How Confirmation Must Change
group magazine: November-December, 1996
How Confirmation Must Change
Whether it's called confirmation or discipleship in your church, traditional structures and strategies are dying on the vine. Youth ministry pioneer and creative visionary Dennis Benson maps out a revolutionary plan for a rebirth in core Christian education.
Kids want something more from the church because they need something more. Our culture has shattered everything that once appeared stable.
Confirmation and discipleship must be shaped by small groups that are based on spiritual metaphors.
Instead of memory verses, a group may decide to pick a verse and live it for the week.
It takes courage to lead kids into a life that transforms their culture. But isn't that what leadership is all about?
By Dennis Benson
Mr. Edwards, my karate instructor, likes to show his teeth when he reminds me, "No pain, no gain."
That about sums up the task of growing in Christ-it's not for sissies. It's a demanding adventure, not a predictable cakewalk. It's tempting for us to pander to "baby Christians." But a faith that celebrates the infant Jesus and ignores the cross of Christ makes the kingdom seem unrealistically simple. And there's no power in it. One reason young people are suspicious of the contemporary church is that it asks so little of them.
No place do we ask less of teenagers than in our confirmation or discipleship programs. Confirmation and discipleship are supposed to remind kids that their chief goal in life is to glorify and enjoy God forever. What they often teach is banal endurance.
The faces of six junior highers still haunt me 25 years later. I see them squirming through my church history recital in confirmation class at a suburban Chicago church. Why did they choose this passive torture? Persistent parents, peer pressure, and other unidentified forces. Even then, I suspected something was terribly wrong with this method of growing Christian disciples-and so did those teenagers.
Kids want something more from the church because they need something more. Our culture has shattered everything that once appeared stable. They have no promised security for job, family, or life. They dwell in a disposable culture, and many fall through the cracks of the boardwalk of hope. They search for meaning in gangs, cliques, virtual communities, cults, spectator sports, media star fads, and drugs. Change has always been. But today's change has an increasing velocity that makes it unbearable and disorienting.
Why prepare when you don't know what you're preparing to do? Why affirm something when the context is so uncertain? Teenagers expect the church to step up and answer these questions because that's what the church has said it will do. They want solid food to eat, and when they don't get it, we often blame them for being hungry.
So how do we "innoculate" young people with the Gospel so they can live and move in this chaos?
What Confirmation Must Do
If we hope to build a foundation for future Christian growth in our group members, we ourselves must find a place to stand. I believe these four building blocks are crucial:
1. It must mirror real life through active and interactive experiences.
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 is an important blueprint for building spiritual maturity in kids. It reminds us that faith is taught (really, caught) when it's applied to every aspect of human life. Young people will grow into God through daily life experiences ("walking on the road"), family and community leisure time ("lying down"), work tasks ("rising up") and fellowshipping ("talking when sitting"). The new paradigm for confirmation should embrace each of these imperatives.
The content of the gospel should be inseparable from the experience of the gospel. The "facts" (church history, theological legacy, ethics, Bible content, and so on) will emerge naturally as kids experience truth in common experiences. Proactive adult leaders will place that truth in the wider context of the gospel.
2. It must be multigenerational.
After Jesus' birth, an elderly Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-40) were the first to publicly confirm to Mary and Joseph that their baby was the Lord's Christ. God clearly intended that one generation would bless another, and vice versa. For kids to grow into balanced Christians, they need loving contact with adults from both their parents' and grandparents' generations.
3. It must include activities and structures that are metaphors for the Christian life.
George is now in seminary, but he once attended a youth camp I led. Recently he called to talk about his experiences at that camp: "I remember there were several hundred of us from different states in the Northwest. None of us knew each other. You randomly formed us into 'tribes.' You told us we were in the Garden of Eden and could use no known language. You gave us three hours to get to know one another and build an identity for our tribe. That experience changed my life. That was the weekend I felt God's call to the ministry. Just thought you'd want to know."
Jesus gives us metaphors ("a banquet"), similes ("like a mustard seed"), and parables ("there was a certain man") to help us to discover and grow in his kingdom. He used these techniques to translate God's truth into a "language" the people could understand (sometimes). Confirmation and discipleship must be shaped by small groups that are based on spiritual metaphors.
4. It must draw kids into covenant commitments that are burned into their memories.
Joshua gathered the tribes at Shechem and made a covenant with God: "...as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15). He placed a stone at the place of the covenant as "a witness against us." Joshua, his family, and all the tribes made a commitment that day that was hard to forget. So also we must expect teenagers moving through confirmation or discipleship training to make significant commitments.
Sixteen-year-old Margo told me her father had found her cigarettes, and he was furious with her: "I want you to promise that you'll never smoke again!"
Margo's angry response: "How can you ask me to stop smoking when you smoke your beloved pipe every night?"
Her father was stunned by the retort: "You're right. I have no right to ask you to promise something I myself will not do." He thought for a few seconds, then said, "I promise you that I'll never smoke my pipe again if you stop smoking." Her father has never smoked again-and neither has she. That's the kind of covenant commitment kids long to make-the kind that says, "I'm in this with you."
What Confirmation Must Look Like
Given the foundation I've suggested for confirmation or discipleship training, here's my stab at what it could look like in the church:
*There'll be several confirmation groups going on at once. Each group will develop a life of its own, but will regularly share its journey with the wider community in Sunday worship and periodic large-group gatherings.
*The groups will meet regularly over a 12-month span, but it'll be up to each group to decide when to meet. For example, some groups may meet in early morning, or on Saturdays, or after church.
*Each group will create its own covenant to guide its life. For example, a Joshua 24 ceremony can cap a group's study of covenants-and serve as a reminder of the promises the group has decided to make to one another and to God. What symbol will the group create to express this covenant? Maybe it'll be a permanent fixture in the youth room. Or maybe it'll be a symbol group members can wear as a daily witness to their quest.
*Each group will find and develop a specific covenant metaphor for its life. Groups should choose metaphors that best express their unique character. For example, a tribe, an animal pack, a spaceship crew, a music group, a sports team, a submarine crew, an extended family, or a band of early church disciples.
*Each group will seek out intergenerational contact. For example, instead of simply serving folks at a nursing home, one group may formally ask some of the residents to speak their faith stories into a recorder. The group could then meet to discuss what they're learning about God as they re-listen to the stories.
*Each group will determine to know and live the gospel in real-life circumstances. The groups should offer participants many chances to uncover and use their individual gifts in situations that matter. Confidentiality, compassion, and love must be the foundation stones for healthy life-sharing.
*Each group will develop its own plan for Bible study and prayer. Group members can encourage one another to grow in personal discipline by crafting a daily devotional plan that includes Bible study and prayer. Instead of memory verses, a group may decide to pick a verse and live it for the week.
*Each group will decide where it wants to focus its servant energies, then come up with a plan to do it. For example, one group may decide to spend a day with a Christian at his or her workplace to see how Christian commitment intersects with workday demands. Afterward, the group could gather to debrief the experience.
*A council of confirmation groups should meet with the senior pastor or CE committee to talk about their journeys. This connection with the church's hierarchy is more like a "spiritual advisor" than a control agent.
It's Time for a Change
I'm standing in the doorway of a teenager's bedroom as he proudly displays his world. It's all there-his "Air Jordans," computer with super-fast modem and CD-ROM, video games, 20-inch color TV, stereo VCR, 100-watt, four-speaker stereo system, and hundreds of CDs. He smiles at me and happily proclaims, "I'm living large! I'm living large!"
Of course, his sense of "large" is really quite small. What he sees as large now will seem puny when he tastes what it's like to live in God's kingdom. And there's never been a better opportunity for us to give young people an experience that'll enlarge them spiritually. However, it takes courage to lead kids into a life that transforms their culture. But isn't that what leadership is all about? A leader's courage begets courage in those who follow. Take these words spoken by God to Joshua as words spoken to you as well: "Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9). ú
Dennis Benson is a prolific youth ministry author and a pioneer in church-based experiential learning. He's currently a syndicated feature radio producer and host (when he's not practicing the other 5,000 professional hobbies he enjoys).
A Teenager's Open Letter to God
It's been a long time since I've really spoken to you. I go to church every Sunday, but it doesn't seem that I'm completely there. There are always things to think about. Sports and school always seem to take priority.
When I was little, I used to wonder if you were really up there. Somebody once told me that if I believed, I'd be safe either way. I don't believe that's fair-not to you and not to me. Now I know that you really are there. All these wonderful things you've given me prove that. Thank you for my life, Lord.
Somehow, I understand everything, but yet I don't. Why is there so much suffering? Why does everyone have to die? What about all those helpless babies? It's not their fault. It's not fair.
Why does everything always seem to go wrong for me? I try hard to be nice and to love like you taught, but it always backfires. It hurts to be insulted. Why can't anyone try to be sensitive anymore? I want to hurt them back so very badly, but I know it's wrong. I'm not perfect, but it seems like the good people always get hurt the worst. Please help me to forgive those who hurt me and to control myself when I feel anger.
It's not easy living in the world today. There are so many outside influences. Television dictates our lives. Help my parents to realize that I know right from wrong and I can judge situations for the better. Maybe someday everyone can learn to live the right way. I'd love to see the world be perfect, but I know that it'll never happen. We have to experience the challenges of life so we can serve you better. I cannot do this alone, Lord. None of us can. We need your help. Guide me when I'm in trouble and protect my family from harm. Shield my friends from the hatred of the world. Thank you for all you've given me. My life is precious to me and I value it and your graces dearly. Help me to live my life well.
Kim Arnold (Your Eternal Servant)