Why Confirmation Doesn't Work
Let's be honest—of all the challenges of ministry, confirmation is often the pastoral Rubik's cube that eludes solving. From beginning to end, and especially in the aftermath, confirmation can cause stress upon stress. After a solid time of instruction in the basics of the Christian faith, many of those who profess faith in Christ before their pastors, parents, and congregation no longer give evidence of being Christian—let alone worship—in the years that follow.
Now, don't get me wrong. I really do enjoy confirmation classes. Passing on the faith to children who are eager to learn alongside supportive parents? I could do that all day, and then some! Sign me up for that! But anyone who has a pulse knows that something is amiss with the way we've been doing confirmation.
What's the problem/solution? At this point we could go in a few directions. Personally, I believe that one of the greatest problems is parental apathy. Hence, the greatest solution to youth apathy and later absence is rooted in a deeper commitment to catechesis at home. This isn't rocket science. What matters to parents will likely matter to their kids. When parents worship with their children weekly, read the Scriptures and the Catechism on the regular—all along praying for them and demonstrating what the Christian life looks like—this is where it's at. No program or class can reproduce this, and I can't help but wonder if all the hype about the right programs or classes are all attempts to remedy the absence of this foundation.
I also think that apologetics is key—namely that we teach the Bible and the Catechism as a worldview in contrast to other worldviews. We can't just assume that our young people will naturally critique other worldviews with the Christian worldview rather than assimilate their catechesis into preexisting frameworks like secularism, or that pernicious, parasitic psuedo-faith Christian Smith called "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." One more word on apologetics; we also need to make sure that our apologetic arguments are sound rather than based on faulty reasoning or questionable evidence. Misinformation breeds mistrust, and the practice of apologetics often affords opportunities for misinformation (this issue deserves its own blog post).
The Problem at Hand
With all of this said, I'd like to focus less on the problems with the process, or even what does or doesn't precede the process, and instead focus on what I consider faulty about the actual day of confirmation. To cut to the chase, I have problems with the institutional nature of confirmation day—namely that we set a date for a group of kids to profess faith in Jesus Christ. Will this day provide some young people with a joyful opportunity to confess Christ as their Lord publicly—a confession that will mean not only communion today, but also communion until Christ's return or the day of death? Of course. I have seen and still see the fruit of such confessions. But we all know that for many families, the day of confirmation becomes the official acquisition of the carrot on the stick, and perhaps for some confirmands the day is perceived as official permission to come to the Lord's Table only when convenient, or perhaps to never come at all.
So, if we've located the day of confirmation as a problem, how do we work for better things? Some would move the day to an earlier age, perhaps even instituting early communion beforehand. The idea here is that the earlier children have instruction in and the experience of a eucharistic faith within worship, the more they will be formed by such gifts and remain within the faith in days to come. Others would lean more pietistic, moving the day to later years—late middle school, or even high school—to make sure that young people have the cognitive capacity to knowingly count the cost of discipleship before they confess vows as scared as those in the rite of confirmation. I don't entirely disagree with either of these options, nor do I dismiss either of their concerns. Instead, I think the problem of the institutionalization of faith still remains—or at least the potential still remains.
When and Where We/God Will(s)
We confess in the Augsburg Confession the following about the means of grace and conversion:
For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel [AC V].
Setting a "day of confirmation" for a particular group of young people may communicate that we can set a date for a genuine confession of faith. In other words, we are assuming that God's "where and when" will coincide with the "where and when" on our church calendars. To apply this concern to the whole process of confirmation, parents may bring to confirmation children who have rarely attended church since baptism, perhaps with the expectation that a mature Christian will come out on the other side of the classes. This can happen, of course, but rarely does. Once again, the set date at the end of a set time of instruction often leads to nominal confessions of faith. The issue also extends to those children who regularly attend worship. Just because a child hears the truth of God's word for one hour each week among countless other hours of secular thought and popular media does not mean true faith will be present.
To this critique some may note that responsible pastors will conduct a series of questions and answers before confirmation. However, I would point out that functionally this almost never keeps anyone back from confirmation—the invitations have already been sent, and the cake is being made. Additionally, scheduled questions and answers may have the effect of eliciting the right answer so as to not disappoint parents and pastors. Finally, this approach is entirely cognitive rather than affective and practical—we focus on minds alone at the expense of affections and habits.
Still, others may quip, "But these children have been baptized!" This verges on an ex opere operato view of baptism in which personal faith is obscured—a move more akin to Rome than the Reformation. Regarding baptism, Luther reminds us in the Catechism that "it [baptism] works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this." He goes on to say that the Word of God "in and with the water does these things, along with the faiththat trusts this word of God in the water." Baptism does not guarantee that our confirmands will have a living faith rather than the dead kind that James rebukes in his Epistle (James 2:14-26). Rather, baptism affords the opportunity to teach and pray in the hope that our children will abide in a living and active faith that perseveres in good works to the end.
Less Scheduled... More Relational
So, what's the solution? I don't claim to be an expert on confirmation—others have read and thought more deeply on this topic than I have. I am only a perplexed practitioner who desires better things. But if I had to choose, I would go with an idea I first heard from one of my professors in seminary. During one of those priceless class tangents in which students get more than the price of the syllabus, he suggested (I believe per his pastoral experience of doing do) that we just get rid of confirmation altogether—at least confirmation in the popular sense. Rather than instituting a day of confirmation each year, pastors and parents would engage in continual worship and catechesis, perhaps even setting aside two or three years for more intense learning. Then, when it becomes obvious through regular counsel with pastor, elders, and parents that a child has a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, desires the sacrament, has received good instruction, and wants to make public profession of such faith, then at this point, and only at this point, is there an official "day of confirmation."
What would this look like in more detail? Well, perhaps institutionally we just make confirmation a process that begins at baptism and continues toward confession of faith without any date set. Parents may ask, "When does confirmation start?" The answer—"Even before the baptismal waters dry." Kids may want to know, "What do I need to do to be confirmed?" The answer—"What do you believe about Jesus Christ?" The congregation may ask, "When are we going to have confirmation this year?" To which pastors respond, "When God wills," which is to say, we have baptized, we are teaching, we are praying, and when we see the fruit of faith we will gather to give glory to God—whether that be a group of ten eighth graders, a single fifth grader, or parents who have been instructed alongside their high school-aged children. In this way, we set the expectation that the entire life of the Christian is one of continual catechesis from font to grave, and that faith is personal rather than a right of passage.
To pursue a more relational than institutional approach to confirmation would mean less pomp and circumstance. Perhaps no robes, gowns, or big group pictures. Perhaps one month a nine year-old would confess faith and come to the Lord's Table, whereas the next month a seventeen year-old and thirteen year-old would do the same. The "day of confirmation" would be more occasional, more spread out through the year, and more varied in age, but I can't help but believe the end result would be more retention, greater depth of understanding and commitment, and the renewed integrity of our churches. This would obviously be harder, and in some churches extremely unpopular, but very often things that are worth it are both.