On my pilgrimage following after Jesus, the idea of "confirmation" did not mean much until I was given charge of a "confirmation class." I took a position as a youth pastor at a new church start, and many of my students were new to the Christian life. Some of them had been baptized, though not all. Whether they had been baptized or not, most of them expressed a desire to grow in their life of discipleship to Jesus. And for those that expressed deeper commitment, the opportunity to be confirmed in the faith presented a compelling opportunity.
As students participated in the life of our group, the students learned the beliefs, practices, and commitments that went along with the Christian life. Each student exhibited a different degree of understanding. Some had made clear commitments, and were active in asking questions and putting what they had learned into practice. Others were simply along for the ride. They enjoyed pizza, dodgeball, conversation, pizza, and the presence of caring adults. They were surrounded with the stories of Scripture and participated in our rhythms, but their degree of commitment to Jesus was difficult to measure. Our youth group consisted of a real mixed bag. But they were a delightful mixed bag.
I have mentioned that "confirmation" did not mean much to me until I was given charge of a group of confirmands. I grew up in a "believer's" church tradition, wherein confirmation was not a central rite. Those who received baptism did so following a profession of faith. While growing up I do not recall attending or even being invited to the confirmation of friends or neighbors from other Christian traditions. I had heard of confirmation, but had never witnessed it. Therefore, I had no firm grasp of the concept--why it would, or should, be carried forth, what role it had played in the life of the church, or how "confirmands" should be led or instructed. After receiving some input from my pastor, I decided that if we would confirm anyone, we should do our best to teach the basics of the Christian faith, including important points of doctrine, history, and practice. I also decided that this instruction should take place in a healthy, vibrant environment of love and fellowship carried out in the name of Jesus. I needed other Christians to be the loving presence of Jesus for our students. And I was blessed to have people like this who were willing to help.
My experience leading confirmation was a delight. We created space for sincere questions, and engaged in doctrinal discussions that included the authority of Scripture, ecclesiology, christology, anthropology, soteriology, and the history of doctrine. We talked specifically about the development of Methodism, the importance of John Wesley to Methodist people, and the distinctives Methodism now offers to the world and Christianity. The students displayed keen understanding, and made connections to their everyday lives. They were able to receive prayer during our retreats and meetings, and they were able to serve the community either through helping the confirmation gatherings take place or by serving in the city as part of a designated service project. Confirmation was a time for the students to live into the commitments their parents had made on their behalf in baptism, and to take ownership of the Christian faith in a way that was appropriate to their stage of moral and cognitive development.
Such observations will explain why it was to my great surprise to read Martin B. Copenhaver's critical thoughts about the rite of confirmation in his article, "What's Confirmation For?" in the June 2009 issue of The Christian Century. Copenhaver begins by sharing recent changes to the rite of confirmation in his congregation. He explains that confirmands, most of them ninth graders, would compose individual statements of faith at a yearly retreat and present those statements to the congregation on a Sunday morning, who would then ooh and ah as each confirmand recited their statement of theological conviction. Copenhaver remarks that, "Typically, some statements were somewhat stumbling attempts to capture those enduring mysteries, while others could only be called statements of doubt." Copenhaver reports that, "One year, when the statements were particularly eloquent and seemed to bear startlingly accurate witness to the God who is worshipped in that sanctuary each Sunday, a member of the congregation said, without irony, 'After listening to those beautiful statements, God must be feeling especially good today.'" He was unimpressed. Upon hearing this, he found it doubtful that "the God who hung the stars in the heavens and set the earth in its orbit had spent a sleepless Saturday night anxiously awaiting the verdict that would be rendered by a group of 15-year-olds the next morning."
Instead of expressing delight in what God might have been doing through the power of the Holy Spirit in this confirmation experience, he states plainly, "Over the years I have come to realize that I am just not that interested in a 15-year-old's reflection on eternal matters. I think we do youths a disservice by implying that they have anything important to say on such things at that point in their lives. Doing so may only create more adults who are overly infatuated with their own opinions." But Copenhaver's lack of interest in the theological reflections of a 15-year-old reflects more about him than they do a rite which, in his estimation, needs revision.
Copenhaver goes on to say, quite rightly, that "The proper focus of the rite of confirmation is not on what any individual believes but on what the church affirms." As a result, confirmation rites in his congregation were changed to ask students if they wish to be followers of Jesus, a more devotional type of commitment, but one that directs the students toward the idea of journey and pilgrimage rather than destination. Copenhaver is not totally satisfied with this approach, but he believes it is at least better than the prior procedure, which focused on the theological convictions of a 15-year-old above the theological confession of the church.
Copenhaver is still seeking a better alternative. He suggests that confirmation is a rite now "in search of a meaning." He examines historic practice of confirmation, in which a bishop would anoint and lay hands on confirmands following their baptism, and wonders if the separation of baptism and confirmation has created problems that cannot be overcome. Copenhaver believes that "when confirmation is understood apart from baptism, the emphasis is mistakenly placed on a confirmand's qualifications rather than on God's unqualified gift." He states, "In such an understanding, confirmation is no longer about the church confirming a person's baptism. Instead, it becomes an opportunity for the individual to confirm--or not--what the church has done in baptism."
Copenhaver notes that the rite of confirmation is now perceived by some to be "our last chance to lay some claim on [teenage confirmands] before they leave the fold." He knows many will leave, though he does not care to reflect on why this may be the case. Because Copenhaver believes that some will leave for good and some will return, "confirmation" or a similar rite performed during the teenage years should be a time the church can "confirm" or reaffirm the vows the congregation made in the youth's baptism, "no matter what they may believe at the moment or where life may take them." If the youth leaves the church after such a rite, at least they will know they are loved and that "those commitments would be like a light kept in the window until they are ready to return home."
Copenhaver believes that a normative age for confirmation should be abandoned entirely, and that such a rite should be reserved for those who return to the church as a young adult. These are the same young adults who were confirmed as teenagers, left after moving away from home, and now return to the church with their children, having discovered that "there is another child, the one within me, who wants to grow." After recommitting themselves, Copenhaver believes, a rite of confirmation at such a time "would not resemble a graduation ceremony so much as another kind of celebration--a joyous homecoming."
While such celebrations are welcome, Copenhaver's account appears to assume that the church is a voluntary association of individuals who happen to arrive at some of the same theological conclusions, rather than a body of people constituted by God in Jesus Christ and entrusted with unique, peculiar truths. His account of confirmation as homecoming appears to betray his conviction that the church and her confessions are more important than the individual and their personal statements of belief. We simply wait for people to "come back around" to a point where they can submit their lives to the church's creeds, rather than actively inviting those (even those who have strayed) to share in our confessions. I see such persons as being little different than 15-year-olds composing their statements of faith. I assume Copenhaver exercises greater respect for such persons because they can now "think for themselves," as opposed to 15-year-olds, who, Copenhaver assumes, have no such capacity.
Copenhaver's account leaves me wondering how many church leaders share these same concerns, and how many church leaders have examined why they observe a rite of confirmation for their teenagers. Does our liturgy effectively demonstrate the church's conviction that the God who "began a good work" in the baptism of our children is working to bring it to completion? Does our liturgy accurately reflect that confirmation is but a witness to the grace of God that has sustained and nurtured the young in the life of the church? As we explain what is taking place during the rite of confirmation, do we make it clear to our young people that the church is entrusting to them the stories and traditions of the Christian faith, and that confirmation is not only an act of approval and acceptance, but a commissioning to live a particular type of life?
I put this article down believing that the confession of the church is central in the rite of confirmation, but not in the same way as Copenhaver. I believe that the confession of the church is important inasmuch as confirmands are making that confession their own. I acknowledge that, yes, some confirmands will go their own way, but that is not so much the fault of our confirmands as it is the strength of our connection as the Body of Christ. In addition, the flight of many can be attributed to the degree to which we form our students in the spiritual life before they leave the church. In other words, we are seeing people leave our fellowship because of what we are doing, not in spite of it. And the reality is, we can do better.
One step in the direction of "doing better" will be to take the theological reflections of 15-year-olds seriously. Questions will arise, convictions will change, waver, deepen, and, hopefully, become sure. Along the way, we will be blessed by the companionship these young people provide, and for those that continue to journey with us our prayer should be that of thanksgiving, for their presence truly is a gift from God.
I haven't given up on confirmation as a rite of young adolescence. And I don't think we should.