Confirmation Sunday is a day of celebration for most families of faith as sons and daughters are blessed by pastors and welcomed as adults into the congregation. But last spring our son, David, who had completed two years of catechetical study, was not at the altar.
David told us last winter that he would not confirm his faith. We were deeply disappointed by his decision. But my husband and I agreed that while David had to complete his catechetical studies, we wouldn’t force him into the rite of affirmation. Celebrating it would be hypocrisy. He shouldn’t proclaim his faith just because we want him to.
As we have during other family crises, we called our pastors and youth group leader for advice and comfort. Their conversations led us to ask the same question of other ELCA youth leaders: How should faithful parents deal with a catechetical “dropout”? Perhaps their wisdom, respect and patience will comfort and teach you too.
Albert I. Douglass, one of our pastors at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church, Ambler Pa., wasn’t shocked or angry when we met with him to discuss David’s decision. And there was never a suggestion, as I unreasonably feared, that David would be “shunned.”
“This should be David’s day and his choice,” Douglass said. “In baptism God provides what it takes to be fully part of his kingdom. Confirmation is when you’re ready to take on that adult responsibility. When David says, ‘I’m not ready,’ we respect him. It shows he has thought about his decision. We know God still loves him. And as his affirmation counselors, our primary task is to try to stay connected with him into adulthood [even if he doesn’t affirm his faith through the rite of confirmation].”
The reasons behind “I’m not ready” are as diverse as the confirmands, we were told. Family values and issues, peer pressure, secularism, world affairs and the normal teenage search for truth influence kids’ religious decisions. Some catechetical instructors find that the “thinkers” are the ones who are absent on Confirmation Sunday.
“Often the issue is their inability to have faith in what they’re studying. They’re usually very intelligent kids who find themselves more confused than when they started searching for more answers,” said Ray Hopkins, director of youth ministry at Upper Dublin. “They struggle with comprehending ideas in church that are not as concrete as scientific concepts they learn in school.”
David is currently a high-school sophomore. Of his decision to not affirm his faith, he said, “I believe Christianity and other organized religions can strip a person of themselves. Organized religion tells us that the only way to peace, happiness and self-realization is to connect to God through a process the church has dictated. True self-understanding is found within oneself, and we must each come to our own realization about life and determine why we are here. Secondly, religion has always caused more death, war, turmoil and unrest than anything else in the history of man.”
We’ve had some lively discussions arguing those points. David’s opinions also tell us he is at least exploring his spirituality. How can we—his family and congregation—respectfully help him?
Heidi Hagstrom, ELCA director for the youth gathering, shared her thoughts with me: “Like all of us, young people are on a journey of faith. Youth ministry is about walking with kids in the manner of Christ. That implies a listening presence, not a directive presence. When a young person chooses to disengage from the process, they aren’t necessarily disengaging from the journey. These are times when it’s crucial for caring adults to be spiritual mentors—to intentionally practice their own faith, pray regularly and invite other people of faith to move alongside the child.”
Dyan Lawlor, David’s pastoral catechetical leader at Upper Dublin, invited him to join the youth group on an Appalachia service project. Much to our surprise, David agreed to go “so I can help those in need.” Service projects provide hands-on “incarnational” experiences that are critical to helping kids explore their faith, Lawlor said. “Jesus taught us to give of ourselves in service, not to just learn the doctrine,” she explained. “Kids often experience ‘God moments’ of inspiration when they minister to the poor or when they listen to adults chatting by the campfire whose hearts and souls were deeply touched by the day’s work. That’s when they know the Lord has been with us.”
On the trip, David and Lawlor had several such fireside chats. She earned his respect, and he’ll go on another Appalachia trip this summer. “Instead of saying, ‘Why, why, why?’ and criticizing me, Pastor Lawlor listened to me and respected my decision,” David told me. “That led to my respect of her.”
Some kids who drop out come back in their own time if they’re mentored by caring youth leaders. Monty Lysne, director of Head to the Heart Confirmation Ministry at Faith Inkubators, recalls Rich who, like David, said he rejected all organized religion. “We knew Rich had a lot of special qualities, so we tapped his leadership potential. One night at summer camp when he said he was ready, we lit some candles in the sanctuary and invited Rich’s family and friends to a private confirmation ceremony. Having more than one Confirmation Day might give kids who aren’t ready more time and cut down on the ‘graduation/pass/fail’ mentality.”
David’s faith life still weighs heavy on my heart and soul, but I’m proud of his truthfulness and of his service work. Of course, I pray that he will decide to publicly profess his faith someday. But my deeper prayer is that the Spirit abides with him whether or not he is a confirmed Lutheran.
David isn’t finished with God, nor is God finished with David. Martin Luther’s wisdom reminds me that faith is a personal, lifelong quest: “This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not health but healing; not being but becoming; not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road.”
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers