The following is a brief excerpt from my contribution to Signed, Sealed, Delivered, a new collection of essays about the theology and practice of confirmation today. You can read our interview with the editor, Sharon Ely Pearson, here.
But what do we need to teach? As I’m sure we are all aware, there are things we as clergy think are deeply important that are in fact irrelevant to the objective of helping people make a mature affirmation of faith. I’ve taught many a class on the Anglican Reformation, which of course I find fascinating, but who am I kidding? You don’t actually need to know the first thing about the Elizabethan Settlement to be a faithful Christian. I suspect a lot of us fill our confirmation classes with information that we happen to find it interesting, or perhaps because it allow us to display our expertise, but with little thought as to whether it is relevant to people’s lives or questions.
I would like to offer five considerations on how we can approach confirmation preparation in a way that allows confirmands at all levels of faith development to do the work of affirming their faith.
1. Create a safe and healthy environment for exploration. Have the group set its own ground rules. Stay mindful of group dynamics. Allow laughter. Always leave room for doubt and questions. Listen.
2. Find ways to connect information about faith with exploration of lived faith. For example, it is a great thing to explain to people about different forms of prayer, but a far more practical application if we allow people to try out those forms of prayer – and then discuss which forms they liked and didn’t like, and why. And when in doubt, bear in mind that information is probably less important than you think.
3. Answers are less helpful than sitting with the questions. When we provide answers, we keep people in a state of immaturity. Wrestling with one’s faith is an act of faith. As we assist people in articulating their faith, it may be that our role is to keep putting forward the questions and not working towards a speedy resolution of doubt or uncertainty. Remember that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. It may be that in providing answers we are in fact killing people’s faith.
4. Be mindful of the broad spectrum of faith in the Christian tradition. We ask people to affirm their faith, not ours. Along with not providing quick answers, I also think it is important not to limit faith to our own preference. Are we aware of the breadth of Christianity? Can we point to Scriptures or theologians that illuminate the path someone is on, even if it is not our own?
5. Not getting confirmed is also a faithful choice. One of the original reasons the creators of Confirm not Conform developed the program was that they felt it was vital for confirmation to be a genuine choice, and that those who chose not to be confirmed should also be honored for the work and discernment they had done. We need to take confirmation seriously enough to take no for an answer, and to honor and respect those who make that choice. Despite the bishop’s scheduled visit, faith does not work to a deadline.
In confirmation, we need to respect, honor, and recognize the faith of those being confirmed. The essential element of confirmation is that people are given the opportunity to make that choice to stand in front of the community and say, “Yes. I claim this faith for myself. I may not know everything about it, but I choose to follow the Way of Christ, and I do so of my own free will.”