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The Meaning and Timing of Confirmation


I: — Many of you have voiced to me your misgivings concerning confirmation, the service itself as well as the understanding behind the ritual. No one has suggested that we cancel the service outright. Nonetheless, even those who have never suggested that the event be cancelled continue to express serious reservations about it. A few people are plainly cynical. I imagine that virtually everyone feels that something isn’t quite right with confirmation; something important is somehow not happening, a mythology if not a superstition has taken hold, a game of “let’s pretend” is being played even though most of us can’t really pretend any longer. While almost no one is content with the current practice of confirmation, no one appears to have an alternative.

Everyone knows what happens on Confirmation Sunday. Some of the confirmands we know well. We have seen them and their parents at worship for years. Other confirmands we don’t know at all. We don’t recognize the surname, aren’t acquainted with the parents, assume that the youngster is being confirmed simply because his parents have made him come to the six or seven mandatory classes and get himself “done”, the parents plainly attaching much superstition to getting “done.”

When adults wish to join our congregation through transfer of membership the secretary asks for the transfer, only to learn, quite frequently, that the person in question was not a member of the previous congregation; may have attended, but was never formally a member. I then ask the person in question if she was ever confirmed. Very often she replies that she doesn’t know; she can’t remember whether she was ever confirmed. Were I to ask her, “Did you ever get married?”, she would be able to reply instantly. Apparently confirmation is not particularly memorable.

And then there are the photographs, in the hallway outside the choir room, of the confirmation classes of years past. Where are all those young people today? As painful as it is to say it, would it be truer to say that confirmation is less the congregation’s welcome to the young people than it is their good-bye wave to us?

Many people understand confirmation as a kind of graduation. Once we have graduated from high school, for instance, we don’t go back. Once we have graduated from “church” (Sunday School being a form of church) we don’t go back.

And then there is an aspect to the confirmation service which should jar us all, that part of the service where hands are laid upon the candidate. There is only one other service in the church where hands are laid upon a candidate: ordination to the ministry. Obviously there is close connection between the meaning of confirmation in the faith and the meaning of ordination to the ministry. What is the connection? What would we think of candidates for the ministry who were ordained at a public service and then promptly disappeared from church life?

Then of course there are the promises made during the service itself. One such promise is that the confirmand will be diligent in attendance at public worship. The promise is made by the confirmand and heard by the congregation when everyone knows that diligent attendance at public worship is the last thing many confirmands (and their parents) have in mind.

The promises are followed by the commissioning: “Go out into the world to fulfil your high calling as a servant and soldier of Jesus Christ.” “Go out into the world”: it appears that the theatre, the venue of the Christian’s discipleship is vast. “Servant of Christ”: it appears that extreme self-denial is involved. “Soldier of Christ”: it appears that hardship is cheerfully to be endured. What do we expect a 15 year old to make of all this?

Lastly, at a recent meeting of the Christian Education Committee grave misgivings were voiced concerning the adequacy of six or seven 45-minute sessions as preparation for an event as momentous as confirmation. Frankly, I don’t think that six or seven sessions times 45 minutes is adequate preparation. But surely these sessions aren’t the preparation! Surely the profounder preparation is 15 years of Christian formation through exposure to Christian truth and the Christian way embodied in congregational life and witness.

II: — Many people have asked me about the timing of confirmation, the age at which young people make public promises and are said to be “confirmed”. Why age 15? I simply don’t know. I suspect that it has much to do with the fact that around this age people graduate from elementary school and move on to high school. At the same time, Sunday School customarily concludes for people 14 or 15 years old. When I was new in Streetsville I commented, at a C.E. meeting, that I was concerned about the immediate disappearance of so many confirmees. I suggested that we try something different: postpone the event for a few years to see if the losses were as great then. My suggestion was shot down instantly. “If we postpone the class we might lose those people”, I was told right away. Might lose them? But the present practice has scarcely kept them! I cannot believe that we have genuinely, profoundly “kept” people within the fellowship of the congregation just because their names have been added to record-books.

(I’ll say more about timing later. Let’s move on to the meaning of confirmation.)

III: — The meaning of the service is stated plainly in the service itself. “When those who have been baptized as children have grown up and have been taught the essentials of Christian faith and duty, they come before the church to own for themselves the covenant (i.e., the promises) of their baptism. In this act they confess Jesus Christ openly as Saviour and Lord that they may be confirmed by the Holy Spirit and welcomed to the Lord’s table.” (Let me say in passing that I should welcome any person of any age to the Lord’s table at any time, confirmed or not.) The major point in all this is that those being confirmed now own for themselves and publicly endorse the promises which their parents made on their behalf as infants on the day their parents had them baptized.

Everywhere in the New Testament baptism is a sign of several things. (i) It is a sign of repentance. To repent is to change direction. Christians take their marching orders from a different leader. We walk resolutely that road which leads to the kingdom of God. Other roads — self-inflating ambition, wealth for the sake of wealth, social superiority, self-indulgence — these roads we shun as we move in the direction of the kingdom. (ii) Baptism is a sign of faith. Faith is keeping company with Jesus Christ. Living unashamedly in his company, we share his identity. We are publicly known as those who know him and love him and obey him. (iii) Baptism is commissioning for service. While we certainly love our Lord, we do more than merely love him; we work in his name, work on behalf of others whom he loves as surely as he loves us. (iv) Baptism means one thing more. It means that the repentance and faith and service we exercise, we exercise inasmuch as God’s own Spirit, God himself, has touched us and moved us and constrained us. We haven’t “decided”, of ourselves, to follow Jesus the way we decide to buy a Ford instead of a Chevrolet or a bungalow instead of a townhouse. We are disciples inasmuch as our Lord called us; our resistance melted and we couldn’t do anything else.

Baptism means this. Parents make promises concerning all of this for their children when their children are baptized. Then the day comes when the child, now much older, recognizes what his parents have sought for him for years. He recognizes too that he wants this now for himself. Therefore he owns it all for himself and publicly declares that this is what he will pursue until life ends.

When I was pondering the meaning of “confirm” I went to the Oxford English Dictionary. The O.E.D. gives four meanings for “confirm”. (i) to establish more firmly. Certainly when people are confirmed we want their discipleship to be established more firmly. (ii) to corroborate. Certainly we want their zeal for discipleship to be corroborated, supported, by the Holy Spirit and by others. (iii) to encourage a person in a habit or an opinion. Certainly we want confirmands to persist in the habit of discipleship and persist in their conviction of truth. (iv) the fourth meaning the O.E.D. discusses only in the past tense. It uses the illustration, “confirmed drunkard”, and mentions synonyms like “inveterate”, meaning “life-long”. And certainly we want confirmands to aspire after life-long loyalty to their Lord.

The United Church service speaks of being “confirmed by the Holy Spirit”. We should all want to add, “and by the congregation as well.”

IV: — This is what the service means. How do you feel now about our confirmation practice? Having asked the question, I am in no position to receive 300 replies at this time. But I shall gladly hear from any of you at any other time.

Having asked you a question, I can only go on talking myself. What I say next is only my opinion. Feel free to disagree with it, modify it, endorse it or bury it.

I think we need many “rites of spiritual passage” in our church life. There is nothing wrong with a public service for people 14 or 15 years old, a service which acknowledges the Christian formation they have undergone so far in their lives, a service which points them ahead to deeper understanding and faith and service, a service which encourages them to persist more profoundly in it. Therefore I am not suggesting for a minute that we eliminate the “rite of spiritual passage” for people of this age.

At the same time I have long felt that the kind of promise we ask young people to make at this age we should defer to a later age. We all agree that no 14 or 15 year old should be asked to make a promise concerning marriage. (For that matter no 17 year old should be asked, either.) We don’t ask 15 year olds to make promises concerning marriage because we know that they cannot understand the force of what they are pledging. Might it not be the same with respect to the promises made at confirmation? Teenage years are often characterized by religious enthusiasms, but also characterized by religious denunciations; doubts, perplexities, denials of all that their parents have cherished, questions, uncertainties, contradictions. A Roman Catholic woman remarked to me that when her daughter was 16 her daughter was vowing every day to become a nun; when her daughter was 17 she couldn’t get her daughter out of bed and to church on Sunday morning.

Teenagers 14, 15, 16 years old feel they have to question everything. There is nothing wrong with this. After all, none of us wants our children to grow up uncritical, mindless dupes. At this age too teenagers become aware that the world as it is is not quite the neat, cosy, justly-ordered world of their early childhood. They learn that there is nothing in the real world which unfolds like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They learn now of the evil which excoriates the world, of the shocking unfairness which riddles life, of the misery in which most of the world’s people will have to live. And then they put all of this against the supposed goodness and mercy of God.

At this age too teenagers learn of the arguments brought against faith by Freud and Marx and Darwin. Dealing with these arguments may be “old hat” to a middle-aged person like me, but to a 15 year old it is all so new, so startling, so powerful as to hang a huge question mark above all that he has understood to date of the Christian faith. I often feel that the confirmation process stifles the teenagers’ searching, their inquisitiveness, their wrestling issues to the ground, when we should be encouraging all of this; we smother precisely what we should stimulate. Of course we should support them while they search. But what is to be gained by exerting pressure from parents, peers and congregation upon a teenager to conform to the confirmation practice when all the while some of them, at least, want to cry out, “But I’m not convinced yet; and I have many more questions; and why do I have to submit to this?”

I have long felt that we need to support youngsters throughout this searching, questioning, doubting, probing phase; support them and encourage them in it, and wait for them to emerge on the other side of it with a faith they have hammered out for themselves and can own without reservation. At this point, I feel, we should have another public “rite of spiritual passage” for those who are now 22 or 25 or 28 — or 55.

V:– While the congregation owns and supports teenagers throughout this process and then publicly celebrates the culmination of their search, its flowering into fruit-bearing faith, the congregation should also, I feel, recognize, own, support all kinds of people who act in the congregation’s name. Yes, we do recognize the UCW leadership each year when we install the executive. “Install”? We install heavy appliances, like stoves, fridges, washers and dryers. We shouldn’t “install” these women; we should commission them. We should commission them on behalf of the UCW for the ultimate blessing of the whole congregation. We shouldn’t “install” Sunday School teachers as we call it at present. We should commission them to bring to children, in the way that children can understand, the faith which this congregation as a whole owns. We commission the teachers to render this service for us.

What about the prime neighbours? We need a service which sets forth the way in which the neighbouring program extends Christian hospitality, and what we are trusting to result from this ministry.

The thrust of the visiting program is different. Whereas the prime neighbours have others into their own homes, the visitors go out to other people’s homes, with a different purpose in view. We need a service which recognizes this and commissions them for it.

Youth work in the congregation: youth group, girls’ work, Boy Scout/Girl Guide work. It all happens here in the congregation. We need a public service of recognition, gratitude and commissioning.

VI: –And then I think there may be one thing more needed. Perhaps we need to allow an individual to speak on Sunday morning from time to time. Not to make an announcement in the announcement period, but rather to share her testimony of God’s victory somewhere in her life, or to request special intercession of us in special circumstances, or to lay an extraordinary concern before us which is searing her heart. Do we need a place for this as well?

VII: — Let me say again what I said a minute ago. You asked for a sermon on the meaning and timing of confirmation. I have put before you my best thinking on the subject. But it is only mine. I need to hear yours. Speak to me, to anyone on the Official Board, to anyone on the Christian Education Committee, to anyone in the Sunday School. But be sure to let us know what is on your mind.


Victor A. Shepherd
January 1994