24 February 2012

Confirmation & Stuff

OVER AT JESUS CREED, Scot McKnight posted about a "note from a pastor in a denomination that baptizes infants and then proceeds to catechism and confirmation, but this pastor has his doubts." (There are some good thoughts/advice in the comments section over at JC, btw.)

I too responded in the combox, but this issue is one that's near to my heart, having taught such classes for a few years, which teaching challenged me more than any other to date (whoever said "if you can't explain it to children, you don't understand it well enough," was right in my opinion).

The discussion can easily turn into a perspectives match on why—or not—baptism is efficacious (covenantally binding and enabling grace), essential, and preferably paedo- to following the Christ. But that's not the point of this post. Rather, it's simply to get at an answer to the question: What do you think would improve confirmation? By way of personal anecdote, I'll try to offer part of a suggestion:

I was raised Baptist, which of course didn’t use words like confirmation but nevertheless had a baptism preparation class that carried with it all the automation and pressures of most confirmation classes. To be sure, a profession is expected before enrolling in this class. If memory serves correctly, I was six or seven, which, to my understanding, for the majority of Baptist traditions is kind of young (perhaps not among Southern Baptists—see, for example, this article on the upward trend of pre-schooler baptisms since 1974).

At the time I started practicing Christianity more seriously (around 20 years of age), I was not re-baptized, as many of my fellow Baptists were wont to do. However nascent my theological understanding was in these matters, it seemed to me one dunk was clearly enough.

Some five years later, I married in to a confessional Lutheran family, and my wife’s experience in confirmation, despite the automatic feel among that crowd, was, according to her, absolutely confirmatory (a bolster) for her faith.

I should note at this point that I think we fail to grasp what confirmation is, not least as a result of its relationship to (the historic church’s view of) baptism, if we’re losing sleep over this “automatic” flavor. That said, I understand why (theologically) Baptists and Anabaptists take umbrage with it.

Fast forwarding to my own practices and experiences in the local church as a teacher: At the church I had been a member of (an independent Reformed congregation) for six years during the first decade of this century, I taught the communicants (confirmation) class for four years.

Here’s what was cool about this particular church’s practice: We asked parents to decide when to put their children in this class. This meant that during any given year, I had children ranging from 5 (the youngest) to about 12. Average ages were 8–10. All throughout the class, I spent time with each parent discussing their children’s “progress.” Receiving first Communion was by no means automatic after taking part in this process. The final class(es) consisted of walking through the gospel (in age appropriate Q&A form) with a (senior) elder present. That elder would make the final call regarding the child's understanding of the gospel (if Scot reads this, I made sure it was not the potentially truncated "soterian" version being rehearsed, as described in his book on the subject).

Now, given my conviction regarding baptism and confirmation (that the former is efficacious and enabling, and the latter is meant to confirm—sacramentally, though not in the same sense as baptism and the Supper—what has been promised and thus presumed in the former), I’d made sure that each of my kids would be admitted to their first Communion. But even then, a small handful over the years would come back the next year for a do-over.

I hope this last personal experience and example helps answer the question. In short, what do I think would improve confirmation? Put the ball in the parents’ court to decide when to put their children forward. Move past the notion that every child has to be a certain age before he/she can enter confirmation. And get a spine—imagine the words coming out your mouth, “Your child is not ready,” and then brace yourself for the consequences. Finally, see each family as a mentoring opportunity—both for the child and her parents.

Or sidestep this whole issue and just go Eastern Orthodox—their children receive confirmation (chrismation) right after they’re baptized (but whence comes catechesis, which is what I think constitutes at least one major import of confirmation in the West [along with the sealing of the Holy Spirit], in the Orthodox tradition?).

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