Magazine article The Christian Century

What's Confirmation For?

Magazine article The Christian Century

What's Confirmation For?

Article excerpt

UNTIL RECENTLY, it was the practice of the congregation I serve for the members of the confirmation class, most of them ninth graders, to write individual statements of faith. In those statements the youth were asked to say what they believe about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In reading newsletters from other congregations, I have noticed that this is a common practice.

In our congregation the statements were written with great ceremony at a retreat that was held the month of confirmation Sunday. During the service of confirmation a number of those who were about to be confirmed read their statements to the congregation. Typically, some statements were somewhat stumbling attempts to capture these enduring mysteries, while others could only be called statements of doubt. The congregation would receive each with the lavish appreciation and praise of a parent who has just been presented with a child's first drawing.

One year, when the statements were particularly eloquent and seemed to bear startlingly accurate witness to the God who is worshiped 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"--as if 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.

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. In fact, 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.

The proper focus of the rite of confirmation is not on what any individual believes but on what the church affirms. The church is rightly interested in knowing whether someone will confirm vows made on their behalf at baptism. But it is telling, I think, that we do not ask a person who is about to be baptized, "Before we baptize you, will you tell us what you have concluded about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit?"

So now, at least, we ask a different question of young people before they are confirmed: "Do you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ?" Although this calls for a more devotional response, it too has its problems. After all, most of the youth are at the precise point in their lives when they are questioning everything, a time when everything seems up for grabs. They are in the midst of negotiating that slippery, uncertain transition between having a secondhand faith and claiming a firsthand faith. It is, in short, precisely the wrong time to ask them what they believe. Much of our work with younger teenagers can be an attempt to answer questions that they have not yet asked. No wonder many of them evidence little interest in playing along: Is there anything more annoying than someone who insists on scratching when as yet there is no itch?

In some respects confirmation is a rite in search of a meaning. Originally, the term referred to a bishop's anointing and laying hands on candidates after they had been baptized. First the candidates were baptized, then they were brought to the bishop to have their baptism confirmed. When bishops became overseers of multiple congregations, people were baptized by local priests, and only later were these baptisms confirmed by the bishop when he visited the local parish. …

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