I know this seems like a heretical question, especially for those of us who teach confirmation but also, I suspect, for any of us who went through it. It is, after all, perhaps the most significant religious right of passage in mainline Christianity.
But that's precisely what I want to question: confirmation as a rite of passage. As ample research has shown, confirmation functioned something like graduation for previous generations of Protestant mainline Christians. It was the end of required attendance, and when our kids left our churches in droves we didn't worry too much about it because we could count on them returning once they'd married, settled down, and started having kids of their own.
Now, in a virtual marketplace of ideas - including religious ideas, viewpoints, and options - and living in larger culture that no longer places any particular value on attending church, confirmation has marked the end of significant church involvement for many.
Why is this the case?
Kenda Creasy Dean, in her important book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, suggests that kids leave the church in their early adult years because the faith they received at home and church ends up being fairly superficial, unable to help them make sense of and navigate the challenges of adult life. I'd add that in a hyper-driven world with 24/7 opportunities and obligations, time has become the scarcest of commodities and therefore we will no longer give our time to things that don't significantly inform and tangibly contribute to the rest of our life.
While Dean suggests that a major cause of the superficial faith of our kids is the failure of their parents to show them why their own faith matters, I'd point out that today's parents - even committed church-going parents - never received this kind of instruction from their parents or pastors. Why? Because in a nominally Christian culture everyone knew enough of the faith to make sense of it while simultaneously not needing to employ that faith to navigate significant elements of their lives. After all, when most people went to church, what serious other options were there for how you would spend your Sunday mornings?
Which means that on one level confirmation should be more important than ever. If our kids, that is, don't learn not just the content of their faith but it's actual value to help them shape productive lives, they will undoubted find better things to do with their Sunday mornings.
Yet I'm not sure our practices for teaching confirmation have changed significantly. Sure, you can get cartoons and cool animation from products like Reform by Sparkhouse (a division of Augsburg Fortress), but while this may be a more engaging way to transmit information about the faith, I've been approached many pastors who are still searching for resources that help make the faith not just understandable but relevant to their kids and their parents.
There are exceptions. One of my nieces had a tremendous confirmation experience that included a final project demonstrating not just her knowledge of the faith but also testified to how it shaped her life and decision-making. Significantly, that experience has been augmented by mission trips (at her church and other congregations) and regular summer church camp. But my sense is that her experience is increasingly the exception, not the norm.
About a year ago I attend the Bar Mitzvah of the son of some friends of ours. The process leading to that day involved not only the typical review of faith-related materials but also a significant year-long project where each of the candidates was assigned a challenging passage in Scripture, asked to research it in depth, and then wrestle with its significance for life today. Then, one of the parents was assigned not only to read the product of their child's labor but also to provide a response. Both of these were read at the service. I was blown away by the maturity of the final product of the candidate and the thoughtfulness of his mother's response. Interestingly, while the father is Jewish in this family is Jewish, the mother is Unitarian Universalist; yet all entered into the process with diligence, care, and thoughtfulness.
So maybe the question isn't "Does confirmation matter anymore?" but rather, "How can confirmation matter?" Or, "How do we do confirmation in a way that it is not largely a rite of passage but a significant process by which a whole family wrestles with the relevance of their faith?" If we don't answer questions like these, I'm not sure confirmation has much of a future. Which may mean that our faith doesn't have much of a future.
So let me hear of your experience - highs and lows - as a participant, teacher, or parent. And please share, if you're willing, the good resources and the not-so-good ones you've encountered along the way. Thanks very much.