During the season of Epiphany I have been teaching Confirmation class at church. Normally this privilege is reserved for the pastors…not because I don’t enjoy it, but because it’s their opportunity to connect with 5th – 9th graders. However, since we’re short a pastor, I get to do some teaching.
I’ve been plowing through a six-week series on The Sacraments. Frankly, I’ve been having a hard time coming up with creative ways to teach 7th & 8th graders about the importance of sacraments. I really don’t want to make Communion and Baptism more complex than it needs to be – and I want to make sure the teaching is developmentally appropriate for 13 year old brains. But, seriously…what kid wants to talk about sacraments for 6 hours?
In an attempt to keep things interesting, I’ve been using video clips, songs, small group games involving toilet paper, telling silly stories (like the time a pastor almost drown a baby during Baptism), and other youth director tricks. However, one of the unexpected surprises came when I asked students to write down any questions they have about each of the sacraments. This is nothing new or fancy. (In fact, I needed to fill about 10 minutes at the end of one of the class sessions, so I ran into my office for salvation in the form of pencils & index cards.) Here is a sample of the 50+ questions they came up with:
- “Why does the wafer taste like cardboard?”
- “How much money do we spend on communion?”
- “How come my friend’s church won’t baptize babies?”
- “Why do I need to go to confirmation class in order to affirm my baptism?”
- “Has the priest ever gotten wasted by not wasting the wine after communion?”
Suffice it to say, I have been overjoyed with both the quality of questions and, by extension, what this has done for the discussion during class time. Two of our class sessions have been almost entirely consumed by addressing their questions. We have covered everything I wanted to address, but we did it in a way that made students feel invested and valued. This simple little exercise led me to a rather simple epiphany:
Instead of imposing our pedagogical agenda on young people, why aren’t we asking them to tell us what they want to know?
I think that if we strip away all the traditional requirements / expectations (imposed on both student and teacher), we can reveal the core purpose of Confirmation ministry. The church forms a partnership with parents and baptismal sponsors to nurture faith in young people. The best practitioners in youth ministry know the way to have this purpose play out is to create an environment of relationships that allow young people to wrestle with their questions. (Recommended reading – Revisiting Relational Ministry, Andy Root.) Confirmation curriculum and other resources can aid in this process, but I don’t think it should drive the experience. Lectures, Catechism study, scripture memorization, faith statements, worship notes, and service projects are the asphalt for the road on the journey of faith. Relationships with peers, adults, parents, and church leaders are the vehicle that young people get to travel in.
What good is a road if nobody drives on it? So too, driving a car off-road for an entire lifetime isn’t a very pleasant experience. The road and the vehicle both need each other to do their job. In the same way, the best Confirmation resources are rendered useless if they aren’t implemented in a proper context…and a child’s relationship with peers, parents, adults, and church staff is empty without a variety of teaching tools and experiences.
At the church where I work, we ask our small group leaders to sit at a round table with 4-6 students during the 1 hour class time. They are asked to fully participate in the lesson activities, as well as facilitate groups discussions throughout the time. No prep or expertise necessary. Just a person willing to be faithful to their own baptism, as best they can. One such leader is Sonja – an active member of the church and someone who approached me about the possibility of helping our with confirmation ministry. I’ve known Sonja for a while (we went to college together), but it’s been fun to get to know her better through her ministry with one of our 7th grade groups. Here is a blog post she wrote over on Facebook earlier this week:
I had the pleasure of being present as a small group leader for our confirmation class last night, as I do each Wednesday evening.
I enjoy this ministry for a variety of reasons.
First, it asks little of me other than a commitment of time. I do not have to prepare a lesson, food or be in charge of the plan for the day. I simply show up, help focus and direct my group’s attention and assist in fleshing out the various questions that arise as a result of the day’s topic. This is good because the act of tearing myself away from my family for the evening is usually effort enough.
Second, I find these kids fascinating. In so many ways the members in my group of 7th grade students are still kids. At times they are shy, yet they are willing to be vulnerable with each other and with me. They are still full of glee and at times downright silly. They remind me, again, what it was like to be on the verge of adulthood with one foot still in childhood. I appreciate the setting of having 6-7 with whom I work throughout the year.
Third, I enjoy getting to know these young members of our church and find their questions fascinating. Questions that at times can seem brazen or disrespectful often find their root in a deep spiritual question. Many of our terribly old customs seem confusing and pointless, and they are not afraid to challenge and question.
Fourth, it is refreshing to relearn about my church, its roots and the Biblical basis for its many traditions. I enjoy the opportunity to raise questions, discuss and at times wrestle with and accept uncertainty.
As an adult, I don’t find a lot of opportunities for this kind of dialogue. There are lots of opportunities to sit and listen and learn. But, I like to dig my hands in and get dirty with the messy questions and uncertainty.
And that is one thing, my friends, these kids are very good at.