How to teach confirmation class ecstatically (Part 1)

May 6th, 2015

“All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them.” (Luke 9:24) In this verse Jesus teaches us the mystery of Christian discipleship. It is an ecstatic mystery, paradoxical or nonsensical in humanist perspective, yet in accord with the logic of divine love. In this series, I will begin to unfold what Jesus communicates as it applies to our work of catechesis and confirmation. 

Little is more central to the work of a pastor than catechesis: teaching the Christian faith to the Lord’s beloveds, Christ’s little ones, of any age. Thus one of the most significant ways a pastor (or theologian, or layperson) can manifest Christ’s risen life and presence past the date of her or his own death is to teach confirmation class. Yet, one protests: Confirmation class is so hard! Most of the teens don’t want to be there! The parents don’t support me, and might openly disagree with the things I teach the kids! 

In spite of all of this, the work of catechesis is maximally important: It goes on because it must. Better still: It can be joyful and full of delight. In this three-part series of posts I am going to share how I teach confirmation class, giving very practical advice to spur your own thoughts in your own context. Specifically, in this installment I will focus on a couple of basic matters: time frame, and putting together content. In part two we will look at incorporating prayer into confirmation class, incorporating service into the confirmation regimen, and putting together an awesome confirmation liturgy right in the middle of the Easter morning service. Last, in part three, we will look at the Christian mystery of ecstatic spirituality and discipleship head on, and I will offer some suggestions on how it matters for how you teach confirmation class. Think of it as some generative thoughts on teaching style. “Ecstasy and confirmation class together”, you say? — irresistible, let me tell you. 

OK: time to talk time frame and content. I hope that by the end of this you're in ecstasy like St. Francis, above. 

1. Time frame. Often pastors teach a short confirmation class, sometimes as little as a few weeks! They either started late and rush to get done by Easter, or they are anxious about what to teach (see #2 below), or they dislike being around teens (insecurity perhaps?) and so keep it short and sweet. 

But keeping it short and sweet is a bad idea. Whether your catechumens are in middle school or high school (or college or assisted living), confirmation provides an ideal and invaluable opportunity to deeply indoctrinate them into a systematic and comprehensive vision of the Christian life and faith. There is no substitute for this. Having such instruction allows one to live spiritually and make moral choices in ways that make sense if, and only if, Jesus rose from the dead. We want that. Such catechesis provides the basics of a way of seeing how all things — all parts of life, all relationships, all knowledge — hold together in Christ. (Consider Colossians 1:16-17.) Confirmation is worth the time it takes to do well. 

I recommend starting at the beginning of the fall school semester and ending on Easter Sunday when the catechumens are confirmed in the faith. Throw them a fabulous confirmation liturgy right smack in the middle of the Easter liturgy. (See Part 2.) Talk about a memorable Sunday! 

You say: September to Easter?! That’s a long time. Eight months. What do you teach if you spend so long on confirmation? … 

2. Content and topics. Eight months is actually not a long time for confirmation. My wife was confirmed by the United Methodists while in 6th grade with only 6 weeks or so of instruction. She remembers none of it. Her family subsequently, and for unrelated reasons, wound up at a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. She was then catechized for two years by her new Lutheran pastor — including retreats and service projects — before she was confirmed again. I like to tell people she is the most confirmed Christian I know. But the relevant point is: the Lutheran catechesis was long, impinged annoyingly on her schedule, and required her to memorize things and serve others. As a result, it mattered, and she learned things. 

When I teach the eight month confirmation class, I divide the time up to cover these topics in this order: 

1. The faith – going through the Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed (simultaneously) to memorize them and achieve a basic understanding of them. This is the longest section of the course. We discuss each article of the creeds a line or two per class and discuss parts of Scripture relevant to each one. A very helpful guide for thinking about and teaching the basics of the Christian faith is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which can be consulted for free online. It is great because the first section goes through the creeds line by line. Looking at it reminds me of things I wouldn't otherwise think of, and points me to relevant passages of Scripture. Of course, as a United Methodist, I also draw on the relevant parts of the Book of Discipline. 

2. The liturgy – going through the Word and Table liturgy from the United Methodist Hymnal (or the main worship book of your own tradition). Three weeks or so. Word and Table is an ancient shape of worship shared by most Christians in the world. I want my students to understand that, and also to think about how each part of the liturgy matters in what we are invited to do in response to God’s grace. I also want them to start to think about how practicing the liturgy in a disciplined way over the course of a life will shape them. How? It will turn them into a living member of Jesus Christ. This is also the section in which we talk sacraments: what they are, why we do them, what we believe God does to us through them. 

3. Church history – In this section I run through the basic narrative of Church history from apostolic times to today. Two to three weeks. We look at the early church, hear a little about the church fathers and mothers, the schisms between the Greek East and Latin West, the subsequent and continuing schisms from the time of the Reformation forward, and the ways the Gospel is growing around the world today. I want the students to have a sense — which they won't get anywhere else — of who they are and where they come from as Christians. I want them to sense the deep continuity between what we do and what the church did in the early centuries — including why things like bishops might be important, even as they (like we) can also be corrupt. I want them to understand that while there are certainly bad parts of Christian history, there are also very good parts, and that the way we (admittedly inconsistently) value every human life today would be unimaginable were it not for Christianity's transformation of our social imagination, whether or not we are believers. I also want the catechumens to sense the global nature of their faith, that they belong to a church with holy selfless heroic saints and smart wise intellectuals and incomparable artists. We look at icons and pictures of some saints, and look at some great art — thanks, Internet! I want them to yearn for the unity in Jesus Christ and his Spirit which they share with Christians everywhere to be manifest in visible ways between the churches. 

4. Christian life: Morality. Four weeks or so. In this section we first dig into Jesus' love commandment (Matt. 22:36-40) in light of Jesus’ own way of life and selfless death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-11). Then, we use the love commandment as a ‘lens’ through which to interpret each of the 10 Commandments, taking two or three per week. As is traditional in Christian catechesis, I shamelessly unfold contemporary applications of the 10 Commandments across every area of contemporary life, from truth telling, to social ethics and active love for the poor, to sexual morality, to avoiding greed and envy. If young people don’t hear an inspiring, challenging, and bold way of life from the church, where will they hear it? As my Dad says, “If the Church doesn’t teach the high road, who will?” 

5. Christian life: Prayer. Three weeks or so. In this final section we discuss and try out different ways to pray, look at biblical teachings on prayer, and discuss the importance of setting aside time to actually pray. I want catechumens to feel empowered and freed by the realization that they can actually spend time in the presence of the living God, sharing all things with God, becoming more transparent to God than they are to themselves, and responding lovingly and affectionately to the divine love they experience. As we’ll discuss in part two, certain disciplines of prayer have been practiced together at the beginning of confirmation class for the whole eight months. Thus, this section is the culmination of the whole class, drawing all things together, seeking to draw the students into the presence of the God to whom they will commit their deaths and lives on the day of their confirmation.

However well you plan, there will be unexpected interruptions and surprises, and some parts of the material will go better than other parts with different groups of catechumens. But this material has seemed to me to provide a good structure and a good way to start.

Related: How to teach confirmation class ecstatically (Part 2)

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