by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
This was originally posted as one of my monthly columns on youth ministry for the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa’s Crosstalk newspaper. But since the struggles faced in ministry amongst youth are not confined to our geographical area, nor to the denomination for which I work, I’m reposting here.
Working. Driving. Voting.
We have rules about these kinds of things. We have rules, and we attach age limits to them. 14, 16, 18.
Now then. At what age does a person become a full member of the body of Christ? At what age is a young person given a voice in the church? At what age do we hand them the keys? At what age do we release them into their God-given vocations?
I’ll understand if you want to take a moment to grab a pen and paper for the theological mathematics. Or, if you’d prefer, pull out a mat and a trampoline for some further mental gymnastics. I know we all explore these questions in different ways.
So what’d you come up with?
Did you sense that the answer is different in theory and practice? That it might change from church to church and person to person?
Even though from the time of baptism, our children have been signed with the cross and marked as Christ’s own forever, we still wrestle with the idea of empowering youth leadership.
At baptism, we pray that God sustain the baptized in the Holy Spirit; that God would give inquiring and discerning hearts; courage to will and to persevere; spirit to know and to love God; and the gifts of joy and wonder in all God’s works.
Baptism is one thing. Confirmation is another. If baptism is about God’s covenant, confirmation is about commissioning. It’s about the decision and proclamation of our active participation in God’s mission for others. We are commissioned in the midst of a community replete with others who have made this commitment themselves.
For my part, I was confirmed at the age of 29. As someone who came to the Anglican Church later in life, confirmation was about publicly offering myself in service to Christ’s church. In the midst of my parish community, it was a public commitment to live into the ministries with which God has entrusted me.
Praying over me on All Saints Day this past year, Bishop John said: “Renew in this your servant the covenant you made with him at his baptism. Send him forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before him; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
These powerful words resonate with me still. It’s incredible to see young people committing themselves to follow Jesus. And yet, I think I would be more excited if confirmation didn’t all-too-often mark the time when young people graduate out of the church.
In some instances we make deals with our children: “you only have to come to church until you’re confirmed.” In others, confirmation is a cultural phenomenon – We see young people at the appointed time for confirmation, and then they slip back out into the night.
But what if we expected more of young people than the “fact” that young people simply leave the church in their early teens? Have they no spiritual yearnings? If they do, where are they going to explore them? Why can’t the church accompany them, there?
Let’s step back and play with the idea of graduation for a moment. If confirmation is like graduation, isn’t it about a graduation from one thing to another? If true, what comes after confirmation?
What if this rite of passage carried more weight? What if it ushered young people into greater responsibility? What if it amplified their voice? What if it handed them the keys to the church? What if it empowered them in their God-given vocation?
These times of transition aren’t easy. My mom tells me about her nervousness on my first day of school. My parents were terrified when I first got my license. The first summer I didn’t join the family on vacation, in order to work, was a difficult transition. And yet, each of these milestones contribute to the people we are today.
As we prepare young people for confirmation, are we preparing them to embrace their God-given ministries? Are we empowering them to ask questions about how they might participate in God’s mission to the world? Are we encouraging them to dream God’s dreams for the world they know (and the one we find so mysterious)?
If the church is going to thrive, and to minister in all generations, we need to create more space for young people to take ownership of their faith and opportunities for them to embrace the ministries of the church. It is part of the Baptismal Covenant, after all.
Could confirmation be the place where this could happen?
I’m hoping that after we’re done with all of the theological mathematics and mental gymnastics we can handle, the answer is yes.