Do Not Say They Are “Only” Youth

Edited and re-posted from my congregational newsletter.

My jaw dropped.

On one of our recent “Living Faith” gatherings of the Confirmation Class – a Sunday night event that includes dinner and hands-on faith activities – we began with a game of questions. To play this game, the person who will answer a question has a choice – to sit in one of three chairs. If you sit in the small, hard, uncomfortable chair you get an “easy” questions. If you sit in the normal but otherwise unexciting chair, you get a “medium” question. If you sit in the comfortable, high-back, cushioned chair, you get a “difficult” question.

The comfort of the chair is inversely related to the difficulty of the question.

So when one of my youth sat in the comfortable chair – which will likely invite a less-than-comfortable question – I pulled a card from the deck of questions and asked, “How do you feel about euthanasia?” He paused for a moment to think and then responded, “Well, if someone is in pain and suffering, and wants to end their life, I guess that’s their choice. But really, we should help them so they don’t get in that situation in the first place.”

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Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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Gaining Expertise in Matters of Faith

My daughters, ages 7 and 4, are taking piano lessons for the first time in their lives.  Tali, our oldest, has taken quickly to the piano, and really enjoys spending time practicing at our new electronic keyboard.  There's one song she plays over and over and over again – Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.  It is a simple song that requires just three fingers on either hand, using only the black keys.  As soon as she learned this song she was so proud that she doesn't stop playing it.  She sings along as she plays, too!  And so every morning and every evening, in the afternoon after school and at just about any other time, we're likely to hear Jolly Old Saint Nicholas emenating from our living room.  Tali has gained a certain expertise at piano – at least, at this one song on the piano – and that brings her great joy.

Can our churches be places where people gain expertise in prayer and in reading the Bible, as my daughter has gained expertise in playing the piano?

How often in our churches do we hear people say, "I can't go to Bible Study – I'm not smart enough!"  Surely these people are smart enough!  Such a cry is a lament – they don't feel expert in the Bible.  They likely feel expert in almost any other aspect of their lives – at their profession, at parenting, at cooking, at hosting parties, at talking about sports or television shows … but not at the Bible.  Attending church or Bible Study might be the only time during the week that an otherwise accomplished and successful person feels like an idiot, and that's a tragedy.

Of course, we might be tempted to question the person who says such words, saying if you were to go to Bible Study you would learn more.  But on the other hand, many of our Bible Study groups are dominated by people who have some knowledge of the Bible and enjoy the intellectual back-and-forth of a group – a group which may have been meeting for years and is likely very hard for a newcomer to enter into.  As a former Augsburg Fortress sales representative who visited congregations up and down the Northeast US, I heard this time and again from pastors and Christian Educators.  Such a setting that might work well for some people, but is probably intimidating to others.  "I'm no Bible expert like them," and "I feel stupid in that group," are phrases that are said all too often by people who are quite intelligent in reference to a congregation's Bible Study group.

This is why, for example, Augsburg Fortress came out with No Experience Necessary a few years ago, a very engaging Bible Study curriculum that was less concerned with academic study and more with responding to the questions, "What is God saying to me, to us, to the world through this text?"  When I was an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, I sold tons of No Experience Necessary.  The appeal, I think, was that this curriculum kept Bible conversation in real life, and didn't try to take discussion to a cerebral level.  Yet, simultaneously, the materials provoked insightful and faithful conversation and, in the process, gave participants – who previously avoided or felt uncomfortable in traditional Bible Study groups – a level of comfort and expertise in reading the Bible.  "Oh, I can read the Bible!" 

No longer intimidated by some sense that one needed a Masters degree to read the Bible correctly, people began to read the Bible as a Book of Faith (before there even was a Book of Faith initiative!).  People learned that they can pick up the Bible and ask three questions – What is God saying to me, to us, and to the world? – and do so faithfully with sisters and brothers in Christ without any prerequisite of prior Bible study or experience.

Whatever method or curriculum we use I hope that we can increasingly engage Scripture – in groups and in the pulpit – in ways that keep us and the faith to which we cling rooted in real life.  (In addition to the No Experience Necessary curriculu, the so-called African Bible Study method – no curriculum necessary! – is great for this.)  For the Word became flesh and lived among us, in real life.  Shouldn't our reading of the Bible stay in real life, too?

Confirmation Ministry: Age Grouping in a Medium-Sized Program

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?

Related Posts:

Teaching the Bible in Confirmation Class

Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

In an earlier post I shared how we are using the Here We Stand confirmation ministry curriculum to help us teach the Bible to our 7th and 8th graders.  Yet the hour-long, traditional Sunday School class session – informally dubbed "Learning Faith" – is only one of two core program components of our ministry.  The other core program component, "Living Faith," is a Sunday evening gathering with a more hands-on, book-free approach to faith formation.

To be honest, these Living Faith sessions were born not out of a sense that our kids needed to learn something – though there is always more to learn! – but rather out of a sense that our kids needed a chance to come together in a less formal setting to build relationships with each other, with the church, and through these, with God.  An hour on Sunday morning in a traditional learning environment was not condusive to forming relationships and creating community.  Hence, the Living Faith sessions – a fellowship event with a meal and a hands-on learning opportunity – were born.

We have fifteen Living Faith sessions during the year, divided into three units of five consecutive Sunday evening sessions each.  Each unit has a theme and objective:

  • Fall unit theme: Worship Leadership
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders feel competent and valued as worship leaders (readers, assistant ministers, ushers, communion preparers).
  • Winter unit theme: Serving Others
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders embrace service toward others as central to Christian identity and calling; and, that they plan and carry out a service project.
  • Spring unit theme: Spiritual Practices
    Objective: That 7th and 8th graders develop a competency and a comfort level with practices that can nurture their faith and relationship with God.

For this first unit of Worship Leadership, I'm not drawing from any curricular materials but am simply introducing each worship leadership ministry (sometimes by inviting congregational leaders to attend and introduce their ministries), and then giving the kids a chance to practice it.  To help set up a session on serving as lectors, for example, we watched a few minutes of a Dead Poets Society clip in which Mr. Keating speaks passionately about poetry as containing rich words of life, full of meaning for us and for the world.  In last evening's session, two ladies who each week prepare the altar, elements, and vessels for the sacrament of Holy Communion, took the kids into the sacristy and walked them through their Sunday morning tasks.  In the coming weeks, these kids will sign up, two by two, to assist these ladies with the task of preparing communion.

The schedule for these evening programs is as follows:

5:00 – Gathering, and introduction to theme
5:30 – Dinner (and dinner clean-up)
6:00 – Hands-on activity/training/practice
6:45 – Prayer
7:00 – Go home!

A different confirmation ministry family has signed up to provide dinner each evening.  We use doodle.com for sign-ups and for Living Faith RSVPs, so that the dinner families know how many people they can expect to have to feed.

Our confirmation class has 14 kids on the roster, though past experience tells me that Sunday morning attendance will hover around 8-10.  At our first two evening sessions we've had attendance of 8 and 9.

The real success of this program – if I can speak of success after only two weeks – is that relationships are being created.  Kids are genuinely getting to know each other, and they look forward to spending time with each other.  There is laughter and lively conversation around the dinner tables.  It has been a pure joy.