By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Commonly baptized as infants, Episcopal teenagers are guided to claim Christian discipleship for themselves in the rite of confirmation. Yet so many do the opposite, leaving church as soon as they are confirmed, that the phenomenon has a name: the graduation effect.
It does not have to be that way, researchers say. Teens can be motivated to deepen both their faith and their ties to a Christian community when traditional didactic methods give way to models that are more mentor-focused, experiential, and self-directed.
“What they don’t want is school,” said Lisa Kimball, associate dean for Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary and cofounder of the Confirmation Collaborative, a new group cosponsored by VTS and Church Publishing. The goal: interpret insights from the Confirmation Project, a five-year study that ended in 2017, for application in the Episcopal Church.
Findings point to a spiritual hunger. The Confirmation Project concludes that young people want to learn about the Bible, their religious traditions, and the meaning of Christian maturity. But format matters.
“They don’t want the teacher in the front of the room lecturing about those things,” Kimball said. “They want to be learning pedagogically and be more engaged in participatory ways.”
The Confirmation Project looked at practices in more than 3,000 congregations in five mainline denominations, including 507 Episcopal congregations. Data show 91 percent of Episcopal confirmation programs last for one year or less; 40 percent run for fewer than three months.
Similar durations are typical for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. The outlier was the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in which 89 percent of confirmation programs last for one year or longer and 38 percent run for more than two years.
Researchers also found a robust appetite for learning the particulars of Christian faith.
“Young people are interested in topics pertaining to theology — the Lord’s Supper, the Bible, and God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” said Katherine Douglass, codirector of the Confirmation Project and assistant professor of educational ministry at Seattle Pacific University, via email. “In other words, they are interested in the things that make Christian formation unique. As ministry leaders, we shouldn’t shy away from that.”
The challenge comes in discerning the right approach for a particular local ministry context.
“The leaders who are culturally responsive (they are aware of what makes their community unique, including the challenges and advantages) are the ones who seem to feel the most satisfaction around their program,” Douglass said.
Some insights from the research can be applied across denominations: confirmation ought not be packaged as a standalone experience because it does not “move the needle” of Christian maturity by itself, Kimball said.
It should instead be part of an ecology that includes faith-forming experiences at home and elsewhere, such as at camps or in diocesan programs. Then confirmation makes a big difference.
Other insights are more specific to denominations. The Episcopal Church was the only denomination to confirm not just teens but also adults. The Episcopal Church also uses bishops in the rite of confirmation; the other churches in the study do not.
“The Confirmation Project data has shown that the Episcopal Church does not utilize all the resources effectively that we already have,” said Sharon Ely Pearson, editor and Christian formation specialist at Church Publishing, via email. She noted that bishops number among the Episcopal Church’s neglected resources.
“Resources may be created at some time in the future,” Pearson said. “But at the moment, new curricula are not an answer to the issue of how our churches are intentionally forming disciples.”
The collaborative will share resources via the Baptized for Life initiative at VTS. Both Baptized for Life and the Confirmation Project are funded by the Lilly Endowment.
Kimball said adults can help minimize the graduation effect by shifting their attitudes about what confirmation is and what to expect. She suggested adults not see it merely as something children must complete before they are allowed to make decisions about church involvement. It should instead be seen as a space in which young people find joy in discovering gifts and how they are needed in a community of faith.
“Confirmation is not the point,” Douglass said. “Following Jesus is the point. If we keep that the focus, there will not be a ‘graduation.’”