Like many Lutheran congregations, my congregation's Confirmation Ministry is a two-year, group-graded program involving 7th and 8th graders. And like most Lutheran congregations, one year of the program focuses on Martin Luther's Small Catechism, and the other year of the program focuses on the Bible. We have 14 kids in the roster, more or less evenly split between 7th and 8th graders. Average attendance at the Sunday morning classes and Sunday evening program hovers around 8-10. (Our congregation's average weekly worship attendance is 173.)
There's an odd social dynamic, however, in that each year the 8th graders are confirmed and thus "graduate" from the Confirmation Ministry program, and are released into our high school ministry … which doesn't exist. We tried last year to have a high school class, but with little success. We have a smattering of high school kids who come to worship regularly, but getting a critical mass of them to gather regularly for a class has been nearly impossible. This is an experience shared, I believe, by many Lutheran congregations. There are a variety of reasons that high school kids' participation drops-off, but one of those reasons, I think, is the sheer lack of numbers.
By the time they are confirmed in May or June, depending on when Pentecost falls, confirmed 8th graders have just completed two years of a somewhat intense, high-expectations program. From service notes to worship leadership to class attendance to a retreat and other events, they've been keeping busy at church with a dozen or so kids. But after they are confirmed, and thus no longer in a structured program, the proportion of these (now) 9th graders who actively participate in church drops significantly, and those who do come to church have few, if any, peers. What results is that we have a handful of kids who just a year earlier had a vibrant, if not huge, group of about 8-10 kids who regularly gathered for class and events. Now the few who remain are lucky to have a peer or two who still comes to church.
What if, instead of confirming only the 8th graders, we confirmed the whole class – 7th and 8th graders together – creating a larger critical mass of kids who are "released" together into the post-confirmation world of youth faith formation? Even if half of the kids on the class roster drop off, half of 14 provides a bigger critical mass than half of 7, and gives us a fighting chance to create a post-confirmation youth fellowship.
It could work like this: 6th and 7th graders are gathered together in the fall of Year One, and move together through the two year faith formation ministry we call Confirmation. After Year One the make-up of the class doesn't change at all (unless new families and youth join the church, of course). In Year Two of the program all the kids are 7th and 8th graders, and 6th graders remain in a pre-Confirmation ministry class setting. At the end of Year Two, on Pentecost Sunday, the entire class – 14ish kids – are confirmed, and advance together into the congregation's post-Confirmation ministry program with a larger peer group than they currently do, a group that has spent two whole years together growing in faith and forming relationships with each other, with the church, and though these, with God.
This means that we would celebrate the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism only every-other year. That's fine with me. And this means that some youth would be "confirmed" in 7th grade, and some in 8th grade. Again, that's fine with me.
The goal, of course, is that no child would "drop off" after Confirmation, and clearly more needs to be done to support the faith formation of our teenagers and their families. But assuming that some kids will drop off, I think it is worth while to restructure the program in a way that gives our kids the best chance to maintain a viable post-confirmation peer group as they move from the structured confirmation ministry experience to life as post-confirmation youth in the church.
Have any of you out there tried this kind of age-grouping scheme?