By Marvin Bergman
By now, the newness of school supplies may be wearing off. Well into their first month back in classrooms, students are already counting down the days to Christmas break. But in confirmation classes, young Lutherans show no signs of slowing down.
In a recent survey of more than 1,000 confirmation leaders, parents, and youth that I conducted, an overwhelming majority of confirmands affirmed the importance and benefits of confirmation instruction. Adults also made it clear that confirmation is a very important ministry. Several highlights of the study will illustrate why confirmation is important.
Perhaps a brief overview of confirmation can help to clarify its role in the life of the church.
In the early church, when adults were the center of its outreach, the church developed a “catechumenate.” Though the catechumenate took many forms, the content was a confession of faith, instruction in the Word of God, Baptism, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, and Holy Communion.
In the fifth century, leaders of Western churches began to describe a bishop’s anointing of a priest with oil and the laying on of hands as a confirmation. Then, the initiation rites of those churches were divided into three separate parts: Baptism, confirmation, and first Communion. The claim made by the church in the Middle Ages was that the grace of God was given in Baptism for the remission of sins, while anointing of oil and the laying on of hands in confirmation resulted in a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit who gave strength for daily living. In 1150, confirmation became one of the seven sacraments of the church.
The Middle Age practice of confirmation became a target of Luther’s Reformation. He was amazed that the laying on of hands and anointing were called a sacrament, since neither was commanded by Christ nor ever endorsed as a channel of God’s grace. Luther’s focus was instruction in the Word of God, and he preached sermons on the key teachings of the Scriptures. He then wrote the Small and Large Catechisms for parents and pastors.
Today in the LCMS, some 99 percent of the congregations offer the rite of confirmation. The aim remains the same as the early church’s: to answer Christ’s call to go to the nations and make disciples by baptizing and teaching. In our society, outreach among children, youth and their parents presents the best opportunities to connect with the non-connected.
In my survey of 1,015 participants, confirmands reflected many of the benefits of the instruction and nurture of parents, confirmation leaders, teachers, and congregations. The survey results revealed that:
- Ninety-three percent of youth described confirmation as being very important or important.
- Three of four youth named growing in faith and living as a Christian as the number-one reason for being in confirmation.
- Confirmands have a clear view of the value of human life, with 90 percent rejecting the statement that it is OK for a couple to seek an abortion.
- While more than 50 percent of Protestant youth are involved in various forms of “supernatural” experiences such as astrology and a belief in reincarnation, 8 of 10 LCMS confirmands have nothing to do with these practices or beliefs.
- Ninety-eight percent of confirmands said that their faith in Jesus Christ helps them to know what is right and wrong.
- Ninety-eight percent of the parents said that confirmation is very important or important in the lives of their daughters and sons.
A theological ‘graduation’?
If Lutheran youth are eager to mine the rich theological treasures of the church now, what happens after confirmation? What is the role of parents? And how can pastors, directors of Christian education, Lutheran teachers, deaconesses and other congregational leaders help encourage these young people in the faith?
The survey found that more than nine of 10 leaders identified a “confirmation is graduation” view in their congregations.
When a schooling model is the structure for a confirmation ministry that includes grade levels, robes and diplomas, it is not surprising that the purpose of confirmation is seen as graduation. Leaders responding to the survey indicated that 41 percent of those who confirmed their faith in the rite of confirmation were active as high school seniors.
Confirmation leaders named issues in confirmation that present challenges. The most frequently named issues were:
- the need for a higher level of commitment by some parents,
- cultural and moral issues that are facing families today,
- issues related to confirmation such as one’s first Holy Communion and a time for the rite of confirmation, and
- responding to time and schedule conflicts.
In the same survey, “suggestions” for strengthening confirmation ministry included more applications of catechetical content in the lives of young people, a greater participation by youth in the congregation and in leadership roles, more involvement by the congregation in confirmation ministry and a greater clarity of expectations and accountability in a confirmation ministry.
What you can do
Considering this survey’s results, there are several things you can do to encourage the youth of your congregation prior to, during and after confirmation.
- Connect the cognitive content of catechetical instruction with life expressions of faith. For example, viewing the Lord’s Prayer as a topic of major importance can be linked to the practice of prayer and meditation as a topic of major importance rather than of somewhat or of no importance.
- Involve adult members other than parents in mentoring confirmands. The survey revealed that 32 percent of the confirmation ministries engaged adult mentors, and 51 percent of the parents indicated that mentoring relationships can provide a great deal of help for confirmands. More than one-half of the confirmands stated that meeting with an adult member for 30 minutes a week can be very important or important.
- Integrating a plan that will help young people to develop a better grasp of the Scriptures prior to the confirmation years can contribute to their growth in faith.
Similarly, each congregation can engage its youth in what it means to be Lutheran after confirmation by involving them in ministries that involve all generations.
More than nine in 10 confirmands who completed the survey said that their congregations were helping them to grow in faith and in living as a Christian. The same number stated that their confirmation experiences gave them great or much help to live as a Christian.
This is where parents, called church workers, lay teachers, grandparents, peers and congregations can make a huge difference. As a team, we can help young people develop a Law-Gospel view of God’s character as a seeking and sending God, be clear about their identity as disciples of Jesus Christ, be grasped by the power of the Gospel, stand on the solid foundation of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, have a vision of one’s role in the mission of Christ’s church and live daily in the light of one’s Baptism.
Being a new person in Christ happens through nurture and instruction based on Word and Sacraments. When confirmation contributes to this aim, isn’t this a blessing to celebrate?
For this survey, data from 1,015 adults and confirmation-age (11-16) youth were gathered in the spring of 2006, 2007 and 2008. Analysis and summary writing occurred in 2009 and into 2010.
The final summary report of the survey is posted on the website of Concordia University Nebraska at www.cune.edu/confirmation.
Dr. Marvin M. Bergman of Seward is an emeritus faculty member of Concordia University Nebraska and lay ministry coordinator for the LCMS Nebraska District. A 1959 graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, he earned doctorates from Columbia University and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He taught confirmation classes for 26 years.
Posted Sept. 1, 2010