Fostering Conversation Between Adults and Youth

January 8th, 2013

Many Christian traditions practice the rite of confirmation, in which Christians—and usually young Christians—confirm the vows that they took or that were taken on their behalf at baptism. In addition to this connection to baptism, confirmation involves entering into a covenant relationship with the church. To borrow a phrase from the vows that one takes upon being confirmed in The United Methodist Church, a confirmand vows to “faithfully participate” in the congregation’s ministries through his or her “prayers,” “presence,” “gifts,” “service,” and “witness.”

It is important that a young person considering making such a lifetime commitment to his or her faith should have an understanding of core beliefs and practices and a robust faith vocabulary. For this reason, many churches prepare young people for confirmation through a series of classes. Though instruction is important, faith is not formed in classrooms. It is formed within the context of loving relationships where young people are encouraged and accepted by adults that they begin to discover faith in a God who encourages, accepts and loves them. Faith-filled, loving, worshipping, and serving families and congregations help young people become faith-filled, loving, worshipping, and serving adults.

Conversations About Faith Should Start at Home

Conversations with spiritually mature adults are essential to a young person’s faith development. In ideal circumstances, such conversations start at home. Parents and guardians have a greater impact on a young person’s faith development than any other person. Many parents are not aware of the affect they have on their children’s faith; and, even if they are, they don’t know what they can say or do.

While parents are instrumental in faith formation, they should not be a young person’s only adult spiritual influences. Christian disciples are formed as members of a community of believers. Rites of baptism and church membership generally involve not just the individual being baptized or joining the church but also the entire congregation. In these rituals the congregation usually vows to love and nurture the person being initiated. This love and nurturing is not merely a function of the church’s pastoral staff and program leaders.

Youth Need Meaningful Relationships With Non-Parent Adults

The Fuller Youth Institute, (link: Natural Mentoring for Real Impact) among others, has found that relationships with adults in the church, both inside and outside of the church’s youth ministry, play a key role in determining whether young people stay involved in the church after high school. The Search Institute lists support and strong relationships with both parents and “three or more non-parent adults” among its 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents. When an adolescent is preparing for baptism, confirmation, and/or church membership, it is ideal that his or her parents are involved in the process. It is essential that non-parental adults from the congregation be involved.

But for these relationships between youth and adults in the congregation to be effective, they must go deeper than fist bumps in passing or two-minute chats after worship. For this reason many confirmation programs pair young people with adult mentors.

A mentor doesn’t need to be a perfect Christian nor someone who is a biblical scholar or trained theologian. But a mentor does need to be someone with a mature faith, someone who is committed to growing in faith, being honest about their faith and living a holy life.

While there is little debate about the value of parents and mentors being involved in the preparation for confirmation and other Christian rites, how these adults should be involved is not always clear. On the most basic level, these adults should offer love and support and be available for open and honest conversation. But what do such conversations look like?

Parents and Mentors Need Structure and Guidance

Sometimes conversations between youth and adults about Christ, sin, salvation, and discipleship happen organically. But often they don’t. Without guidance and prompting, many parents and mentors aren’t sure what to talk about with their youth or how to approach the topics they discuss. Parents can be intimidated by the idea of having conversations about faith with their kids; and mentors may be unsure about their role and its boundaries. These adults, and the youth with whom they talk, can benefit from having a plan and a structure for their conversations. Their discussions will be more fruitful if they have an idea ahead of time of what they’ll be talking about: What topics will they cover? What questions will they wrestle with? What sorts of thoughts and information will they share with each other?

Rev. Dr. Frank Nelson, has created TalkPoints® resources to facilitate conversations between parents and youth and mentors and youth. Most recently he has written a set of TalkPoints® books for the Credo Confirmation program, but he has created similar resources to accompany other programs. Nelson instructs parents and youth to tell their faith stories to each other, to discuss their unique gifts and how to use those gifts in service of God and family and others, and to talk about decision-making and growing in faith. He encourages youth to talk to their mentors about what it means to be a Christian and a member of their congregation and denomination, what it looks like to follow Jesus, the commitment they’re making to Christ and the church, and life after confirmation.

None of these conversations require parents or mentors to be experts on the Bible or Christian theology. But all require parents and mentors to be honest about their faith and relationship with God.

Nelson’s TalkPoints® provide two identical talk sheets, one for the parent or mentor and another for the youth. Both parties spend time reading, reflecting on, and writing in response to questions and statements on the sheets. This allows the adult and the youth to be (literally) on the same page and have time to prepare before having conversations about topics that can be difficult to talk about on the fly. The questions, statements, and written responses give the conversation a foundation on which to build.

The written responses, from both the youth and the adult, give the young person a record of these talks with her or his mentor and/or parents. They are a reminder of the confirmation experience, of a relationship with an adult in the congregation, and/or a time when she or he worked through big questions of faith with mom or dad.

Nelson’s method has worked for many congregations. Regardless of whether or not it is a good fit for yours, fostering discussion between youth and adults on subjects of Christian faith and practice is an essential part of preparing young people to make a life-long commitment to Christ and the church. And it isn’t enough to encourage parents to talk to their sons and daughters or to pair a youth with a mentor and send them on their way. Parents and mentors need guidance. They need an idea of what to talk about, and they may need help telling their own faith stories and articulating their own beliefs.

Providing subjects and prompts to structure conversations between youth and the adults who are supporting them as they decide whether to make a deeper commitment to faith, such as Nelson’s TalkPoints®, goes a long way toward making conversations between youth and parents more fruitful and relationships between youth and mentors more meaningful.

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