The Art of Confirmation

May 2nd, 2011

Recently, I was invited to sit on a youth ministry panel entitled, “Will Today’s Youth Be Tomorrow’s Church?” The number of registrants to the conference was unusually large, according to our convener. Clearly, folks were anxious about the issue.

For starters, youth are presumed to be a special species of quasi-human, with interests and impulses alien to the adult world, and thus wholly out of sync with “traditional” church. There is a kind of primal fear that strikes otherwise level-headed adults when a teen walks into the room. This is in part because, according to ritual theorists, youth are perceived as “anomalies” – stuck in the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood – and as such have no place in “patterned society.” Because they stand on the margins, they vaguely represent all that is dangerous and uncontrolled in human existence – hence the cultural definition of “adolescent” as an alien and troubled species (which of course creates a profitable marketing opportunity for corporations). And meanwhile the church has ignored or forgotten its own belief in the created and redeemed status of all human beings—whatever their age or developmental stage.

Most importantly, churches struggle to reach youth because congregations presume that youth are uninterested in the church’s traditions, rituals, narratives, grammar, and practices – in short, its way of life. This is never more obvious than when a faith community underemphasizes the “churchy” program of youth Confirmation in favor of other, supposedly more “relevant” youth events. Many churches tend to see it as an unfortunate but necessary process, like the annual stewardship campaign – the mantra being, “Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.” Even in churches with a formal youth ministry, including paid staff, Confirmation is often viewed as an ancillary program that has little to do with the church’s real ministries with youth. It is the rare congregation which locates Confirmation at the center of its educational and worshipping life, including its youth ministries.

I want to argue that it is precisely by emphasizing the unique, counter-cultural process of Confirmation that the Church is best positioned to help today’s youth become tomorrow’s church. Confirmation is first and foremost a reaffirmation of baptism, which is to say it carries and seals a young person’s identity in Jesus Christ within the covenant community of the church. Confirmation can and should answer the young person’s question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” in an embodied way. No more wondering what this faith stuff is all about. No more wondering what the church is, or what your place is in it. The church can show you, by gathering you together with other youth and forming you in the full range of worship and discipleship practices that go into being the body of Christ.

Confirmation is a means of grace (if not an actual sacrament) in which God has been known to show up – and thus it has importance for both our justification and sanctification. I know young people who have felt a real conviction of sin and a desire to commit their lives to Christ through the process of Confirmation. I also know faithful young people who have gone to a deeper level in their journey toward holiness through Confirmation. It can become central to youth spiritual formation, moving a young person along in Christian maturity.

But of course, I am speaking of Confirmation at its best. When structured in intentionally formative ways, Confirmation can be a powerful experience of enculturation (or socialization) into the body of Christ – that is, an intentional immersion in a way of life until it becomes your own.

So how does that happen? It happens when a Confirmation program incorporates a robust “ecology” of Christian practices that are known to be major factors in youth spiritual formation. That ecology includes seven major components:

1. Rituals

The laying-on-of-hands on Confirmation Sunday is a ritual whereby the church imparts blessing and empowerment to the young. But it is not the only ritual in the Confirmation process. Before things even get started, youth and their families are brought before the congregation, acknowledged, and prayed for. Unlike so much church youth programming (such as youth group), which seem to exist solely for the amorphous goal of keeping teenagers entertained, Confirmation is a rite of passage that sets youth apart for a certain time to receive special training and experience, after which they are welcomed back into the faith community with a clear understanding of their new status. Through the opening ritual, the congregation is saying, “Something new is going on. When this is over, you will be a different person.” At the closing ritual (more on this later), confirmands know they are full participants in the community.

2. Clear Expectations

Confirmation is one of the few youth programs in which the church can set the bar high – in large part because many parents still think it’s important. So it is a great opportunity to set clear expectations up front and then hold families accountable. One of those expectations is time: set the bar high for how long and how often your Confirmation process will run. I have created Confirmation programs that last for a year or more, including numerous weekend retreats and a full week of camp! The longer and more frequently youth are immersed in faith practices, the more those practices become second nature. And a greater investment in time and effort on the part of kids and parents alike will undoubtedly result in a more formative discipling experience.

3. Regular Participation in Worship

Worship, theologically speaking, is “first-order discourse”: it is communication, not about God, but with God. Through praise, prayers, proclamation, and sacraments, youth are regularly exposed to the grammar, symbols, narratives, and practices that constitute the church’s identity. Without the first-order discourse of worship, the second-order discourse of teaching (about God, about worship, about what Christians believe) will have little traction.

4. Caring Adult Mentors

Not only do confirmands interact with the pastoral leadership on a regular basis throughout the process, but the most effective Confirmation programs involve intentional mentor pairings between youth and adults. Research indicates the powerful role that such adult Christians play in youth spiritual formation, and Confirmation comes at a time (usually middle school) when those friendships can have the greatest impact. A youth’s peers may not remain friends with her from week to week, but Mrs. Jones greets her by name every Sunday, calls her when she hasn’t been in worship, and shows up at her basketball games. She meets with her monthly, volunteers as an adult chaperone for Confirmation events, and asks, “How can I pray for you?” It’s hard to turn your back on that kind of loving attentiveness – and thus harder to slip out the church’s backdoor.

5. Parental Involvement

Confirmation has tremendous potential both for equipping parents (or guardians) to practice faith at home and for ministering to families that otherwise remain disconnected from the church. For instance, my husband, during a seminary internship at a small rural church, taught the parents of confirmands the very same lessons he taught the youth each week. Families were encouraged to talk at home about what they were learning. Several months later, one of those parents made a public reaffirmation of faith after having dropped out of church for most of her adult life. She is now an active volunteer in the children’s Sunday school program.

6. Teaching and Reflection on Christian Faith

This is what theologians call “second-order discourse.” While the first-order discourse of worship and spiritual practices is primary, intentional teaching is still vital. We can see examples of that in the early church. As Hippolytus of Rome prescribed early in the third century A.D., training for baptism was to be a long process (up to three years) that included rigorous moral examination, regular exorcisms, and finally the baptism of the naked convert early on a Sunday morning. Confirmation is an echo of that earlier catechetical process whereby youth are given the tools they need to live faithfully into their baptismal vocation for the rest of their lives. Intentional teaching through regular, if not weekly, sessions should include familiarity with the narrative arc and major themes of Scripture, church history, the sacraments, the Apostles’ Creed, Christian practices (e.g., prayer, simplicity, hospitality), and discerning God’s vocational call.

7. Service and Leadership

Confirmation includes opportunities for youth to develop competencies through service and leadership. The main place that happens is in worship. Confirmands can help change the liturgical colors on the altar (while learning and reflecting on the Christian liturgical calendar), or teach children about the symbols in the sanctuary, or serve bread during Communion, or play the djembe in the praise band. Eventually they can help plan worship itself. While I don’t recommend having them plan their own Confirmation service (a true rite of passage concludes with the community welcoming you into the circle, not you welcoming yourself), they can help plan next year’s service—in addition to other Sundays or services throughout the year. In addition to developing competencies in worship, confirmands can be invited to pick an area of service to which they will commit for the year after they are confirmed. Such service could include volunteering in the nursery, helping in the local soup kitchen, visiting shut-ins with their mentor, or participating in all that goes into a mission trip.

Finally, at the end of the whole Confirmation process we return again to ritual: the ritual of Confirmation Sunday. Confirmation Sunday is a vital continuation of the church’s rite of initiation that began with infant baptism, offering youth an opportunity to make a public reaffirmation of faith to live into the vows of the baptismal covenant. It is a unique event in which both youth and congregation affirm that the youth are full participants in the body of Christ, spiritually gifted for leadership, and commissioned to serve the church according to the grace given “in the laying on of hands” (to borrow language from Acts 8). In fact, it is one of the rare moments when youth are at the center of the church’s liturgical life. Indeed, on Confirmation Sunday worship cannot proceed without youth! In addition to affirming the full humanity and giftedness of youth, such an event highlights how necessary each of these young people are to the life and ministries of the church all the time. Youth are not merely the church of tomorrow: they are the church of today.


This article is excerpted from Sarah Arthur’s chapter in Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church (Abingdon, 2011). Sarah is the author of numerous books for youth and young adults. Read more about her at

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