Taking Confirmation Out of the Classroom

This year Abingdon Press brings out a new and revised edition of Making Disciples, my apprenticeship based approach to Confirmation. Since Making Disciples was launched a couple of decades ago, it has been used in thousands of churches of dozens of different denominations.  The new revision strengthens and updates the program, innovative in its inception, now setting the standard for mentoring novice Christians into the faith.

 

You can find information on the Coordinator’s Guide, Mentor’s Guide, and Confirmand’s Journal at https://www.abingdonpress.com/product/9781501848186#.W4c7iMQna1s.

 

Here’s the article from the March 16, 1988 Christian Century that launched Making Disciples and helped make this program of Confirmation one of the most widely used resources in the American church.

Taking Confirmation Out of the Classroom

As I met with the Christian education committee that evening, I could not hide my displeasure at the thought of spending three long months of Thursday afternoons trapped with a group of unwilling teenagers in our annual confirmation class.

I couldn’t help recalling an Episcopal friend of mine saying, ”Confirmation is a second-rate junior high commencement ceremony after we have marched the kids through a series of boring classes and then laying-on-­of-hands to graduate them out of the church.”

“Can’t we come up with something better?” I wondered aloud to the committee.

“One can’t devise appropriate educational methods,” commented one laywoman who teaches youngsters for a living, “until one has first defined what it is that one wants to teach. What is the ‘end product’ of this confirmation? What do you hope to accomplish?”

I responded with a thought off the top of my head. ”All I want is a group of youth who may one day grow up to resemble John Black.” (A true “patriarch” of our congregation, Black is every member’s idea of how a Christian ought to look.)

“That’s it!” she said. “All we want is a dozen youth who, in their beliefs and lives, come to look like our best Christians.’ ‘

“Now how on earth do we go about doing that?” asked another.

We put our heads together and created a confirmation method that might meet our goal. We agreed on a number of points:

        1. The goal of confirmation is discipleship: training people to resemble more closely, in their lifestyle, beliefs and values, disciples of Jesus.
        1. We want our young people, instead of knowing more about Christ, to know and follow Christ. Therefore, confirmation must require more than the elementary mastery of a few facts about Jesus, church history, the Bible, etc. Confirmation class should do nothing less than equip young Christians to be disciples.
        1. Christianity is more  than a “head trip”; it  is a way of life together. The total person is engaged in it. Education for this life must therefore be experiential and personal, suggesting that confirmation doesn’t end our growth as Christians. Our youth are already Christians. They are not ignorant of the faith; they have already been trying to live as Christians. Confirmation continues and strengthens Christian growth already begun.
        1. Most of us became Christians by looking over someone else’s shoulders, emulating some admired older Christian, taking up a way of life that was made real and accessible through the witness of someone else. So, while books and lectures could be used in confirmation class, they should only supplement the main task of putting young Christians in close proximity with older Christians- ‘mentors” who invite these younger Christians to look over their shoulders as they both attempt to live as Christians.

We polled various people in the church, including the youth, asking them, “Who of this church’s adults would be especially good in helping our youth deepen their faith?” From these (confidential) lists of names I selected 12 candidates, ranging in age from 23 to 68. When I asked each of them to participate, some expressed reservations, but all except two agreed to help. All were deeply moved that they had been suggested. I then assigned each of our ten confirmands to a mentor, or guide, as we eventually called the adult leader.

At the set-up meeting during the first week of Lent, the youth met their guides, and the Journey (as we called it) began. To each pair we gave a list of learning activities which had been devised by the committee. We told them to proceed at their own pace, and to follow their own interests. The activities could be completed in a few weeks or three months.

Among the 15 activities were:

Read the Gospel of Luke together. As each of you reads at home, note the. passages you find interesting, confusing or inspiring. Every two weeks, get together to discuss what you have read.

Attend Sunday services together for the next three months. After each service, discuss your reactions, questions and impressions

Get a copy of our church’s budget. Find out where our money goes. Discuss how each of you decides to make a financial commitment to the church.

Attend together any of our church board meetings during the next three months. Decide what congregational board or committee you would like to be on at the end of the confirmation process.

Explain ”why I like being a United Methodist Christian.” Discuss two aspects of our church about which you would like to know more. Ask our pastor or church librarian to help you find this in­ formation.

Attend together a funeral and a wedding at our church. After the service, discuss where God was at this service, and why the church is involved in these services.

Spend at least 15 hours volunteering at Greenville Urban Ministries, or one of the other service agencies which our church helps to support. Why is the church involved here?

I did far more work during the process than I would have if I had simply conducted classes. A number of guides needed frequent encouragement and advice. At the end of Lent, I met with each confirmand for an hour to discuss what she learned and what she still needed to know. On Holy Saturday, the Saturday preceding Easter, all guides and confirmands met at the church for a late-night vigil. At dawn on Easter, they participated in another service, followed by breakfast.

At the 11 A.M. worship service, each guide introduced his or her confirmand before the congregation and described one thing that this young disciple was bringing to the church-some aspect of personality or talent. Then each confirmand thanked the congregation for one gift-perhaps a church school teacher, a helpful sermon or the church basketball team-that had helped her grow as a disciple. Each confirmand’s guide, parents and I laid hands on the young person as I pronounced, “Jane, remember your baptism and be thankful. “John, remember . . . ”

Confirmation should bring generations of disciples together. Confirmation should give youth an opportunity to con­ firm their developing faith, but perhaps more important, it should provide the church the opportunity to confirm the developing young Christian-to say, “You  are  one of us already. God has need of your life. We want to take time with you to give you the skills, insights and experiences you need to be faithful.”

Part of the beauty of this approach is its suitability for people at any age, at any stage of their faith journey.  It suits the half-willing 12-year-old or the earnest 19-year­ old. It can be done with one candidate or a hundred. It moves us from the inappropriate classroom model to a master-apprentice one. Its activities can be devised to suit the particular characteristics and mission of each congregation.

Recent studies suggest that most mainline Protestant churches have become the last stop for youth on their way out of church. We are doing a poor job of retaining our young. Of course, the sources of the problem are many. Yet I believe that a renewed engagement with our young people, through a new look at the purpose and method of confirmation, can be a big part of the solution to a pressing problem.

William H. Willimon

2 thoughts on “Taking Confirmation Out of the Classroom

  1. Bishop Willimon – I remember reading your original article on Confirmation long ago. It literally changed everything I thought and desired for classes from that day forward – it is who we pray the students can become, not what they should know that is the measure to use.

    Like

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