Teen Rites of Passage

October 25th, 2011
This article is featured in the Rites of Passage (Nov/Dec/Jan 2011-12) issue of Circuit Rider

An Interview with Kay Palmer Marsh, Senior Pastor of Westminster United Methodist Church in Westminster, Colo., a diverse congregation in an aging first-ring suburb of Denver. Not being Catholic or even primarily Hispanic, the church got some attention earlier this year when it hosted a quinceañera, a rite of passage for fifteen-year-old girls in Hispanic communities. We recently spoke to Rev. Marsh about the importance of teenage rites of passage and what is lost when we do not celebrate a significant milestone on the path from childhood to adulthood.

Quinceañeras aren’t something you do regularly. What prompted you to plan this one?

Our church is multiethnic, multiracial, and multilingual. So, although we do have some Hispanic families in our congregation, the quinceañera ceremony we conducted this year was more a matter of being church to the community. In this case, we were asked to be “church” to a young Hispanic woman (I’ll call her Maria; not her real name) from our local urban community. Our neighborhood is at least fifty percent Hispanic.

Maria’s mother came to me and said, “Pastor, would you do a quinceañera for my daughter?” I told her that I had never done one but I would like to! I told her that I don’t speak much Spanish, and she said, “That’s okay, we don’t speak Spanish.” The day of the ceremony I heard both English and Spanish spoken in the narthex, Spanish being spoken primarily by the older generation. I also told her I’m not Catholic. “Neither am I,” she replied. Many Hispanics in our community were baptized in the Roman Catholic Church but are not practicing Roman Catholics. However, many are steeped in the cultural aspects of the Roman Catholic Church.

I asked the family to review liturgy of the quinceañera ceremony from the United Methodist Spanish language Fiesta Cristiana. I added parts to the liturgy that were significant to them, as I do for any ceremony.

What is the significance of a teenage rite of passage like the quinceañera?

This sort of rite of passage has happened in various cultures for centuries. The quinceañera has its roots in Mexico. Young men were given a shield and sword at the age of fifteen and were then considered to be a full member of society. Young women at the age of fifteen were celebrated for their soon-to-be fulfilled commitments of wife, mother, and community member. Roman Catholic missionaries put these ceremonies into a Christian context and the young women then committed themselves to their church and community.

In our UM quinceañera ceremony, the fifteen year old young woman professes her faith in our Creator God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit; and expresses gratitude for how her parents and godparents have raised her. She promises to live a “life of holiness, purity, and honesty, keeping God’s holy word in (her) heart, and placing (her)self in God’s care.”

Maria clearly took these statements in the ceremony to mean that she was no longer a little girl, and was ready to take on bigger roles at home, in her Christian life, and in her community. She expressed to me her faith in Jesus Christ, her commitment to live a Christian life, and her commitment to purity. Purity was clearly a big part of it, and this young woman took it very seriously. Although at that time the family was not part of a congregation, she knew her faith. And WUMC was now her community church, with doors wide enough to offer her a place to witness for Christ.

The Hispanic community has the quinceañera; Jewish families have bar and bat mitzvahs. Do you think the rest of us are missing out on something by not marking the transition from childhood to adulthood with a significant ritual like that? What is lost when we don’t?

 Yes, I believe that something is missing for those of us who do not celebrate a transition from childhood to adulthood, but what is missing is larger than simply a ceremony for our teenagers.

When I began in ministry nineteen years ago, 35 or 40 percent of people in the U.S. attended church on an average Sunday. Now, according to statistics from Barna, about 10 percent of Americans are in church on any given week. As a result, the average teenager simply does not know from a practical perspective what churches do.

A study by Notre Dame’s Institute of Latino Studies in 2006, however, found that 48 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are involved in a church.

Where do the non-churchgoing 90 percent of non-Hispanics find meaning and God? For non-Hispanic youth in the United States both in church and out of the church, what is lost is a formal celebration of whose they are, who they can be, their faith in God, and their acceptance of their role as an adult in the community.

Although this issue of celebrating a transition in young people’s lives is larger than just our denomination and larger than just young people, we could strengthen our existing confirmation process to celebrate our young people and encourage them to move forward in their faith in Jesus Christ and forward toward adult responsibility.

What can we do to help rites of passage like confirmation have the impact they should on young people’s lives?

Although most United Methodists understand confirmation to be an important confession of faith and milestone in a young person’s life, not every congregation, family, or teenager takes it seriously. For some, it is simply something to complete and include in a college application, rather than it being a real commitment to Christ.

It has been said that Christianity is one generation away from extinction. Encouraging our young people should be a priority. We need to be certain that we really celebrate the teenagers who come forward to profess their faith at the time of confirmation. It begins with preparing them out loud for many years for their confirmation in Sunday school, in youth groups, in worship, and in their own families. It begins with offering youth relevant worship experiences in the styles and in the music they prefer.

On the day of the celebration, the church ought to fully celebrate the continuation of the Word of God growing in their young people. Perhaps the celebration could be a special fiesta-type Sunday for the young people and the congregation, designed by the confirmands; a formal event with foods and Christian music in a style that the teenagers prefer. Then, the church should allow and expect them to participate in some significant way in the life of the church from that moment onward.

If we strengthen our culture around confirmation, we might change our church culture around this important transitional time in a young person’s life. We might find that the next generations ahead look forward to celebrating their confirmations in the church, look forward to the reception, wonder who to invite, think about what they will wear, and will understand that this is a commitment to their future as Christians and as adults.   

I am not advocating an expensive, exclusive, cotillion-like event for young women and young men. Nor am I advocating for a ‘by invitation only’ confirmation event that includes an over-the-top reception with some nationally known Christian band. Confirmation is for all young people; not just for those who can afford to pay for something exclusive and “over-the-top.” I think every church can handle a ceremony and reception. We can use the quinceañera model to enhance confirmation class celebrations in our own sanctuaries and fellowship halls.

Some people might say that teenagers today aren’t mature enough to take these rites of passage seriously. What do you think?

I’ve seen many teenagers in my ministry. I started out in youth ministry, we have two daughters, and I have volunteered in high schools. I am aware that many teenagers are not as mature as Maria. In most of our churches, there is peer pressure to not take confirmation or church seriously. In Hispanic culture on the other hand, there is a great deal of pressure to take quinceañera seriously.

Society in the United States is more mobile than ever before, making it more difficult for churches to support families over time. Our churches are suffering from lack of younger attendees and members. We can whine and state even more reasons why we cannot fully celebrate transitions for teenagers. But the vision of our young people making a commitment to Christ and being celebrated by their local congregations in a larger way than we already do is compelling for the future of the church. It also becomes much more compelling as we work in faith to create the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Perhaps the question is whether we really want to invest in our children and youth in ways in which they can relate, or whether we will simply focus on our lovely historical structures and how great we were “back in the day.” I believe that when our churches really invest in youth, the youth will see that adults care, and that God must care about them also.

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