In late July, I stood up in front of a packed house at the Rethinking Confirmation conference and made some bold claims. When we, church leaders, believe confirmation really matters – because something profound actually happens in young confirmands’ lives – disciples are formed, we are changed, and the Body of Christ is more fully aligned with the mission of God.
I am seeing a fascinating parallel between indicators of healthy congregations and qualities of robust, transformational youth confirmation programs. Yes, healthy, well-resourced congregations are more likely to prioritize resources for youth ministry, but not all of those congregations have vital confirmation programs. Some big church programs are boring, and some tiny, struggling churches are changing lives … it’s all about intentionality and relationships.
One thing everyone can agree on is that the old metric for measuring congregational health: “bottoms in the pews” and “dollars in the plate,” is insufficient. Numbers and money do not tell the real story about whether a congregation is doing the vital work of making disciples and equipping them to join God’s mission. But the debates continue about exactly how to measure vitality, and even more importantly about what the essential ingredients are for a congregation to flourish.
An important discovery from our Confirmation Project site visits is that when congregations take youth discipleship seriously, the adults who lead and mentor become more fully engaged in their own discipleship. Congregations become dynamic systems of intergenerational learning and ministry, helping people of all ages grow in their relationship with God, their relationship with neighbor, and their ability to articulate their Christian conviction. Confirmation practiced with care is so much more than “getting kids done,” or formalizing adult membership.
Here are twelve marks of healthy church behavior compiled by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. They describe churches that are responsive and adaptive, and a whole lot like the healthy confirmation programs we’ve been visiting:
It may turn out that presenting a tired congregation with the challenge to provide a meaningful confirmation preparation process for its young people is just the kind of catalyst needed for renewal of mission. Even more than youth ministry as a whole, confirmation is a recognized and bounded dimension of lifelong and life-wide Christian formation. It is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a regular self-assessment about whose we are and to what we are called. Confirmation done well is an “all hands on deck” enterprise, a dynamic ecology of supports and opportunities surrounding a three-fold movement: renunciation, commitment, and community response.
Let us take the gift that is the inherited tradition of confirmation and recognize it for what it is: an opportunity for our congregations to invest fully in an intentional process of faith intensification with young people. And I have a strong hunch that our congregations will thrive.
Dr. Lisa Kimball is Professor of Christian Formation and Congregational Leadership and Director of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at VTS.