Confirmation In Context: “High Mileage, Runs Great, Needs Body Work.”

Oct 25th, 2012 | Category: Featured, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Jeremy Pekari

Our first car was a nine year old Toyota Camry that we affectionately named Stella. We bought it with over 100,000 miles on it, and added another 115,000 to the vehicle over the next four years. That engine purred like a kitten and loved to get out on the open highway. Unfortunately the body of the car was falling apart. Thirteen years of salt, infrequent car washes, and lots of rust had their way with her. I’ll never forget the look on the faces of my vicarage congregation when we pulled into the parking lot to the rhythmic squeaking of worn out shocks and the roar of a rusted out exhaust system. Pieces of the car were beginning to fall off. Eventually the engine was going to fall out because the body was not capable of holding it any longer. Changing the spark plugs, cleaning the filters, and replacing the belts would not help if the wheels could fall off at the next speed bump.

The approach toward confirmation by many in the LCMS is like a mechanic who would spend time and energy tuning that engine while neglecting the rest of the vehicle. Even if that engine could run for another 100,000 miles it wouldn’t help because of the poor shape of the rest of the car. You might have the best philosophy and practice for confirmation in the Synod, but if it is not supported by an entire educational system that runs, it will not get your congregation to its destination.

The conversations that I’ve been involved with regarding confirmation over the years involve tuning up the confirmation experience itself. We dissect the details of confirmation inside the engine, but often fail to see what needs work beyond the classroom to allow the engine to do its thing. Hours have been spent discussing the benefits of memorization, the role of parents in the process, the best written and visual resources, the place for technology, the best age for confirmation, the preferred place for first communion either before or after confirmation, various teaching styles and methods, ideal schedules, and the like. The majority of the questions we ask focus our attention on what takes place inside the confirmation class itself. These are all vitally important issues. However, if the rest of the educational system in the congregation is falling apart, what good is a fine tuned confirmation experience going to be?

In this article we will take a step back to view confirmation in its place within the broader educational system of the local Lutheran congregation. We will identify three areas that we can intentionally expand to better support what takes place in confirmation. First, the entire life cycle of the learner can be used to build up the confirmation experience. Second, the entire Body of Christ can be involved in teaching. Third, a more varied range of educational forms within the congregation, including worship, fellowship, evangelism, and service which can help to support what takes place in the classroom experience of confirmation. Taking a step back and looking at the entire educational system can help us reshape the vehicle so that the well-tuned engine can do its thing.

Whole Life Learning

Almost every confirmation leader I know laments the same reality of time: there’s not enough of it. Our confirmation program just doesn’t include enough time to address the whole counsel of God sufficiently. Compare the hours spent in an average LCMS confirmation program with the hours an average child spends with screen time. You can figure out how many hours your confirmands spend in your educational experience and compare it to the 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation which states that the average 8-18 year old spends over seven and a half hours using media each day. That amounts to about 53 hours over the course of a week. (Rideout 2010, 11)  By the way, this demonstrates over an hour increase since 2004, and does not include time spent on a computer for school work, or on a cell phone texting and talking. I do not share these numbers because I am anti-media. Some of this media may be solidly Christian and supportive of the confirmation experience. I only share these numbers because they were eye-opening for me, and they demonstrate the reality that a few years of confirmation training cannot compete in our society.

My congregation offers confirmation for over 30 weeks each year over a three year period. Even such a lengthy experience pales in comparison to the amount of screen time the kids consume. The number of hours spent in three years of confirmation at my congregation equals only three weeks of media usage. You may need to sit down while doing the math, but please do the math.

There is no way to compete. Palpitations and cold sweats strike the most ardent confirmation leaders when this reality is honestly faced. There is not enough time in our confirmation experience to do what we need to do.

If all of our educational eggs go into the basket of the confirmation years we will never be able to provide adequate discipleship in this context. We should continue to do our best with those precious hours and minutes, but it is necessary to do more. The good news is that we don’t have to rely on these few years alone: we have the entire life cycle to connect educationally with our people. An educational approach that reaches people is necessary, not only for three years in confirmation, but for twelve years before and a lifetime thereafter. Our confirmation programs will actually become better when we lift our heads out from under the hood and look at the entire car.

Many high school basketball coaches offer summer basketball clinics for junior high and elementary aged players. Each summer hours are spent teaching the fundamentals of good basketball. Good dribblers, passers, shooters, and defenders don’t just arrive in high school. Coaches want to reach players early to teach them some skills so that they have some knowledge and skills to work with by the time the players join the team. This is essential to building a winning program in sports, and the same wisdom can be applied to our confirmation experiences.

Take only one step back and intentionally address your elementary educational experiences and your family ministry to begin to reach your confirmation kids before they even step foot in your program. Before you know it, the kids coming into your group will be more prepared for your great confirmation program.

A look back along the life cycle to reach kids or their families before they get to you, or perhaps even before the children are even born, can help to enhance what takes place in the confirmation experience, but it doesn’t remove the entire burden. One must also attend to the educational experience that your confirmands will enjoy beyond confirmation. They will not, and in fact cannot, learn everything they need for life in two or three years under your guidance. No matter how good you are as an educator you don’t have enough time with kids in today’s confirmation programs to help them be ready for everything. Confirmation should not be seen as the completion of Christian education, but simply one important step along the way.

As long as education is something that is addressed during a confined time period in life we will fail to fully develop as God’s people. Education needs an ultimate goal toward which to drive, but should never be “concluded” in this world. It is vital for us to view our confirmation instruction within this lifelong context rather than as the terminus of formal Christian education that is so common in the LCMS. Let’s be intentional about helping people learn and grow each day of their lives.

One of my favorite rides at the amusement park is the raft ride where 10-12 people climb onto a round raft, buckle up, and float down a rapid laced run with waterfalls along the way. The wilder and wetter, the better the ride. Picture the staging platform where people get on these rafts: A round conveyor belt carries the rafts which loop around in the opposite direction that the entrance platform travels. It’s all moving very slowly so that if a group misses one boat there will be another boat waiting for them around the bend. There are multiple opportunities to get into the boat for the ride of your life. If a person doesn’t get into the first boat another boat is on its way. Imagine moving people through your educational experience like this where each boat is one more stage in development and another opportunity to connect people with the ride of their lives complete with the refreshing baptismal water of Life.

Confirmation, elementary education, early childhood education, baptismal education for young parents, marriage enrichment, premarital training, college experiences, high school youth, retirement, and other moments in life can be educational opportunities to connect with families and get them on the ride of their lives. Be intentional about providing these points for people to step into a relationship with Jesus.

Take a moment to look at your congregation’s lifelong educational plan. Which are the connecting points that you currently use to engage learners in a relationship with Jesus? What additional life stage could you address this year in your planning? How are kids prepared for the confirmation experience before they arrive? How is lifelong learning encouraged in your congregation?

The Whole Body of Christ

If you are going to expand your education vision to include the entire life cycle in order to enhance the confirmation experience you will find yourself rubbing elbows with many more people, all of whom can be—and need to be—a part of your educational team: The whole Body of Christ educates the whole Body of Christ.

I know the burden of the lonely confirmation teacher. The LCMS study (1998, 15) reveals that the pastor is the primary person responsible for confirmation in over 90% of congregations and no more than one third of congregations use additional male or female lay volunteers, or other paid staff. Many of our congregations have isolated teachers carrying the burden of the entire confirmation program which is not healthy for the leader or for the confirmands. Fortunately, as Brett Webb Mitchell (2003) reminds us, “in the body of Christ there are no individual learners or solitary teachers…We are linked together in ways that are more meaningful than we can comprehend” (34).

God has created the Body of Christ, not just to be an interesting metaphor for life together, but to actually develop an entire educational system meant for the growth of all believers. Paul says it this way:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV

The entire Body of Christ educates the entire Body of Christ. This is a divine reality that we often overlook to our detriment and its message is simple: expand your educational team. God has already blessed us with the people necessary to fully educate that entire Body.

Notice the all inclusive language that Paul uses. The phrases “whole body,” “every supporting ligament,” and “each part does its work” give us a wide angle perspective which looks to the entire Body of Christ to be involved in its own growth and building. In other words everyone is on the team.

In the introduction to All Kids are Our Kids, Peter Benson (1997) describes the network of people needed to raise healthy children in a society.

In this vision of child-friendly, child-nurturing, children-and-youth-first places, the actors shift. The prime actors are you and me and our neighbors, coworkers, employers, congregation members, teachers, coaches, and youth group leaders—and our children and adolescents. Professionals, experts, policy makers, and politicians also matter. But the power, the action, and often the leadership is most deeply grounded in the people…no resident of a community is on the sidelines. All of us are on the team. (xiv)

“All of us are on the team.” The same wisdom can be applied to the educational work of a congregation. Everyone is on the team learning together, teaching together, and growing together. God has blessed you with the tremendous resource of an entire educational team present in the Body of Christ.

One word of warning is needed at this point: God loves to use people we would not expect to help teach us. Often the ‘teachers’ and ‘learners’ swap roles which requires being as open to learning as much as one is to teaching and one may also find that God not only uses our students to teach us, but also a variety of others in the Body of Christ including those who might not first come to mind as “teachers.” Webb-Mitchell calls this a “border pedagogy” meaning that people who are often disenfranchised become the best teachers. The elderly, the poor, the mentally challenged, the handicapped, the least formally educated, and others we might not first expect can teach us more about life in Christ than the best scholars. Be open to all members of the Body of Christ as a part of your educational team.

Take a few moments to picture your current educational team. Who is on your educational team? Which person(s) would enhance your confirmation experience? What are you learning from your confirmands? What other member(s) of the Body of Christ can you invite to participate in your confirmation program in an intentional way? What gifts do others have that could be used to enhance your confirmation experience? Who from the margins of society is involved in your educational team?

The Whole Life of Congregation

Confirmation can be enhanced by expanding our view toward lifelong education as well as adding more people into the educational mix. Another way that we can enhance our confirmation process is to move confirmation beyond the classroom by employing various forms of education across the life of the congregation.

Typically confirmation programs in the LCMS are shaped by the educational form of “expository teaching”, that is, mostly instructor presentation of material. Most confirmation programs are situated in a classroom experience, are focused on knowledge, and direct their learning goals toward the rational mind. Teachers, textbooks, students, questions and answers, lectures, quizzes, etc. are the norm. The LCMS study on confirmation confirms this. (1998, 12-13)

While this type of instruction is necessary for a full educational experience it is not the only form of learning that the Church uses to educate. While the classroom generally addresses the rational mind, other forms in other domains of learning are needed to develop the heart of the disciple, the serving hands, and mouths that proclaim the Good News.

The Church has used a variety of educational forms for centuries. Returning to Acts 2 one can see the shape of five educational forms: Instruction, Fellowship, Worship, Service, and Evangelism.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47 NIV

Confirmation in the LCMS is traditionally shaped by the historic Lutheran form of catechism, that is, through questions and answers. Our use of the Small Catechism as a primary text demonstrates the long held tradition of shaping people through expository teaching in which
“head” knowledge is the key. This form of instruction not only encourages knowing the right answers, but should extend to the ability to ask the right questions also. It is a powerful tool to communicate God’s Word in all of its Truth. However, it is limited in its ability to shape the entire life of the individual and the church.

Other forms are necessary for a full educational experience. Fellowship, for example, focuses on the building of community and uses the “language” of belonging. Often viewed as the initial form of education in the Church, fellowship seeks to build individual Christians into the people of God. Whereas expository teaching is focused on knowing correctly and is often situated in the classroom context, Fellowship is focused on “knowing life together” as the body of Christ and is best shaped around the table, in teamwork, on the playing field or in other venues that encourage belonging.

Worship is another form of education that the Church has used to shape disciples throughout history. Worship focuses on the Sacramental life and speaks the language of prayer. It is the form that God uses for the sake of offering His gifts, and includes our responses to His gracious initiative act. Personal (private) and corporate (public) worship are both included in the educational form that shapes God’s people. At the center of worship are the Word and Sacraments which shape our identity in Christ and conform us to His likeness.

Service is also an educational form that shapes God’s people. While we might think the goal of service is to shape those we serve, we also see its paradoxical benefit of being shaped through service ourselves. Focused on works of mercy and care, Service uses the language of love to express God’s love to humanity. Both verbal language and physical acts are included in the form that shapes not only God’s people but all whom we serve.

Finally, Evangelism is a form that shapes God’s people. Like Service, it shapes not only those who receive the Good News, but also those whom God sends. Evangelism focuses on the Gospel, the Good News that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus. It uses a unique language that proclaims freedom, forgiveness, and grace. This is the prophetic voice of God’s people, and it shapes both the hearer and the proclaimer as this form shares Good News with the world.

Each form focuses on a unique aspect of the Christian life. Knowledge, community, Sacramental life, acts of mercy, and sharing the Good News to all people are specific foci for the Church that seeks to be educationally sound. One can see that a single focus on Instruction leaves a lacking educational experience. Take Baptism as an example. One can know about Baptism through hours and hours of instruction, but if they are not actually baptized what good does such knowledge provide? Baptism can be touched by all five forms in unique ways that add fullness to the life of the learner. Instruction teaches knowledge about Baptism. Worship is where the hand of God uses water and the Word to create new life in Christ. Fellowship is enhanced as each believer is brought into the community of faith through the waters of Baptism, a community built by God himself. Evangelism prepares the hearts of people to know their need for Baptism and hear of a Savior who calls them to come to drink in the waters of life. Finally, without needing to stretch too far, the imagery of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the penultimate act of service at the Last Supper brings the beauty of Baptism full circle in the five historic educational forms of the Church.

Marriage is another example of an important topic in the life of the Church that can be shaped by a variety of educational forms. Instruction is used to prepare a man and woman for marriage, but it fails to completely shape the married life. Worship is key, not only in uniting the couple before God and His people, but also in the need for regular confession and absolution that can take place in the home during family devotional times. Service is essential as acts of mercy are needed during times of sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. It is not enough to know “about” marriage: other educational forms can be used intentionally to shape men and women for long, healthy, happy, and God-pleasing relationships.

A congregation that focuses on confirmation will enhance their entire program by branching out beyond Instruction into the full variety of educational forms that have been used historically in the church and some congregations will be stronger in one form over another. It is important to note that no one needs to reinvent the wheel to expand beyond Instruction and add other forms. As Maria Harris (1989) states in her work on Religious Education Fashion Me a People, “a fuller and more extensive curriculum is already present in the church’s life: in teaching, worship, community, proclamation, and outreach” (63).

Not only is the entire formative experience already present in a congregation, but by engaging in these forms the confirmation experience will benefit. Harris and Moran (1998) note the interplay between various educational forms in the local congregation:

Each of its forms exists in interplay with all the others. Touch liturgy and the works that serve justice quiver; touch prayer and community is strengthened; preach compassion and knowledge is deepened. It is never possible to separate these forms and, upon reflection, it becomes clear that each abides within the others (22).

Harris uses the artistic term “form” to describe these educational experiences. The shaping of God’s people is an imaginative and creative work that affects us in two directions. We are shaped by the form as well as being shaped for the form. The more one paints the more one sees the world like a painter. Colors, textures, lines, shadows and lighting are all viewed with a painter’s eye. Painters are shaped by the process as well as being shaped for the process. Christians are shaped and by and for these five historic forms in similar fashion. The experience of evangelism shapes me. It challenges my assumptions, adjusts my viewpoints, enhances my perspectives, and increases my faith in the One who sends me. The more I do it, the better I get. The same is true of the other forms as well.

Through its long history the Church has used a variety of educational forms to shape God’s people. Moving beyond Instruction into a variety of forms will enhance the educational work of the local congregation.

Take a moment to picture the educational forms used in your congregation today. Which do you use most? Least? Which one could you try to implement during your confirmation experience this year? What will it look like for you to intentionally shape people with all five forms?

Conclusion

Developing a premier confirmation instruction experience without attending to the larger educational plan of your congregation is a bit like having a well-tuned engine running in an old jalopy. It’s great at what it does, but it won’t necessarily get you where you want to go. By taking a look at the wider educational landscape in the local congregation we can find that not only does our confirmation process gain power, but the entire capacity for learning in your congregation can dramatically improve. Before you jump on board and begin expanding your planning for the coming year, here are some words of advice.

First, don’t try it all at once. Opening the flood gates of educational expansion will get you drowned. You can’t design a lifelong and congregational life wide experience overnight, or expect to implement major expansive changes over the course of a year. Look to expand a little at a time. Build your team, and discuss these topics together. Identify a starting point and move outward from there one step at a time.

Second, expect some change related stress. Congregations are systems and when one part of a system changes, it affects how everything else runs. This can be much like taking a car to a mechanic: while one part might get fixed, another is likely to fall off. Make a change to your worship experience and, likewise, something is likely to fall off. Maybe it should’ve fallen off long ago, or maybe it needs to be put back, your guess is as good as mine.

Another thing about systems is that they like equilibrium, that is, they don’t like change all that much. Entire systems try to return to how they were running before the change happened whether or not doing so is healthy or effective.

As an example, if you want parents on the Confirmation instruction team, but parents have never been on the team it might take some time to get them used to their crucial role. In my experience it takes years to reshape the team so that our parents know that their presence and leadership in the process is expected, necessary, and beneficial. It turns out most of them love it too. They just need time and patience to see it. So do you. Expect change related stress.

Third, you should also expect to be changed by this process. Expanding beyond the instructional norm into the entire life of the learner, adding a bigger educational team, and engaging a variety of educational forms will reshape how you look at congregational education. I hope it’s for the better. You might need to learn about other age groups, become better organized and friendly with volunteers, or even leave the classroom behind for a while. All of these can be scary changes for a seasoned and experienced confirmation teacher.

Be prepared to throw away some of your favorite things, and be open to embracing new favorites along the journey. Push the boundaries internally and externally for the sake of the best educational process you can be a part of.

Finally, and most importantly, focus on Jesus. Don’t let the stress or thrill of the educational planning process get in the way of Christ. Your confirmands will be confirming their faith in Him, not in you or in your confirmation program. Jesus can relate to everyone from conception to the death bed. He has gifted his Body with multiple gifts for faith formation. He is at the center of the historic educational forms of the church shaping His people by and for worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and service. Make sure that He remains front and center and pulling up the rear too.

Take a step back and look at your confirmation experience from a different angle today and notice its place in the larger life of the learner. Identify your entire educational team in the Body of Christ. Shape the process with multiple educational forms. Expand in these three areas and see how your confirmation experience grows as well as your entire educational plan.

References:

Benson, Peter. 1997. All Kids are Our Kids. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harris, Maria. 1989. Fashion Me A People. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Harris, Maria and Gabriel Moran. 1998. Reshaping Religious Education. Louisville, KY: Westminster.

Hoerber, Robert, ed. 1986. Concordia Study Bible, NIV. St. Louis: Concordia PublishingHouse.

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Department of Youth Ministry. 1998. A Study of Youth Confirmation and First Communion in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Accessed  April 2012. http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=484

Rideout, Victoria J., Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts. 2010. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to 18- Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Accessed April 2012. http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/8010.pdf

Webb-Mitchell, Brett P. 2003. Christly Gestures: Learning to Be Members of the Body of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.

Author Information

Jeremy Pekari currently serves as pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Lynnfield, MA. He is a graduate of Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia Seminary, St. Louis and received his Ph.D. from Fordham University in Religious Education in 2011. He currently serves as a Circuit Counselor and is a member of the Board of Directors of Lutheran Bible Translators. He may be contacted at jeremy.pekari@gmail.com.

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