When I stepped into my first full-time youth pastor job at Christ Church UMC in Memphis, I didn’t think about the confirmation process until it loomed on my yearly schedule. This caused a temporary crisis. I had no framework how to ‘do’ confirmation except for thinking back to my own confirmation process, which was social, simple, and short. I’ve written about this experience before.
This sent me on an unexpected journey with confirmation: to find good material and to lead it faithfully to the tradition. I am not finished with this journey, but I’m closer than I was when I started. (I hope.)
To start with, I had a hard time finding a confirmation resource that was seriously biblical & doctrinal and would preach to iPhone-addled 6th-graders. Finding nothing that fit the bill, I created my own, now available from Seedbed. But resources alone aren’t enough to make for a faithful confirmation. They’re just another magical technology. Without a deeper meaning behind confirmation, cool techniques falter and fade. Yet the deeper meaning of confirmation isn’t obvious. I was confused.
What I found on my journey is that confusion about confirmation is widespread. I wasn’t alone. Confirmation is a weird rite of the church. As Geoffrey Wainwright points out in Doxology, confirmation has often been a “rite in search of meaning.” It was originally a “rite of initiation,” aimed at adult converts who entering the church after a period of instruction and examination. But through the middle ages it moved to being a “rite of maturity” aimed at strengthening those already initiated. In a sense, the catechetical dimension we associate with confirmation moved from happening before baptism to after baptism.
Even those firmly steeped in the Wesleyan tradition may be rightly confused about what it is we’re trying to do and how to carry it out. Confirmation was not even a rite of the UMC until the latter half of the 20th century. The current Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church lays out some requirements but isn’t clear on how to fulfill them (§216).
The simplest way to understand confirmation in the current Wesleyan context is to say that confirmation is a rite that follows catechetical formation and a serious reaffirmation of baptismal vows.
In order to understand this statement (“confirmation is a rite that follows catechetical formation and a serious reaffirmation of baptismal vows”) we probably need to define some of the terms used. The rest of this article is just me defining the terms:
Confirmation is a rite: This means the specific divine-human action of blessing and laying on of hands (by the pastor) after the profession of faith. This is the “rite” that happens as part of formal Christian worship. It’s important to keep in mind that “confirmation” is something done to the confirmand, rather than something done by the confirmand. The student professes, the pastor confirms in the power of the Spirit. The Book of Discipline reflects the Christian tradition in speaking of confirmation as a blessing for strengthening and empowering discipleship.
Catechetical formation: Catechesis means, literally, “oral instruction.” It’s personal and doctrinal. But it isn’t just about head knowledge. Catechesis is about learning-and-living. It’s process of discipleship where the potential confirmand learns the teachings of the church, and learns the ways of Christian living. They must show signs of ingraining these truths mentally, but also growing in grace by striving to live them out. It was common in the ancient church to examine potential confirmands not just about what they knew, but for evidence of true repentance for sin and signs of moral transformation. Keep in mind that Jesus’ great commission focuses on teaching disciples how they are to live (Mt. 28:19-20)! This is the process that precedes “confirmation.”
Serious reaffirmation: This means confirmation isn’t just a box to check. Even a quick glance at the Book of Discipline reveals a whole range of things that need to be actually taught, which means the confirmands should know them (teaching entails learning). The pastor, sponsors, and the congregation are deeply involved in the process. In a sense, they are putting their credibility on the line in putting forward their confirmands. There seems to me great potential harm in confirming those who are unready. In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis writes that “one of the worst acts of my life” was “I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, eating and drinking to my own condemnation.”
Baptismal vows: Confirmation is connected to baptism almost like a bookend. Baptism initiates one into the church, but confirmation seals that initiation. A baptized child is fully a member of the church, and can take communion, but confirmation is the rite whereby the church blesses those who are ‘leveling up’ their responsibility as a committed Christian. (We often spoke of confirmation as the process of emerging from the waters of one’s baptism.) When students (or adults) reaffirm their baptismal vows they are committing to a lifetime of faithful service and discipleship. In essence, they are fully affirming for themselves that they are committed to the meaning of their baptism: death, burial, and resurrection with Jesus. In this sense, perhaps, the confirmation process is never fully complete, as it carries with it a commitment to that never ends.
For more stuff, check out this earlier article I wrote about what we did practically to make confirmation a relational, transformational, and educational experience.