Again this year, I am writing a liturgy for confirmation with confusion, questioning, and consternation. I love the kids who are being confirmed. I love the community and camaraderie they have developed in a year of meeting, retreating, questioning, wondering, discovering, and constructing. I love how they articulate their faith…not always complete, not always theologically “correct”, but genuinely, from a deep place in their hearts, a place where God lives and the Spirit moves.
And yet when I gather with other young clergy, the confirmation issue always seems to come up. It’s always been “done,” say our congregations, our head pastors, and our older colleagues. Most of us seem to feel like the way it’s done doesn’t really fit anymore. We don’t know what to do with it.
I have quibbles with this whole process. There are so many pitfalls: the mistaken (to my theological thinking) idea that these young people are “joining” the church. Weren’t they already here? Isn’t that an odd thing to say when we baptized them in infancy? The way it turns into religious graduation is equally dangerous/treacherous. Does that really encourage the idea of constant growth in the Christian faith? What about the emphasis on parents, rather than on the whole congregation? Doesn’t that let everyone off the hook in the church’s responsibility to take on the Christian nurture of all its members? What about the idea that only the clergy can run the confirmation program? Confirmation isn’t about joining the clergy. It’s about joining the church.
Maybe my own confirmation is too close for comfort. I think back to my own class, and I know that the faith we all confirmerd we had has been firmer and more solid for some than for others. Many of us disappeared after this church “graduation,” opted out, and never came back. Some hit roadblocks and bumps that derailed the journey. I know some of them will come back some day. I know that God’s grace is big enough for us all. But were we really ready?
One of my colleagues pointed out, after his church had a dinner with the governing body and that year’s crop of confirmands, that maybe two of the eight were truly “ready.” The rest could barely articulate the faith, couldn’t remember basic details of the life of Jesus, didn’t have a basic grasp of concepts like the Trinity.
This brings me to yet another quibble: can we really “teach” these things in a year? If so, is it reasonable to expect a fourteen year old to articulate a doctrine that took the church 300 years to develop? Then again, is this really about intellectual understanding? Because, even with an M.Div, I barely understand the economics of the Trinity.
Maybe it’s more about commitment. But, at 13, 14, or 15, are we ready to make this kind of commitment? We constantly use the language of journey with our confirmands. But even for me, a minister, a supposed church “success” story, many days this whole Christian journey feels less like a gentle, rolling road and more like stepping off a cliff.
So I look through past confirmation services and see the usual themes: journey; rite of passage; parental and congregational pride; conferring of responsibility. As I prepare the service, I am shuffling the regular themes, trying to tweak them, trying to change the language just enough to get past the traditions and into the heart of the matter.
I wish I could just dump the whole thing, all the traditions and rituals this congregation has built up around this day, crumple them up, and throw them out, start out new. I find I’m at odds with the theology behind this moment. It is not rite of passage. It is not a graduation. It is not a group of kids joining the church by their own spirit and will and tenacity. It is not so big and noisy and fabulous as we make it out to be.
I will buck up and pull this service together: it is a moment my congregation depends on, a moment my head pastor depends on. For one Sunday, we can put aside any niggling worry that we are not growing, not reaching out, not bringing new people into the fold. For one Sunday, we can celebrate the unabashed success of eighteen young people lined up in their Sunday best, ready and willing to become adult members of our church. For one Sunday, parents can put aside worries that their children will not grow up to be responsible, church-going, God-fearing adults. I will pull this service together, ultimately because this is not my church, this is God’s church, and this moment is a moment that God’s people say they want.
But among the cake and congratulations, I will wish I could just take the whole service back to the font, that all we would do is dip our hands in the water, remember how it was to be damp from baptism, to cry a little from the shock of it, and to hang on for dear life to the robe or the sleeve of someone who held us, someone who had been here before.
Because, in the end, isn’t this just another place where we pause, pray for a breath of the Spirit, and step off the cliff?