Friday, June 30, 2006

Thoughts on Confirmation

We had a confirmation at my church last Sunday. It was somewhat out of season, as confirmations are normally performed on Reformation Sunday in my congregation, but due to unusual circumstances, this young man was forced to delay the event until summer. So he stood by himself in front of the pastor and the congregation, and solemnly professed his Christian faith. Afterwards, we all shook his hand and ate some cake in the church basement.

It was a pleasant scene, and it brought back memories of my own confirmation, which occurred nearly 13 years ago. In particular, it reminded me of how clueless I was about the whole thing. Did I know what I was "signing-up" for? No. Did I really understand the content of the Christian faith to which I was pledging myself? No. Did I care if I was confirmed or not? Not in the slightest. Was I happy about the party afterwards? Perhaps, but only to the extent that cash from my relatives might be forthcoming.

In a section of Book on Adler, Kierkegaard depicts a lovely bourgeois family living in Christendom. Since they are (of course) Christians, when the time comes, their eldest son is confirmed:

"Let us then take the oldest of the children; he is now at the age when he is to be confirmed. It follows, of course, that the youth answers yes to the questions the pastor puts to him; how in all the world would anything else occur to the youth? Has one ever heard that anyone has answered no? On the other hand, it perhaps may have been pointed out to him that he should not answer too loudly and not too softly either, but should do it in a becoming and courteous manner... It is to such a degree obvious that he is to answer yes, indeed, to such a degree that his attention, instead of being directed to the answer, is directed to the purely aesthetic side of the formality. So he answers yes - neither too loudly nor too softly, but with the cheerful boldness and yet modest propriety that is becoming in a young person. On the day of confirmation, his father is somewhat more earnest than usual... The mother is moved; she has even cried in church... Thus the youth on his confirmation day will probably have a more solemn impression of the father, a moving impression of the mother; he will gratefully and joyfully remember this day as a beautiful recollection, but he does not receive any decisive Christian impression."

Kierkegaard's tale bears a striking resemblance to my own confirmation, and I doubt that I am alone in this matter. For many (if not most) of our youth, confirmation is merely a cultural "coming-of-age" event that carries very little religious significance. And parents tend to view the ceremony as proof that they have successfully raised Christian children (and, having done so, they no longer need to drag the kids to church on Sundays). Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but it seems to me that our churches need to reconsider the nature of confirmation.

One suggestion would be to raise the "confirmation age". We should ask ourselves: Is a fifteen or sixteen-year-old person really mature enough to make such an important decision? After all, according to most experts, adolescence now lasts well into one's twenties, so perhaps we should postpone this rite of passage to a later date. That might make confirmation more meaningful for all involved.


Patrik said...

I think it would, but that's the problem with a chruch allied with the burgeois. You cannot change a thing like that, because it serves a completely different purpose in the society system than it does in the church.

Thomas Adams said...

Patrik, I think you're absolutely correct. Any church that tried to increase the confirmation age, or raise the standards to make the process more demanding, would immediately encounter a legion of outraged parents complaining that their children are being denied their “right” to this important ceremony. It would be as if the local high school cancelled the prom (for those outside the U.S., the prom is a formal dance for adolescents). And the anger would stem from the fact that most families believe that the church has a duty to certify their children as “good kids”, whether or not they actually understand or care about the Christian faith. Confirmation is considered one of the perks of church membership.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

I think a church can get around many of the conflicts inherent in changing the confirmation age by having a Christian Education Committee study all the sides of the issue and then make a recommendatin.

Junior high is pretty young because the kids are not ready for abstract thinking. Twelfth grade is pretty late because the kids have jobs and are really busy going and looking at colleges. Later than that, they have left.

Don't forget, when an unconfirmed adult decides to join a church, that person usually has to go through a short course with the pastor and other new members. That's usually all. So if we are requiring more of the younger students, there'd better be a good reason. I think that a good reason is to instill the basics of the faith and the denomination.

A pastor here, maybe 25 years ago, used to have the confirmation class for everybody of the chosen age, but the actual confirmation ceremony was not a "herd" event. Rather, one or two of the students were confirmed on a given Sunday after each had decided that this was right for them and they talked individually to the pastor.

I think that fulfills both the "instruction" aspects of confirmation and the "promise" aspect.

Dwight P said...

In contadiction of my usual views of confirmation, let me say a couple of positive things.

In my American Lutheran tradition, we try to see confirmation as a process, not an end product. The process is an effort to help -- in this case, young -- Christians to integrate the great traditions of the faith into their lives. The rite of confirmation (which makes no sense theologically, to Lutheran theology -- see my rant at point along a continuum of actions by which the individual Christian and the congregation (on behalf of the Church) mutually assure, support, and confirm their commitment to one another.

It is not a once-for-all acceptance by the confirmand of the fullness of the Christian faith and a commitment to her ways. It may be such in some of the traditional liturgical Churches, however; I'm not quite sure about that. And heaven knows that that is the way it is usually perceived by confirmands and congregations alike.

Because of what I have outlined, however, churches should be more intentional about providing for more opportunities for Christians to make their "growth in grace." That would provide a chance for someone who has returned to the faith after a sojourn elsewhere or someone who has newly come to a new plateau in her understanding of and commitment to the life of the Church to witness to that change and to be assured of the congregations affirmation of that development.