Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Confirmation - the magic talisman of the Lutheran Church

This week will mark the tenth anniversary of my ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Of course, that stretch of time is nothing compared to many of my brother pastors.  However, a decade is also enough time in the parish to begin to recognize how things really work. 

After ten years as a parish pastor, one of the single greatest frustrations that I encounter is the manner in which many parents treat Confirmation.  The topic of Confirmation has been on my mind recently because I am currently in the process of writing a series of posts about the history of Confirmation in the Church (Mark's thoughts: The weird and wacky history of Confirmation, Part 1: Whenthere was no Confirmation - the western Churchbefore Nicaea; Mark's thoughts: The weird and wacky history of Confirmation,Part 2: When there was no Confirmation in Rome).  It is also the subject of ongoing conversation among Lutherans as people wrestle with the fact that so many who are confirmed do not continue with a faithful life in the Church.  This conversation often focuses on the age at which catechesis leading to Confirmation is done or the methodology that is employed in catechesis.

While these are certainly important topics, I have reached the conclusion that they fundamentally miss the real issue – the real problem.  During the last ten years I have come to realize that there is an almost infallible predictor of whether youth who are Confirmed will still be regularly attending the Divine Service during the years that lead up to graduation from high school.  If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was regular attendance, this will continue.  If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was absence from the Divine Service, this will return.

For all of the handwringing about the age of Confirmation and the methodology of catechesis, I don’t believe that changes in these areas will make a marked change in the outcome.  They won’t because the real issue is the faithfulness of the parents.  If the parents consider Christ and his Means of Grace to be important, they will regularly bring their family to church.  And where parents regularly bring their family to church – where they model for their children the importance of the faith by what they do on Sunday morning – we will see youth continue to attend church.  Where this was not important before Confirmation and the parents didn’t bring the family to church on Sunday, it will not be important after Confirmation.  The result is that we will not see confirmed youth in Church.  The relationship between Confirmation and a later lack of faithful attendance by youth is not one of cause and effect.  It is instead the inevitable product of the manner in which the parents conduct their family and its life in the faith.

The fact that almost the entire issue comes down to parents should not be surprising to Lutherans.  After all, the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism says under the topic “To Parents”: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).  This a foundational responsibility of the vocation of parent that has been announced in God’s Word since the beginning of God’s people.  The book of Deuteronomy says, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 ESV). Parents are to teach their children the faith, and we know that actions speak louder than words.  If we define the Means of Grace as being the marks of the Church (Augsburg Confession, Article VII), then reception of the Means of Grace defines at the most basic level what it looks like to be part of the Church.  What parents choose to do on Sunday morning is one of the most powerful factors in determining whether their children will live in the faith or not.

And this brings me to the question that profoundly puzzles me after ten years of serving as a pastor: Why do parents who are not in any way faithful about bringing their family to the Divine Service invest the time and effort to see that their children will be confirmed, when after Confirmation the family is simply going to return to absence from the Divine Service?

In my congregational setting catechesis leading to Confirmation takes place over the course of two years when youth are in seventh and eighth grade (this year we have begun a process of catechesis that will lead to early communion for children who want to receive the Sacrament of the Altar and whose parents believe they are ready).  The process leading to Confirmation means attending the Divine Service during the course of those two years, and families do this.  There is an hour of catechesis on Wednesday night with the youth, and then after this parents and youth together attend Learn by Heart – a thirty minute period of time that uses Lutheran Service Book’s Service of Prayer and Preaching, and has a time of catechesis.  The rite of Confirmation comes at the end of a two year period that requires a significant investment of time and effort in an activity that repeatedly emphasizes the centrality of the Means of Grace for the life of a Christian.  

Parents do this.  And yet I know with virtual certainty that parents who were not faithful in bringing their family to the Divine Service before Confirmation will return to this pattern after Confirmation.  I know it, because I have seen it happen again, and again, and again.  This is one of the greatest frustrations of that I have experienced during my first decade as a pastor.

The question then is why they do this.  Why do they invest time and effort into something that their previous and subsequent actions treat as unimportant?   I have come to conclude that for many within the culture of Lutheranism, the rite of Confirmation has taken on the role of a magical talisman.  Magic is usually defined as actions and beliefs that are thought to manipulate the divine in order to produce desired outcomes. In the minds of many Lutherans, Confirmation is a “get out of hell free card.”  It is something that from the perspective of many has a high price (one actually has to go to church and spend time with youth in catechesis).  Yet this price is worth paying because once the investment has been made, the future spiritual status has been guaranteed. Once the work has been done, the parents can revert to their normal pattern of behavior and reclaim Sunday morning for whatever they want to do. They can return to all of those things that are more important than Christ and his Means of Grace.

There are two things that are worth pondering here.  The first is reflection upon how Confirmation achieved this status in the Lutheran Church. The story of how something that did not exist in Wittenberg after the Reformation became a central feature in the piety and culture of the Lutheran Church is a fascinating one (the same can be said about the fact that Confirmation itself did not exist in the western Church for almost a thousand years). It is worth reflecting upon the cultural factors which gave Confirmation this status in Lutheranism, because many of them do not have anything to do with the Gospel. It is not surprising therefore that for many, Confirmation and its catechesis now function in ways that have little to do with the Gospel.

The second item to ponder is the general lack of faithfulness exhibited by parents in attending the Divine Service.  Ultimately, it is not a question of when and how we do catechesis and Confirmation.  If parents don’t bring their family to church before Confirmation, this is what will again happen after Confirmation. The deeper issue is, therefore, the general unfaithfulness of adults – and especially those whose unfaithfulness impacts their children. 

There is always the danger that we will construct a “golden age” in the life of the Church that never really existed. Over the years, I have found the Fifth Part of the Large Catechism to be very comforting.  There Luther repeatedly emphasizes that Christians need to receive the Sacrament. While Luther’s immediate context of Wittenberg at the time of the Reformation (medieval practice being reshaped in evangelical ways) is different from ours, the basic problem remains the same.  Clearly people were not making use of the Sacrament in ways that were commensurate with the Gospel character of the gift and this frustrated Luther. There is an incessant refrain that is telling:

         What is meant is that those who want to be Christians should prepare themselves
         to receive this blessed sacrament frequently (V.39).

         Nevertheless, let it be understood that people who abstain and absent themselves
         from the sacrament over a long period of time are not to be considered Christians

         In the first place, we have a clear text in the very words of Christ, "DO THIS in 
         remembrance of me."  These are words that instruct and command us, urging
         all those who want to be Christians to partake of the sacrament.  Therefore, 
         whoever wants to be a disciple of Christ - it is those to whom he is speaking here -
         must faithfully hold to this sacrament, not from compulsion, forced by humans,
         but to obey and please the Lord Christ (V.45).

         Thus you see that we are not granted liberty to despise the sacrament. When
         a person, with nothing to hinder him, lets a long period of time elapse without
         ever desiring the sacrament, I call that despising it.  If you want such liberty, you
         may as well take the further liberty not to be a Christian; then you need not believe
         or pray, for the one is just as much Christ's commandment as the other V.49).

         All we are doing is to urge you to do what you ought to do, not for our sake but for
         your own.  He invites you, and if you want to show contempt for his sacrament,
         you must answer for it yourself (V.52).

         It is certainly true, as I have found in my own experience, and as everyone will
         find in his or her own case, that if a person stays away from the sacrament, day
         by day he or she will become more and more callous and cold and will eventually
         spurn it altogether (V.53).

         Surely it is a sin and a shame that, when he so tenderly and faithfully summons
         and exhorts us for our highest and greatest good, we regard it with such disdain,
         neglecting it so long that we grow quite cold and callous and lose all desire and 
         love for it (V.67).

         Thus you have on God's part both the commandment and the promise of the Lord
         Christ.  Meanwhile, on your part, you ought to be induced by your own need, which
         hangs around your neck and which is the very reason for this command, invitation,
         and promise (V.71).
         If you could see how many daggers, spears and arrows are aimed at you every
         moment, you would be glad to come to the sacrament as often as you can.  The
         only reason we go about so securely and heedlessly is that we neither imagine nor 
         believe that we are in the flesh, in the wicked world, or under the kingdom of the
         devil (V.82).

What was true in Luther's day is true also for our own.  And by the same token, the text of the Large Catechism tells us that the problem of parents failing to teach their children the faith by what they say and do is not unique to our day.  Luther writes about the Fourth Commandment:

         Instead, they should keep in mind that they owe obedience to God, and that,
         above all, they should earnestly and faithfully discharge the duties of their office,
         not only to provide for the material support of their children, servants, etc. but
         especially to bring them up to the praise and honor of God.  Therefore do not
         imagine that the parental office is a matter of your pleasure and whim.  It is
         a strict commandment and injunction of God, who holds you accountable for 
         it (Large Catechism, I.168-169).

The old man lives, and he will live until the Last Day.  The continuing collapse of cultural Christianity (and cultural Lutheranism) will exacerbate these issues - but it did not create them.  They have been there since the Fall, and they will exist until the return of Christ.  As pastors, we preach and teach Law and Gospel directed at these matters, for that is what we have been called to do. It is, at times a very frustrating calling, because often the old man wins.  People - those who claim to belong to Christ - say no to Jesus and his gifts.  We need to warn congregation members that faith does not consistently say "no'' to Jesus without ceasing to be faith.  Indeed, our Lord warned, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Matthew 7:21 ESV).  These are the existential realities that confront us during this life in the now and the not yet.  We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can solve the problem, if we can just find the right age for Confirmation or the right way to do catechesis.



  1. "If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was regular attendance, this will continue. If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was absence from the Divine Service, this will return." Ding ding ding. Funny, that. It's almost like the parents are teaching their kids what they really believe the whole time. I wonder if an even better predictor is whether the father goes to church. Some surveys have shown that to be the key -- which would totally fall in line with the father being head of the family.

    As to why they view confirmation so important, whereas actually attending church not so much, I think it may have to do with a distorted belief of salvation through faith alone. If you asked them at some point during those many years when they were not attending if they were Christians, they would undoubtedly say, "Yes." If you asked them why they think that, given their tendency to ignore God's word and sacrament, they would say they are Christians because they "believe." Any counter to this argument is obviously written off as law, works righteousness, and un-Lutheran. Confirmation is where you learn the basic Lutheran stuff of salvation through faith, so they want their kids to hear that. They also want to please the grandparents, and soothe their own consciences that they have exposed the child to the faith. Thus, to confirmation the kid goes. They've done what they can.

  2. You may want to check out www.whatisorange.org. There are a whole ton of folks that have been working on making positive change in the church in this area.

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  4. I wonder if part of the problem is poor ongoing adult faith formation. If we focus on discipleship for adults, especially the young adults (25-35, who are the real future of a congregation) the children will be formed by parents. We've counted on the long held "magic talisman" idea for a long time -- to get kids to show up for whatever we determine is 'required' for Confirmation in all our congregations. In doing so we've helped perpetuate the notion (of confirmation as magic talisman). Many/most Lutheran congregations receive new members with little more than a handshake and a rite in the worship service. Others who try to do more of a class, scratch their heads about its effectiveness. We also have a dearth of adult education classes, or they're poorly attended, etc. etc. Adult mentoring is slow, not as formulaic as we'd probably like. But in the long run, that's how we address the problem Jesus-style. Matthew 28:19-20. Give the "priesthood of all believers" some legs.

  5. I think the church is confronting the same reality as every other institution in civil society. They are all breaking down as technology, contraception, globalization, multi-culturalism, and the freedom to choose are remaking the world. All of life is now a personalized i-Pod playlist. And this does not only apply to the laity. All these other issues are just symptoms of the disease. There is no "the church". There is not even "the LCMS".

    I think part of the attraction to confirmation classes is that they tend to be very grounded in the basics of Lutheranism that everyone remembers and acknowledges. Focusing on adult catechesis, having parents educate their children, and then presenting them to pastor for examination would be great. In theory. In practice, Adult catechesis often turns into arguments over politics, personality, and all the things Lutherans are currently disagreeing about.

    Catechesis for the youth tends to be very structured and traditional and almost everyone knows what should be covered and if something doesn't fit or sound right. Adult catechesis is often the time for pastor to push the agenda of whatever faction within the church he happens to belong to and for there to be lots of 'theology by reaction' that seeks to correct the previous generation's errors by making new errors in the opposite direction.

    Adult catechesis is often more difficult to schedule since adults usually have jobs and their hours are not all as uniform as those of school children. And it is much easier for pastor to require that children attend confirmation classes or even that their parents attend with them, if failing to do so would prevent the child from being confirmed. As a result, eliminating youth catechesis in favor of more adult catechesis, can wind up simply meaning less catechesis.

    I also think many pastors are in love with the seminary and want to be professors more than parish pastors. I think this tendency increases as more and more Lutheran clergy are refugees from the anti-intellectualism, shallowness, and crass commercialism of popular American Christianity. I think attacking confirmation classes (because this is really the issue, not the ceremony or rite of confirmation) is often a way of removing work that is seen as boring, intellectually constraining, and tedious from the perspective of clergy who would much rather be remaking the church and leading one or another theological, liturgical, episcopal, or political revolution.

    That's my perspective as a disaffected layman.

  6. L Brown, It sounds like you have had some unfortunate experiences. I don't agree that the issue is really "confirmation classes." The rite of Confirmation as the capstone, summarizes the entire concept of Confirmation in the minds of many (most) lay people. While catechesis with youth has its own unique challenges, it is something that many pastors do find rewarding.

  7. There is an old saying; "Jesus taught adults and played with children. The church insists on doing the opposite." Food for thought.