in the ongoing life of a congregation. It also happens because the way they think about Christian faith is changing.
Program structure is difficult to change because congregations are complacent about “the way we always do it here.” It may not be as important to change present programs as it is to change the way people think about the programs. Dualistic ways of thinking about what is spiritual and what is not affects the way people act and relate in a congregation.
Members of every congregation have traditional ways of relating to one another. There are unwritten rules about what can and cannot be discussed in church.6 Dualistic attitudes about what is and is not spiritual or religious are operative if sexuality is not considered a polite topic of conversation among church members. There are other less obvious social conventions that influence what can and cannot happen when the people gather as the church. Often, people who know one another socially do not discuss the same subjects in church that they would discuss anywhere else. Many express themselves in ways they perceive as being more religious when they are in church. In short, some people pretend to be someone else when they come to church!
There is a convention in many congregations that family life is a private affair. Some members want the pastor to call only when they have a family problem. Others keep anything that goes wrong with a family member secret. It is one thing to understand that family ideals can be idolatrous. It is another to wonder how the deeply embedded values about family privacy are changed.
Lack of intimacy among members of a congregation is a common problem. The observation is often made that people who worship together do not know one another. It is then suggested that members of a congregation will have better fellowship if they have more contact. This is probably true, but planning more activities is not the answer. People can get acquainted through fellowship activities without developing a personal sense of responsibility for one another as “brothers and sisters in Christ.” As long as there are unspoken conventions that keep members from being friends who can tell one another about life at home and at work, it will be almost impossible for a pastor to convey to them that Christian faith affects all areas of life, all moral and social values.
For example, there are parents in every congregation who are desperately unhappy about the sexual behavior of a “child.” The church may be the last place they think of asking for help. Even when other families have had similar experiences, members cannot encourage one another if the home life of members is considered private. A congregation may offer an occasional course on sexuality for teens, adults, or both, but the issue is more than whether members would attend classes to learn about their sexuality. The larger issue is that of secrecy about life in “the Christian home.”
Changing the Topic of Conversation
Pastors may not be aware of the extent to which they influence topics of conversation in congregations through the subjects they discuss in sermons and worship. If a pastor is comfortable talking about all aspects of human life, this gives the people permission to discuss everything that touches their lives when they gather. When a sermon includes attention to some previously overlooked or taboo subject, members can see that everything that happens in the world is of concern to Christians. Too often, it is the most important events in life that members feel they must leave outside the door of the sanctuary.
A recent study of sermons preached after World War II shows that there were common themes and perspectives in the sermons of that period. Both liberals and conservatives presupposed a vision of the kingdom of God but differentiated the vision from concrete realities. According to Robert Wuthnow, this way of spiritualizing religious vision distanced the religious discourse of the church from personal life and influenced sermon topic selection.
In liberal preaching this had the effect of preaching a vision of the Kingdom that created a mood of expectancy, of working toward something grand; but it reduced the life of faith to symbolic spiritual activity. Conservative preaching included such mundane topics as work, family life, and church programs; but they were treated in terms of utopian visions — getting rich, always being happy, finding the perfect church.7
This spiritualizing of daily life still influences preaching. For instance, it is remarkable how little attention is given to the effects of alcohol, drugs, and tranquilizers on the lives of church members. Silence about such subjects only reinforces the unhealthy tendency of Protestants to relegate family problems to a private realm. Sexual behavior and substance abuse are not just moral issues; they are issues of the human spirit that beg for corporate theological reflection.
If members of a congregation do not see sexuality as a spiritual issue, there is little likelihood that they will see that domestic violence, homosexuality, and AIDS are issues that affect their lives. That is why members of congregations are so prone to imagine that most social problems affect some other group but not “our kind of people.”
Social conventions about privacy in the family encourage hypocrisy and cause unnecessary suffering, all in the name of the sanctity of the family. These attitudes affect the family life of pastors as well but often in the opposite way. Since pastors are perceived as belonging to a more public realm, pastors often have the impression that their family life is not private. Yet, members of a congregation may be fully aware that there is a problem in the pastor’s family without ever offering sympathy or assistance. All family-related problems are likely to remain in the private realm of pastoral care unless pastors end the conspiracy of silence about what really happens in the family life of members, without breaking confidences.
A Unified Vision of Ministry
The model of ministry as spiritual direction of the life of a congregation assumes that the gospel comes alive when addressed to life realities. This does not mean that church members do not now experience new life in Christ as they participate in the life of a congregation. But pastors should realize that they and their members may think about Christian faith in ways that obscure whole realms of experience. When important parts of life are not subject to theological reflection, people are not able to believe that God’s grace really is at work there.
Christian feminists have contributed to knowledge about the ways in which dualistic theologies function to deprive women and minorities of power and authority in the church. This knowledge can help clear the way for learning to see reality in ways that more accurately reflect the acts and attitudes of Jesus. Dualistic thinking affects everyone, not just women and members of minority groups. Pastors and people — men and women — are robbed of new life in Christ by the ways in which dualistic thinking impacts the life of a congregation.
If members of a congregation can see that the forces of good and evil in the world affect everyone in some way, but not the same way, then they may realize that all problems are human problems. A dualistic view of the world and the church leads church people to believe that other people have problems different from their own. Many attempts to engage a congregation in ministry to “the less fortunate” fail because of a belief that “they” should be like “us.” A congregation that is able to see its ministries as service to God probably has a pastor who has helped people to recognize that why they do something is as important as what they do.
The purpose of evangelism in New Testament congregations was not to make everyone the same; it was to offer everyone new life in Christ. Congregations cared about the well-being of members not so that everyone would conform to the same moral and social values, but because Christians are expected to respect their brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. Christians are called to give service to one another and to the world because they are free in Christ to recognize the integrity of every human being.
The Bible can be the book of the church if members are able to bring all of life to the mirror of Scripture for reflection about the life of faith. In more traditional language, this is the practice of spiritual discernment.
Reform of Membership Rituals
The way people talk about their church is indicative of how they think about Christianity and what it means for them to be Christian. People say they are going to “join a church.” This means they belong to a congregation, which may or may not be considered a part of the Church universal. When members are considered active or inactive, this usually refers to worship and pledging habits.
When teens join a church, they usually do so after attending a confirmation class. There is a new ritual in which adults renew their baptismal vows. Strictly speaking, if they were baptized as infants, they cannot “renew” vows made by someone else on their behalf. This language about baptism and church membership suggests that the church is only one activity among many. Yet, the fact that people are attracted to baptismal renewal is a sign that they are looking for rituals that have more spiritual significance for their lives than those already available in a congregation.
Confirmation: Earning a Seat in “the Family Pew”
When an infant is baptized, some pastors tell the congregation that the baby is now your brother or sister in Christ. This means that the baby is now a member of the Church universal. A confirmation class supposedly prepares young people to confirm vows made on their behalf if they were baptized as infants. This is understood as choosing church membership for themselves.
According to this way of thinking, teens become “real” church members through confirmation. They are expected to emerge from a relatively short learning experience as fully responsible “adult” members who are committed to ministry in Jesus’ name. This suggests that these young people have made a decision and are — in the words of the Bible — confessing belief that Jesus Christ is Lord. People continue to believe this even though in many congregations it is common knowledge that many teens drop out of the congregation almost as soon as they have been confirmed.
In Protestant traditions, the pastor is often expected to teach the confirmation class, even if that is the only teaching expected of the pastor. Among Presbyterians, the “pastor’s class” of the nineteenth century was a “response to perceived failings and/or excesses of the Sunday School.”8 Likewise, today pastors who are realistic know that they cannot expect twelve- or thirteen-year-old confirmands to bring much knowledge or significant experience of Christian faith to the class. This is as much evidence as anyone should need to be convinced that educational programs in most congregations are not effective. This ineffectiveness is so common that confirmation curriculum is now written as an introduction to Christian faith.
Christian educators and pastors recognize that there is a crisis in confirmation practices. Yet, instead of asking how teens can be guided toward a commitment of life to Jesus Christ, most rearrange the content of a short intense period of study about Christian faith. The issue is not the content of the class. The issue is how a congregation can provide significant spiritual formation over an extended period of time that will prepare young women and men to decide whether they are ready to make the commitment of a lifetime.
It is not possible to know what it means to confess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord until at least the teen years. Before that, children who have been baptized are considered Christian because they participate in the life of a Christian congregation. A confession of faith should be the most important decision of a lifetime. It is a choice that gives meaning to all other commitments. This choice can be made only by someone who knows that there are alternatives.
Movement toward a confession of faith in Jesus Christ can begin in childhood through the formative experience of weekly worship. In congregations where children study while adults worship, the spiritual loss is immeasurable. Teens who appreciate worship are usually people who learned to love the Word, spoken and sung, when they were children. This habit of worship is most easily learned in childhood as children learn the language and rituals of faith. The meaning of worship can take on new importance in the teen years, especially as they become aware of why they worship.
Even though “the family pew” has changed dramatically, when teens attend a confirmation class as preparation for joining a church, they may be only affirming loyalty to the ideals of “the family pew.” If parents present their children for baptism because it is a family ritual, the same parents probably will want their children to formally join the church because it is a family tradition.
If members of a confirmation class join church and then “drop out,” it is because present practice only ritualizes their right to decide whether they will go to church or not. The decision to join the church can be that of loyalty to a Christian way of life. When it is less than this, confirmation rituals are a mockery of the spiritual capacity and hunger of teens to find a way of life that is an alternative to the nihilistic ways of “the world.”
The idolatry of “the family pew” may be the motivating force for such decisions if the life of a congregation is organized around rituals that do not give meaning to the lives of participants. “Traditional” rituals, moral and social values, may “work” in parts of the country where a Protestant ethos is still a part of regional culture. But where the rituals that are most important are those associated with the family life cycle — marriage, baptism, and burial — the rituals are only rites of passage for “birthright” Christians who “prefer to grow their own” new members.
Under these circumstances, when adults join a church after attending a few semioptional new member classes, there is no reason to expect their commitment to be any more than that of teen communicants. With the exception of adult converts, the attitudes of adults about church membership are often the same as the level of commitment expected of them when they confirmed their baptism.
Spiritual Integrity in Membership Rituals
The teen years are the optimal time to learn what makes Christians different from other people. During the early teen years, young people have a growing capacity to reflect about God, life’s meaning, and life’s commitments. Critical judgment about pastors, parents, teachers, and youth leaders are natural to them. But they are also ready to fall in love. They are attracted to adults who are enthusiastic and committed Christians. They need to know adults who are comfortable enough with their own sexuality to be able to discuss the sexual issues of youth today with candor and honesty.
The ministry of all Christians — service to God in family, in the church, and in the world — is a commitment attractive to teens looking for a life worth living. The natural idealism of youth can be nurtured through study, worship, service, and fellowship with adults they trust and like. Since these are the years when teens need to distinguish themselves from their parents, it is especially important that they begin to transfer affections to other “mothers,” “fathers,” “brothers,” and “sisters” who can help guide them into the larger household of faith.
Teens’ readiness for commitment to love and work for the well-being of others makes them especially critical of anything done only because it is “the tradition.” They are unusually sensitive to the shallowness of adults who lack depth of commitment or ability to articulate their own faith persuasively. Teens are ready to choose Christian faith if they are offered a discipline worth following and work worthy of their best effort by adults who model faithful ministry to them.
This would be much more powerfully ritualized if teens were responsible for choosing baptism as their response in faith to the reality of the new life in Christ they have experienced. In the present cultural context, they may be the age group most likely to appreciate the relief of leaving the pressures and values of the old life behind.
Confirmation as Baptismal Candidacy
The spiritual formation practices of the church before the Constantinian era suggest an alternative for today. Early church documents indicate that young adults and adults seeking knowledge of God and considering baptism into Christian fellowship belonged to a group known as the catechumens. The major educational effort of the church was invested in providing three years of instruction and carefully guided participation in worship and service to prepare catechumens for baptismal candidacy. This process was designed to immerse catechumens in Scripture and to provide teachers who were exemplary Christians to guide them in their decision about baptism. The candidate and the church both participated in deciding whether the catechumen was ready to make a lifelong commitment to God.
Catechetical instruction included the exposition of the Golden Rule and the two great commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. During the period of instruction, catechumens were expected to worship regularly and were permitted to participate in agape meals. They were probably excluded from the Lord’s Supper.9
It is possible to engage teens in a three-year preparation for church membership while they participate in the worship and work of a congregation. Some congregations already have a three-year period of preparation. All activities in which teens participate are considered part of their preparation. From this more holistic perspective on spiritual formation, this period of training is expected to prepare teens to choose whether they are ready to confess faith in Jesus Christ. If baptism means membership in the Church universal, it may more properly belong to that time in life when a profession of faith in Jesus Christ is possible.
If intentional spiritual formation precedes commitment, it is only the ritual and not the nature of participation in the congregation that would change. Perhaps choosing the sacrament of baptism rather than a confirmation of infant baptism would distinguish a commitment to Jesus Christ from a choice to join a church. A recent study of factors in effective Christian education found that two denominations — the Southern Baptist Convention and the Disciples of Christ — do not experience a decline in the commitment of teens in the church. They are the only denominations of six included in the study that do not practice infant baptism.10
In evangelical and Pentecostal churches, teens do choose their own baptism, usually between the ages of twelve and fifteen. This choice is not the result of intentional spiritual formation, but the effect is similar. Their baptism is more a calling, because they are immersed in the ethos of a congregation. They experience spiritual formation through regular participation in the life of a congregation over an extended period of time. These youths are not motivated primarily by family loyalty. Rather, they choose to commit themselves to live the Christian life as they have learned it from a congregation.
There is resistance among pastors and educators to alternatives to the confirmation class because it sounds like a longer period of preparation. They say that teens will drop out before they are confirmed. The alternatives proposed are not longer. They represent a different understanding of preparation with a different objective.
The issue is the nature of the choice being made and how anyone reaches a point of readiness to confess faith in Jesus Christ. Confirmation class is not a time when teens are prepared to be officially confirmed by the church. Already baptized teens are being prepared to confirm that Jesus Christ is the Lord of their lives. Baptism is an act of the church through which God’s grace is made available. Confirmation is the response of an individual to the reality of God’s grace, through which faith is gratefully acknowledged and publicly claimed.
Most current membership rituals communicate a message that belonging to a church is not a serious, life-changing commitment. Congregations perpetuate the illusion that membership in a congregation is the same as confessing faith in Jesus Christ when they refuse to consider alternatives. Especially in a time of membership decline, pastors fear that prospective members might be alienated if a congregation has stated expectations of members.
One of the reasons that congregations grow is that they are clear about what membership represents. The real issue is not whether there are membership requirements in a congregation; it is whether fulfilling the requirements will elicit loyalty to Jesus Christ that is stronger than loyalty to family ideals.
1. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, “What Makes Faith Mature?” The Christian Century (May 9, 1990): 498. While I find the assumptions about faith as something that matures or “develops” theologically unacceptable, the information about “effective Christian education programs” is useful.
3. For examples of this approach to liturgy and catechesis, see chapter 1, John H. Westerhoff III and William H. Willimon, Liturgy and Learning Through the Life Cycle (New York: Seabury Press, 1980).
4. See Gertrude Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God (New York: Paulist Press 1986) for a sensitive treatment of the moods and meanings of the seasons of the church year.
5. See Donald P. Smith, Congregations Alive: Practical
Suggestions for Bringing Your Church to Life Through Partnership in Ministry (Philadelphia: Press, 1981) for examples of how to get started with this kind of partnership in ministry.
6. See Charles Foster, Communicating: Informal Conversation in the Congregation’s Education,” C. Ellis Nelson, ed., Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform (Atlanta: John Knox,1988). The essay includes a helpful analysis of the power of hidden communication networks in a congregation.
7. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 52-54.
8. William T. Kosanovich, Jr., “Confirmation and American Presbyterians,” Affirmation 2 (Spring 1989); 55.
9. M. H. Shepherd, Jr., “Didache,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. l (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), pp. 841-42.
10. Roehlkepartain, “What Makes Faith Mature?” p. 497.