It wasn’t too long that I sat in a non-denominational and Baptist church dreaming of a way to create a right-of-passage experience for teens in which they could more concretely take ownership of their faith instead of it happening haphazardly at some point between their Junior High through college years. Then I got involved in this United Methodist church where one of the expectations was to teach a Confirmation class. Little did I know what I was in for. Much to my surprise I discovered that many of the mainline churches were light years ahead of the evangelical churches when it came to a particular right-of-passage called Confirmation. Now as I began asking other youth pastors about Confirmation I got a grim picture of what this program has morphed into at many churches. It was described to me as a theological class that was enforced on teens for the sake of their parents and as soon as they finished the attitude was that they “graduated” from church. So the overall sense was that many of the teens involved in youth group where not directly influenced by Confirmation or vise-versa. Now I have had the privilege of confirming my third class here at Epiphany UMC. During these three years the Confirmation process has been just as much of an educational / spiritual experience for me as well as the students. The establishment of this process at this particular church has had an overwhelmingly positive effect in the lives of the teens as well as the whole congregation. There are many things to celebrate. But also, after three years of immersing myself into this process, I am beginning to see areas that we can most definitely improve on. Let’s begin with the positive aspect of the program.
Positive Elements of Confirmation
1. Mentoring: Students have an adult mentor who walks with them through the journey of Confirmation.
2. Education: Students receive a well-rounded education that covers Christian Theology, Church History and United Methodist history and doctrine.
3. Retreats: Students have several retreats that they are required to attend in which team bonding among each other, with their mentors and with the church staff, is essential.
4. The Concluding Weekend: All of the families involved and the entire church has been amazing in coming around each class and making the final weekend a special weekend that is truly a “right-of-passage” in the most amazing way possible.
With these things in mind, it is fair and right to say that this has been the most successful program for students prior to my arrival.
Changes Over the Past Three Years
Now during the time that I have been here at this church some positive changes have occurred within the Student Ministry.
1. Growth in our Junior High and Senior High: We have had a significant amount of teens become apart of our Student Ministries Church family.
2. Growth in Our Adult Volunteers: We have had many adults get involved in leading small groups and assisting with major activities such as mission trips, Ichthus, retreats and Tuned-OUT activities.
3. Growth in Our Confirmation Class: The first two years we has a class of 20 students for each year. This past year we went up by 50% with a class of 30. Next year’s class is supposed to grow again by a conservative estimate of 50% again.
4. Extension of the Confirmation Process: When I arrived, the Confirmation process lasted approximately 3 months. One of the first things that I changed was the expansion of the duration of the class to one full year.
Potential Areas for Improvement
As I receive feedback from those who were involved in the Confirmation process, those who are about to enter into it for next year, my adult leaders, the mentors, and also information from a recent conference and recent research, I believe that there are areas that we can most certainly improve on as the next class gets ready for this awesome right-of-passage.
1. The Concerns Which Began the Conversations
As many of you can tell just by checking out the videos on YouTube, this year was an exceptional year for Confirmation. We had a great class, many great people who were involved in the whole process, and retreats that topped all of the previous classes! But as the Confirmation class has grown and the youth group itself has been growing, there have been some concerns that have been raised as we have begun many of the conversations that have helped to explore ways in which we can refine the process together. Here is a list of some of the concerns that have been raised in light of this past year.
a. Mentors: We have come to a point that I believe we are maxing out the adult population of our congregation when it comes to deep, significant, spiritual mentoring. In trying to lead a class of 30 middle school students it becomes increasingly hard to guide a large group of mentors in being as effective as they should be. During this year we had a hard time getting all of the mentors we needed. We also had a handful of situations in which the mentor just was not able to invest the necessary time into the process which lead to a sense of disappointment and frustration with the student and his parents.
b. Parents: Very little is expected of parents as their teen goes through this process. This actually is unfortunate as you will see when we look at the theological framework and scholarship that heavily supports parental involvement as a critical component to the development of teens. I do not want to contribute to an attitude of parents “out-sourcing” their teenager’s spirituality.
c. Connection into the Youth Group and Church: Each class has a small percentage of students who, for whatever reason, drift away from church and youth group once Confirmation is over. The expectation is that during the Confirmation process they are to attend the main services and youth group. The reality is that some do, and some don’t. If the family only comes for one hour, then the student attends Confirmation and then goes home. As far as youth group is concerned, some have actively gotten involved in youth group and their small group while others have not.
d. My current adult leaders: I will be the first to say that I have an amazing team, the best adult team I have ever had the privilege of serving. They are phenomenal with our teenagers. If it takes a community to raise a teenager then I want these adults to assist, support and guide my children along as they head into the murky waters of adolescence. The issue is that almost all of my adult leaders are spread out into all three categories above. This makes for a crazy schedule, and most likely, over-exposure in some areas.
2. Theological Considerations
A large portion of the book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon as it author. Solomon grew up under the influence of King David whom God declared in 1 Samuel 13:14 as a “man after his own heart.” Solomon grew up under the influence of watching his parents walk in the ways of the Lord. And in reflecting on this, Solomon attributes a lot of who he is under the structure of his family and their ability to instill their wisdom within him. In Proverbs 1:8-9, Solomon impresses upon his own son with these words: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.” If Solomon’s own parents did not make a deep impact on his own life then this advice would not so easily begin the entire book of Proverbs.
Also in Ephesians 6:1 we see that Paul writes to the children in the church of Ephesus stating: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’.” This passage implies that parents are an integral part of the development of the children both spiritually as well as sociologically. They are the main authority figures in the lives of their children. It is their responsibility to train them in such a way that their teens are able to integrate into church and society so that they are able to venture off and make a deep and lasting impact wherever they may go.
But on the other hand, the Scripture has a lot to say about mentoring within the community of believers. Paul in his letter to Titus explains the need for Titus to teach and train the older generations in his church so that the older women “. . . can train the younger women” (Titus 2:4) and that he and the men in his congregation can “. . . encourage the young men to be self-controlled.” (Titus 2:6). Paul in his first letter to Timothy written around the same time also encouraged Timothy at his church to “. . . not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). Paul clearly sees the importance of the community of believers coming around the younger generations and investing their lives in them in such a way that their faith flourishes.
3. Current Scholarship on Teens and Families
A lot of time has passed between ancient Israel and the 21st century. In fact there are many issues today that are having a serious impact on families. Chap Clark, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, states in his book “Disconnected” that the problem is that:
“We (as ‘adults,’ not necessarily as individuals) have hurt our kids. We, all of us, have led our children into an environment where they have never been more ill-equipped to handle the world we have handed them, we expect much and complain much, and yet we listen so little. We demand respect and courtesy, but we are unwilling to return what we demand. In every system and structure, organization and institution, we have literally left our kids adrift in a growing tempest without the power or compass to help them navigate their way around and through the storms that life will throw at them. . . . We believe what has separated us from our kids and caused adolescence to lengthen in not a reaction to any one influence but rather these and many other factors all combining together as visible symptoms of a deeper, even more insidious and destructive conspiracy of neglect by default. . . . We have disassembled our ‘metanarrative,’ our communal story. We have ripped ourselves away from family, friends, and meaningful relationships. We have given in to the idea that the only thing to live for is TGIF (‘Thank God It’s Friday’), where all we have to offer our children is an opportunity to indulge in a favorite leisure activity while we wait to retire. We have no vision, no passion, no dreams – and worse, we’ve passed on this fatalistic, dismal, and depressing legacy to our kids. We have no idea what it means to live, to laugh, to dance. And we wonder why our children don’t want to become adults more quickly!” (pp. 72-74).
This is a book that we as a church have offered to parents as a small group study. Not surprisingly, many parents don’t have the time to attend the class but those who have, really wrestled with this idea that teens today feel abandoned and alone. It is easy to think that “kids are kids” and that teens today are not much different that when we were teens. But overwhelmingly, across the board, those involved in the study of adolescents would strongly disagree, noting profound changes of seismic proportions with today’s youth in contrast to generations past.
“Aloneness” is the word that Patricia Hersch uses in her observations of today’s teenagers. In her ground-breaking book “A Tribe Apart” Patricia states that:
Youngsters have lost more than secure families and adult interaction: they grow up in a world that lacks consistency and structure. There are no magic formulas to financial security, job stability, marital harmony. Technology and the media create a world without boundaries. For adolescents there is available a dizzying array of lifestyle choices, at the same time that home and community fail to provide a balancing sense of security. The changing contexts rob development of its coherency. Like a handful of pebbles tossed in a raging stream, young people today, as well as many adults around them, seem rushed along in currents out of their control, often ending up in completely unexpected places. . . . A clear picture of adolescents, of even our own children, eludes us – not necessarily because they are rebelling, or avoiding or evading us. It is because we aren’t there. Not just parents, but any adults. American society has left its children behind as the cost of progress in the workplace. This isn’t about working parents, right or wrong, but an issue for society to set its priorities and to pay attention to its young in the same way it pays attention to its income. . . . adolescents are growing up with no adults around, a deficit of attention, and no discussion about whether it matters at all. The most stunning change for adolescents today is their aloneness.” (p. 19)
Dr. Ron Taffel agrees with this assessment in his book “The Second Family” noting that:
The real problem is quite simple: Although most parents love their children, they aren’t able to pay the right kind of attention to them. . . . No matter how hard they try, many parents don’t really hear their children. They don’t really see them. They don’t know enough about the world their children inhabit, their interests, their motives. They know even less about adolescence, because too many of their children, as young as twelve or thirteen, have already drifted away from them. (p. 7).
These are the similar words used above to describe today’s adolescents: “drifted away”, “aloneness”, “adrift”, “separated”, “neglect”. As we let these words sink in, the obvious question is what does the consensus of these authors provide as a way to improve the plight of adolescences today?
In the most comprehensive study ever done on the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers, Christian Smith states in his book “Soul Searching” that:
The best way to get most youth more involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities. For decades in many religious traditions, the prevailing model of youth ministry has relied on pulling teens away from their parents. In some cases, youth ministers have come to see parents as adversaries. There is no doubt a time and place for unique teen settings and activities; still, our findings suggest that overall youth ministry would probably best be pursued in a larger context of family ministry, that parents should be viewed as indispensable partners in the religious formation of youth. More broadly, one of the most important things that adults who are concerned about how teenagers’ religious and spiritual lives are going to turn out can do is to focus attention on strengthening their own and other adults’, especially parents’, religious and spiritual lives. For in the end, they most likely will get from teens what they as adults themselves are. (p. 267)
Parents are seen as the most vital influence in the development of the spiritual lives of teenagers. In “The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager” author Thomas Hine believes that:
. . . the most powerful positive factor that determines the well-being of young people, according to the 1997 adolescent heath study, is the presence of parents who are engaged in their children’s lives and have high expectations for them. On average, young people spend more time hanging out with people their own age. Still, just about every study that has been made of young people in their teens shows that they seek a connection with their parents and are very sensitive to their actions. (p. 25)
Teens want a relationship with their parents even if their actions might be saying something else.
In Patricia Hersch’s concluding remarks she also affirms that:
Kids need adults who bear witness to the details of their lives and count them as something. They require the watchful eyes and the community standards that provide greater stability. They need appreciation for who they are. . . The kids . . . who do best are those who have a strong interactive family and a web of relationships and activities that surround them consistently. (p. 363)
It is not right to give into the concept that generations are divided against each other but it is imperative that we bridge the generations together for the best possible environment for healthy development of our children.
In Dr. Ron Taffel’s final chapter he also affirms that:
There’s nothing wrong with expecting kids to give of themselves, but . . . the gesture is more meaningful when teens join with adults and create intergenerational connections around good deeds. Sharing charitable endeavors provides a forum that enables parents and children to break through the boundaries usually separating their worlds. Connectedness comes out of collective caring. (p. 186)
Intergenerational connections sound like mission trips, Ichthus Festival, retreats, Confirmation, and small groups! In many ways we are pursuing exactly what the doctor ordered, although I think we can improve and strengthen how we do this.
And finally, Chap Clark reminds us that it is the parent
. . . who cares enough about the big picture. A coach, teacher, or even youth pastor may be a great support to your child at various points along the way, but you are one who is there day after day, year after year, to encourage, develop, and deepen your child in the name and Spirit of Christ. So our job as parents is to continually work on knowing our kids and looking to help them as they grow, all in an effort to be there for them on their quest to discover who they are and where they fit. (p. 26)
Adult supports come in and out of the natural stages of child and teen development but the most consistent and steady presence is that of the parent. With all that in mind we are now ready to consider some areas that I believe can be significantly improved for the following year with Confirmation.
4. Suggestions for Improvement to the Confirmation Process
Primary Mentor: Parents
As seen in the quotes above it is vitally, dare I say absolutely necessary, that we empower the parents to be the primary mentors of their teens. They are the ones with the long-term investment. They are the ones who, intentional or not, have discipled their teens up to this point and will continue to be a significant spiritual influence, intentional or not, in the life of their teen for the rest of their lives. Parents need to feel empowered and given the tools and encouragement to develop the spirituality of their teens. Plus, I do not want to contribute to an attitude of parents “out-sourcing” their teen’s spiritual development. If they do not see themselves as the primary disciples of their own children then what the church has to offer is only a mere band-aid. Here are my suggestions:
a. Each family will be given the “One-Minute Bible for Students” by Fields and Kohlenberger. Instead of a student being responsible for reading through the New Testament during Confirmation, the family will be required to do devotions together with this Bible each day. It is their choice to pick the best time of day for devotions. Keep in mind the title of the Bible! It is essentially only giving God one-minute of your day as a family to learn together. But as I have personally tested out this Bible on my family, it has generated some very interesting discussions and we are praying together as a family. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes, other times we are all sitting around the family room engaged in very interesting conversation about God’s Word.
b. Parents will be given the “Talkpoints for Parents and Youth”. At several points during the Confirmation process they will be encouraged to have these conversations with their teens. Instead of having to schedule a formal time to go out, like the mentors, the parents can have these conversations as they hang out at home, travel to the next soccer game, go to a park, etc.
a. Team approach: 1 adult to 4 students
I will be the first to admit that my knee-jerk reaction towards the end of Confirmation was to eliminate the mentoring process and shift the entire focus over to the parents. But as I have had some more time to think, and personally realize the benefit to myself as a father of a confirmand next year, I see the advantage of someone outside of the family circle affirming and encouraging my son with the faith that we have instilled in him. I see the benefit of mentors coming along side of the parents. So instead of an either/or scenario between parents and mentors, I am proposing a both/and solution to the best possible environment for the spiritual development of our teens.
The first issue that I need to address is the fact that I believe we overextended ourselves in trying to get a mentor for each confirmand. It got to the point of being frustrating and embarrassing for our few remaining students to get paired up with a mentor. We ended up having some mentors take on two students which ended up being a positive experience. Once that was accomplished the mentoring process had a wide range of successes and breakdowns. For a variety of reasons there were some mentors who just really struggled with getting together with their confirmand. The increasing business of people’s lives along with the random surprise of personal issues that need attention left some teens essentially without a mentor. I also noticed the difficulty for most people to add another thing to their calendar to go out individually with their confirmand.
My first proposal is that we make the mentoring process a team effort. Each mentor would take on approximately 4 students. This would help with the awkwardness of students being one-on-one with an adult. This would foster better dialogue. And overall I think that this is a healthier context for spiritual growth. Jesus had 12 disciples but he also had a core group of 3 within the 12. The only case in which I see one-on-one discipleship occurring in the Scripture is when Barnabas took Paul under his wing but that was because everyone else was too afraid to accept Paul’s conversion as genuine!
b. Educational experience
Instead of mentors taking on the task of creating time to go out, I think it would be best for the mentors to be included in the educational process. This will give them weekly contact with their group of students. I will make the teaching experience interactive so that the mentor is not a passive participator but part of the teaching experience. And we could possibly develop a teaching team where I can be a part of the rotation instead of the only primary teacher.
c. Strengthening the long term connections to growth
One of the concerns listed above was the connection into the Youth Group and Church. Once again, this seems to be accomplished haphazardly with some doing it and some not doing it. Getting the teens to the church service raises a whole host of issues, but it ultimately comes down to the church having to intentionally create a culture that encourages families to see Sunday morning as a 2-hour experience instead of one hour. To enforce this on the teenagers without empowering the whole family will only lead to disappointment.
The other issue is connecting students into the youth group more intentionally. Some make it to youth group and others don’t for whatever reason. My intention is that Confirmation kick-starts a process of spiritual growth for them all throughout the teens’ years here at the church. If they drift away from the church after Confirmation then I see this as ultimately a failed process. Either we did not do the Confirmation process correctly or the student did not get it. In order to better integrate them into youth group I propose that the mentor takes advantage of our small group program at the very minimum of once a month. Every month we do an activity called Tuned-OUT. The mentor would come, with their vehicle, invite their confirmands and attend the activity in order to have fun with their confirmands! The things we have done in the past are: haunted houses, go out for ice cream, see movies, laser tag, scavenger hunts, Christmas parties, progressive dinners, etc. This way, the mentor is not required to make a completely separate time to go out. We provide the activity and the entire evening helps to also integrate them into the youth group. Now if the mentor wants to kick it up a notch, they can also commit to being a small group leader on the other Sunday evenings (Junior High Small Groups meet from 5-6:30 PM). I know that this would make for some commitment for Sundays throughout the school year, but in all seriousness the pay off would be so worth it. You would be taking advantage of programs that are already in place, you would be learning alongside of your confirmands, being integrated into the educational process, and we will make sure you have a blast with them once a month! The times are already set! You do not need to create extra time unless you think it is necessary.
At this point I want to invite dialogue into these thoughts and ideas that I have tossed out. This many or many not be the final look for Confirmation next year. There may be other ideas that we have not thought of. Some of you may be very excited or very terrified of some of the thoughts and ideas suggested here. I want to ask that you think and pray about these ideas. The ultimate outcome, if this is done correctly will be seen 10, 20 or 30 years from now. It is within this type of structure that I believe we will stop the stereotype of students drifting away from their faith as soon as they move away from home and go off to college. If their spiritual life is primarily fostered at home and supported and encouraged within the framework of the church, I believe that their faith will be strong enough to weather any storm that comes their way and will carry them into their adult years.
Also, I do realize that in light of the research above, it begs us to not only evaluate Confirmation but possibly other areas of youth ministry too. The timing is right for a healthy discussion as we enter into the Summer and we begin to dream about the new school year on the horizon.
Clark, Chap and Dee; Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World. Baker Books 2007.
Hersch, Patricia; A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence. Ballentine Books, 1998.
Hine, Thomas; The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. Avon Books, 1999.
Smith, Christian and Denton, Melinda Lundquist Denton; Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Taffel, Dr. Ron and Blau, Melinda; The Second Family: How Adolescent Power is Challenging the American Family. St. Martin's Press, 2001.