Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Evangelism and Confirmation

Boston Avenue United Methodist Church
As a two-time winner of the Denman award for Evangelism in the Oklahoma Conference, I have been asked to share the formula or program I use to have larger than average numbers each year for professions of faith of both youth and adults.  As I remember my own profession of faith, it was made at a Sunday morning worship service at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa following my confirmation class.  I remember taking these classes on Sunday afternoons when I was in the 6th grade.  I learned about the Christian faith and we had to jointly develop our own affirmation of faith to explore what we believed.  We used this creed in worship on the Sunday we were confirmed.

When I became a United Methodist minister, the bishop ask me the vow, “Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?”  I took this seriously and have offered confirmation classes every year I have been in ministry.  I have found that there are always families in the communities I’ve served who have been interested in their children learning more about the faith, taking the vows for themselves and receiving baptism if they never have.

Confirmation service in 2001
I have moved the classes to the Sunday school period.  This is important in that I emphasize to the class and to the parents the importance of regular worship.  Our expectation is that the student attend not only the class but worship as well.  Occasionally, you have a student or parent who has a pattern of only attending Sunday school and while this may be all they are willing to commit to at this point in their lives, the rhythm of regular worship is a vital part of becoming a full member of the church.  It is less likely for the student or family to skip worship if the classes are held during Sunday school.  Inviting the confirmands to serve as liturgists or to help the pastor serve the elements during Holy Communion are important ways for them to grow in their faith during this time. 

I utilize twelve class sessions.  We begin in January when many families are ready to make a new commitment to regular worship and learning in their lives.  They experience this regular pattern together and for twelve weeks, they attend both Sunday school and worship.  Some Christian educators prefer a longer confirmation time of 15 or 20 weeks and some go for a full year.  I’ve found that for people outside the church who are new to the faith, twelve weeks is just long enough to be a significant commitment but not too long to scare people away.

We offer adult confirmation classes at the same time.  Since I am at a larger church, I am fortunate to have an associate pastor to lead this.  He leads the parents or other interested adults in the very same material during Sunday school each Sunday morning.  If these parents went through confirmation themselves, it has likely been years since they have studied this material.  This is helpful as a time of faith renewal for the whole family.  Parents can have conversations during lunch after church about what they each learned in class that day.  I often find with a  class of fifteen to twenty students that we have at least a few parents who are not members of our church and some who have never made a profession of faith or been baptized.  During the confirmation worship service, the parents are invited to renew their vows along with their children.  Many of the parents will join the church during this time with their children, making their own profession of faith and even being baptized alongside one another if they have never received this sacrament.

For smaller churches, I would advise inviting the Lay Leader or some other adult leader of the congregation to teach the adult classes.  Some years a new adult Sunday school class is formed from this group after the twelve weeks together.  We also invite other adults to act as mentors to our confirmands.  They share with them throughout the confirmation time notes of encouragement and may see them in worship and even help out with youth fellowship for an evening or two, arranging with the confirmand these outings.  This is helpful in the faith formation of our adults who serve as well as to give our youth a larger comfort and connection within our congregation. 

Our 2016 class at the cross at Canyon!
We take several field trips on Sunday afternoons or after school throughout the class period.  Because I serve in an urban setting, field trips are easier than for a rural church.  However, the road trip would still be a helpful thing for the class to bond if you live farther away.  Visits can be made to various extension ministries which show some of the different ways we interact with the world as United Methodists.  On the confirmation Sunday, we take an afternoon hike at Canyon Camp to show them this wonderful United Methodist setting for ministry but also to let them be comfortable with the facility as we hope to return with them later in the summer for one of our week-long church camps.  We sometimes invite other youth on these field trips who have already experienced the confirmation classes themselves in order to help our new confirmands feel comfortable in the youth group.  Membership in the church means being active and the youth group is the most natural way for our confirmands to continue to grow in their faith as they move on to sanctification!

We market our class.  We keep a database of all families who visit throughout the year and contact those who have youth.  There are always families on the rolls that we haven’t seen for a while who have children the appropriate age.  We make our best attempt to invite all of these through letters, emails and calls to participate in this wonderful time of faith formation.  Other avenues that may be available in your community would be to invite members of the Scout Troops that may meet in your churches.  Some middle schools publish class directories and if you can acquire one for your church, you can send a letter to all the parents in your community.  Social media is a wonderful tool that will let you market your ad to parents in your setting for very little cost.  Ask the students you’ve enrolled to see if they have friends who do not attend church who they would either invite themselves or be willing to let you invite on their behalf.  Since we offer ours in January, an emphasis during the announcements before the Christmas Eve worship service is especially helpful.  There are many people in every community with a school who have experienced confirmation in their youth but have fallen away from regular church attendance.  Sometimes your letter or contact will serve as God’s prevenient grace, nudging them back to the community of faith.

That is it.  I love Easter and Christmas Eve but Confirmation Sunday is my favorite worship service of the year.  It has become a time of celebration in the churches I’ve served for the entire congregation.  As an ordained elder who has vowed to instruct the children, what a joy it is to share our faith with others who need it at this critical juncture in their lives.  I can’t imagine what my middle or high school years would have been like without my faith lived out through my church home.  Although I made plenty of poor choices in those years, I know that my faith kept me on the right path, knowing what was expected of me as a faithful Christian.  Sharing this faith with others who are beginning in middle school is life giving.  It renews my own faith and renews the church.  If you are a pastor or lay member of a congregation reading this, I would encourage you to begin planning for your own confirmation class for your church.  It is never too late to start!

Picture of Boston Avenue via Flickr.com, used under the Creative Commons license. 

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