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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Kneeling During Lent

On Sunday at the closing of our Sunday School ministry – a gathering of all the children's Sunday School classes we call "Closing Devotion" – I talked with the kids about bending down. It was the First Sunday in Lent, and I used this ocassion to talk about what our Lord Jesus does in relationship to us: namely, to bend down to be with us where we're at, in our struggles and our suffering, in our lonliness and our sadness. Thus, rather than use the "we journey with Jesus" metaphor for Lent, I turned it around, and shared with the kids that during Lent we remember that Jesus walks with us and comes to us.

As an example, I had all of the children gather in a large circle in our Parish Hall. I asked one of our Confirmation Ministry students to come into the middle of the circle, and to fall down, as if injured. I then ran to the other side of the room, far from the "injured" youth, and asked her, "How are you doing? Can I help you? Gosh, you look hurt!" Then I asked the children, "is this a good way to help her?" Of course, the kids responded that it was not. So I walked half the distance closer to her, but still 15 feet from her, and repeated the charade. And of course, the kids saw right through it.

Finally, I came to her and knelt down next to her, asked her how she was doing, and offered assistance. Then I turned to the kids and asked if that was a better way to help her, to which they responded enthusiastically, "Yes!"

I then explained that this is how Jesus works. He isn't far off but rather comes to us, bends down to be with us, and is alongside us in our pain and struggle. I rattled off a number of situations in which I hope the children would take comfort knowing that Jesus is near them – when they have nightmares, when they get scraed, when they get hurt, etc. etc..

Then I had them kneel, all of them. I asked them what we can do when we kneel. Several said that we can pray. A few others said that we can help people when they're down. Pray and help. Pretty good things.

We talked about all those people who were knocked down, literally, by the tsunami in Japan, and how there are rescue workers who, like Jesus, are bending down to help those who have been beaten down.

After I was done with the message the kids stood up and sang a song, and we shared some announcements. But when it was time for our prayers, I invited the kids to kneel once more. There was some groaning, of course, but I think that kneeling hightened their focus. When I asked "for what shall we pray," several hands went up with great suggestions – more than usual – from "the sick" to "the people of Japan" to "peace in the Middle East" to others.

During Lent our children will be kneeling during prayer, to remember that our Lord comes to us when we're feeling low, and to form us, through a posture of prayer, for lives of bending down to reach out to those who have been knocked down by suffering.

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