Thursday, January 18, 2007

One Story of a Post-Confirmation Missing Person

Many pastors find that when they come to a new congregation and start looking through "the books" (you know, the ones that list whose been baptized, confirmed, transferred in and out) that there is often a long list of names under "confirmed" that he hasn't met. This list gets longer and longer as he looks back class by class, generation by generation. No "transferred," no "withdrawn," nada. If he feels a little "Sherlock Holmes-ish" he could take a look at the communion records and realize that most of these kids disappeared shortly after they were confirmed. Their parents may still be in the pews, their grandparents most probably are.....but these kids, who could be in their teens, twenties, or thirties, are just gone.

The people in the pews are not oblivious to this either, whether they say so or not. The few remaining people who grew up in the church in the last 30-40 years know that their childhood friends are not there. No one generally knows why.

All I can offer is my experience, because I am one of those people whose names sat empty in the church roster for quite a while. I ended up coming back to the LCMS (by the most effective evangelism technique, I fell in love), most don't.

My parents were probably very typical LCMS members when I was little. They went to church, they bowled in the league, my sister was active in the youth group. When I came along, I was quickly brought to baptism, and though I don't remember if it was from my confirmation-age siblings, my parents, or simple absorption; there really wasn't a time where I didn't know the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles Creed. I have stories told of how my mom fretted about my attending a Jewish preschool, but it was never a question that I would be going to the Lutheran grade school my brother and sister had attended.

Other than in church, I don't remember ever praying with my parents. I do know I knew my Bible stories pretty early, but I don't remember from whom. My brother and sister were likely sources as well. At about the time I entered school, we moved onto the outskirts of town and started building a house, and church attendance went by the wayside. My brother, having complete confirmation, already was exempted from church attendance. He'd met his obligation. Just about the only time I was in church from that time forward was when my class was singing a song on Sunday. I didn't read Bible stories on my parents' laps, I didn't pray with them, God's word was not brought in to teach or discipline. The school had that responsibility now.

Every once in a while, my mom would get it in her head that I needed to go to Sunday School, and so for a period of a month or so she would force me out of bed, drive me across town, drop me off, pick me up when it was over, get lunch, and drive me home. The Sunday School curriculum was levels below what we were learning in school, so I was bored stiff. My mom said "I agreed when I signed you up for school that you would go to church and Sunday School, so you're going." She never saw that this agreement wasn't meant to be legalistic, but was meant to foster the unity of the entire family in worship of Christ. My parents never saw that the intention was that the parents needed to be fed too and that the family needed to worship together. They'd been there, done that. I supposedly would get more out of out of Sunday School than church(and for the life of me, I don't know why she thought this was the most important, other than it required less of her), but she didn't see what I did....that it was unfair to expect me to go to Sunday School while maintaining that she didn't need to go to Bible Study. She also didn't seethat it was embarassing to show up after not being made to go for so long, to have a book that was half empty 3/4 of the way through the year, and how isolating it was that when all my friends were being met by their parents to go to church, I was walking to the car where my mom sat in her Sunday sweats.) Maybe this part seems a little dramatic or uncommon. But I see kids in our congregation today waiting after Sunday School for their rides while the rest of us are shuffling into church.

Despite the fact that it wasn't happening at home, my faith was being fed at school, and if there is anything good I can say about the school I grew up in...they were VERY good at teaching the Sacraments. I understood from an early age what happened at baptism, and I truly believed by 2nd or 3rd grade that the very body and blood of Christ were there in with and under the bread and the wine. I knew it was for the forgiveness of sins, and I knew I could not have it until I'd completed confirmation class, many years from that point.

By the time it came time for me to take confirmation, though, I'd learned a great many things. For instance, that while I would be required to go through two more years of classes on Tuesday after school in order that I learn what I had already known for years.....the adults who had never been exposed to the faith would only have to go through six weeks of classes and would not have even close to the depth of knowledge that I had. And for the life of me, I didn't see why something that was supposedly so important for my spiritual well being, namely the blessings received through receiving Holy Communion, only magically became important to my soul when I finished the 8th grade. I didn't buy that. In the end, the process itself destroyed my faith. I didn't want it. I resented it. I told the pastor that, too. I told my parents. In the end, while the pastor told me I shouldn't take vow before God if I didn't believe it, he didn't take it upon himself to address this with my parents. He already had experienced that my parents view was that if I didn't pass the class, I could go through it again. In my heart, I questioned his integrity, my parents' integrity, and because I did acquiesce, my own integrity. For good reason, too. I don't even believe I went to church once, other than when I acolyted, during that whole two years of confirmation. Even the pastor treated it like an assembly-line operation.

Before you say "you're being a little harsh on your parents" I don't think my parents were abnormal in this area. Ask your Lutheran school teacher how many parents rely on the school or the Sunday School as the main place where their children learn their faith. How many of the families are regular church goers? I'd bet not many. The fact of the matter is children learn their faith from their parents and whether the parents hand this off to the school or the sunday school, in the end, the children are still looking to the parents to gauge "how important is this, really?"

I have a friend who was a Sunday School Superintendent at a big confessional congregation. After many years, she just gave up because most of the kids came from their day school and she recognized the Sunday School materials were at best completely redundant and at worst, years below them....and when she got the contact cards back from the parents...you know "where can we reach you in case of an emergency?" the answer wasn't generally "Bible Study" it was "Denny's." No wonder the kids resented being there. I'd rather have pancakes, too!

I do lay the responsibility of this on my parents, because the Bible clearly does. I also forgive them and love them. Today, they still struggle with the place God should have in their lives, and they come to our church when they visit, and we argue about whether closed communion is a good thing, and they have no clue that the very issues we argue about, I learned at the feet of the very teachers they trusted to teach me what they supposedly thought was important. I learned about closed communion at a Lutheran school (and in that confirmation class) because it is a strongly held Lutheran belief. They don't know this, because their learning ended pretty much after their 6 week class. But it was on the pew cards that they filled out every week for several years. They just don't remember.

Pastoral care and guidance did not happen for them, or for me. After noticing that they had not communed or attended in years, the pastor or elders did not check up on them. After constantly hearing me answer "no" to Sunday school/church attendance every Monday, my teachers didn't contact my parents and emphasize how important this was to our family...if they did, the true importance was never specified. I don't think my parents will ever realize how much of a difference it might have made had it been clear that their faith was important to them, and that is why they wanted me to grow in my faith also.

However, I do lay this at the church, too. We have a first communion policy that is in no way Biblical. It is based on a belief that is not Lutheran --that the faith that is required to receive Holy Communion involves a strong, intellectual understanding of what is happening at the altar, and in every major doctrine of the LCMS.

The Bible and the Confessions do not teach that there is something special about the end of 8th grade. Luther himself encouraged us to get children to the table as early as possible. He suggested that all believers should know their Ten Commandments, Lord's Prayer, Apostle's Creed, and the Words of Institution...to know that we receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins when we eat of it. Most children can have all of these known before they are grade school age if they are going to church and if their parents take five minutes a day to go over the Catechism with them. The rest, the understanding of the nuances, we grow into, and children have faith in the real presence with less hindrance than we as adults do. The senseless waiting frustrated my faith and led me to trivialize its importance and come to despise it.

Waiting essentially until puberty was not how it was done in Reformation times. The focus on intellectual knowledge started in the pietism and rationalism eras of the Great Enlightenment. For some reason, we confessionals reject most ideas of theology that came out of that era, but we still cling to this. Children should be coming to the table when they've been examined by the pastor and are determined to be ready. Teachers and most especially parents should be on the look-out for when this might be in each individual. Parents should be taking on their God-given responsibility to teach their children the faith from infancy to their own grave. The responsibility to teach our children, to pray for them, and to take them to church, does not end when they are confirmed. They need to teach them God's forgiveness and God's will from Scripture and the Catechism. They need to pray for them and with them. They need to show on a daily basis through discussion and correction how God's will guides us in daily life. If they are only getting this once a week in Sunday School and church, they very well might miss it. In most children's lives, it is completely absent the other six days of the week.

It is not all a waste. I came back to the Lutheran church because, as I mentioned, my school did a good job teaching the Sacraments. I spent years wandering though, experimenting with various sins, embracing the world's values. Then the Holy Spirit succeeded in bringing me back, but I refused to go back to the church where I grew up. I went to non-denominationals and Baptists instead. I got a firm grounding in the daily routine of the Christian life. I was taught to set time to read my Bible each day and to pray, to look at my daily life through the eyes of faith --something I didn't get when I was raised Lutheran (though Luther highly valued such training). I only returned because I was in love with a Lutheran seminarian and I realized that I should not continue in that unless I could come to peace with that my history.

In the end, though, I could never have married him if I really hadn't been Lutheran at heart. I'd never allowed myself to take communion at a non-Lutheran church because I knew every other church I attended denied the real presence. I had struggled with rebaptism because, while I resented that my parents took that step of faith for me (as if they didn't have the right!), I still believed my baptism was real, even if I wasn't immersed...even though I was 3 weeks old. I found that because of this, there really was only one place I could be.

If the parents are not showing through their own lives that their faith is important, the children, especially jr, high-aged children are going to see the whole confirmation process as a series of hoops to jump through, and they are going to be frustrated. When fathers and mothers raise their children in the faith throughout the week as well as in how they treat Sundays, they learn that it truly is important and precious. The church needs to support and encourage the parents in this and also hold them accountable to the vows they took at their child's baptism. What the church does not need to do is supplant the parents by taking over their responsibility to teach their children the essentials of the faith. This it has done, and it has not worked.

6 comments:

Kirken said...

I have had some of these thoughts too. There are so many in our community that send their children to the Catholic school so they can learn the faith. I have also said that children need to learn about God and the Bible at home. They have to see it and live it. We have the problem with people leaving their children at Sunday School and not coming themselves. Sometimes I have to pick the children up myself so that they are able to come.

One of these children is my niece and unfortunately this is the only quality time that I get to spend with her. She really wants her family to go but they always have an excuse. DH says that they are like the seeds that are among the rocky soil. This saddens me because the youngest only wants to come if there is fun things going on and will promise to come to class and then does not and see it being a problem that he has broken a promise. The oldest boy was in confirmation class and they let him drop out. I remember when there was this fire in his eye for the Lord and because of his parents lack of fire his seems to be smothered.

I am trying to keep the fire going in my niece but am scared of what is going to happen when we move for DH to go to school, we will not be here to take her with us. We will have to find a way to keep her fire lit without us being here.

Cool Mama said...

I grew up in a Catholic Church, and we have confirmation too. Sounds like many of my friends and I, followed the same path you share about in your post. I found for me, that once I was old enough to make my own decision, I made it known that I wasn't going to church anymore. Eventually I did come back, but not to the Catholic faith - but to church, which is the whole point, right? Right now for me, as a pastor's wife, I make sure in our Sunday School, that the kids are kept in touch with, but also, that they kids feel a part of our services. (Being the kind of church we are helps with this!)..But we involve the kids and young teens in our worship teams, in giving testimonies etc., because we believe taht so many of the kids leave, because they never truly feel a part of the church. If they feel they have 'ownership' for the church, are included as meembers,a nd their presence and participation is valued, I beleive it helps offset, the 'disappearing act' that happens when they hit those teen years.

Kelly Klages said...

Having kiddies take "ownership" of the Divine Service is one method. Not anything remotely that I'd recommend, having been there and done that, but...

Kids and teens are part of church by virtue of the fact that they need the Gospel just like every other person in the building, and they are being receptive, not dominating. It tends to keep coming down to parents being the good example their children need and explaining the significance of the service-- not just dropping their kids off and disappearing. Merely giving kiddies more "duty" and more "spotlight" isn't the answer. Cathecizing both parent and child is what will help.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Kirken,

I do know how you feel. I have had the same concerns with my nephew and niece. Keep praying for them. See if there is anyone who can take over bringing them. That might help.

My niece was baptized as a baby, but when her parents split, her mother raised her LDS (Mormon). She eventually was baptized LDS (which doesn't cancel out the real one)and it broke my heart to have discussions with her about it.

I kept praying. A couple of years ago, she shared with me that she was Christian, her mom was Christian, and her aunt, who had taken a large role in her spiritual upbringing when she was LDS, were all Christian. She asks questions about Lutheranism, and I keep praying. My heart rejoices. I wish I were there to have the relationship we once had and to have these discussions with her. Even the fact that she was baptized Lutheran gives her a curiosity about it.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Cool Mama,

I understand what you mean, but the activities that you talk about aren't really compatible with our theology of worship. We believe the purpose of the worship service is for Christians to be forgiven and strengthened through the Word and Sacraments. Everything that we do in the service focuses on What God has done for us, and how we receive His blessings.

That being said, there are places where children/adolescents can contribute to a confessional/ Lutheran worship life. I've seen congregations where families serve on Altar Guild, rather than just women. In our congregation, we have usher teams, and there is no reason why a teen can't serve on it, and some do (my brother was recruited to usher occasionally after he was confirmed). In many congregations, it is required that the confirmands serve as acolytes, and so when they get confirmed, the view is they "graduate" from having to perform that duty and it is now beneath them, but I know I have seen at Redeemer Fort Wayne, that acolytes are treated more like altar boys, they are educated in the dynamics of the traditions and perform a myriad of duties such as crucifers, administering (?) incense, and they follow along with the service and they follow along with the service, maintain the appropriate postures, and contribute to the overall reverence of the service, rather than simply light the candles and hold the communion trays. It is a beautiful sight to behold, though might be awkward at first in congregations that are not as high church as Redeemer is.

Some of the activities that you mentioned, what strikes me (as an introvert) is that those activities may serve to make the more outgoing kids who are passionate about their faith feel they have contributed, but what about the ones who don't want to stand in front? They could be struggling without even being noticed.

Our previous congregation had a very active youth group, "in the old days." They had youth services and ingatherings and did all sorts of charity work, and they were so active. Their parents gushed at how beautiful it was. These kids managed to stay around through high school because of this, but NOT ONE of them was still in the congregation 15 years later, even though their parents still were. The only two that still considered themselves Lutheran were two brothers whose parents had become missionaries when they were boys. The main difference is that their parents were living their faith on a daily basis and passed that down to their boys. They too became church workers. Becoming missionaries isn't what is needed, but these other parents really wouldn't have thought to pray with their kids past the age of tucking them in, or guiding them based on Scripture. That was the pastor's job.

The fact of the matter is, when the social strength comes from programs that are geared toward their being in a specific age group, when these kids go off to college or hit a certain age, or move, they are highly likely to fall away if their parents are not building up their strength at home.

When you look at the Bible, over and over again - "Train up your child in the way he should go and when he is grown he will not depart from it." And the more specific "Shema" from Deuteronomy 6 which every Jew new from simply hearing the phrase "hear O Israel."

"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

Basically, parents are the ones who are to teach their children the faith. They are to discuss it with them often, pray with them and for them, relate it to what is going on, use God's Word when they correct and discipline, and when they show love, guidance, and blessing. They are to emphasize God's unfailing love, and teach them to view the world through the eyes of their faith.

Even when kids are highly involved in church, it is easy for them to be weak in other contexts such as school and with friends and not really learn to see day to day life through the eyes of faith. In a way, that is what catechizing does, because we are constantly taking our doctrine and applying it to life, and the Bible clearly teaches that the primary responsibility for this is placed on the parent. Sunday School, youth groups, and even school teachers can only do so much because they are only with these children in one context. It is the job of the people whom God entrusted these children to, the only ones who will maintain a lifelong contact with them to bring them to baptism and raise them in the faith.

Now of course, people are brought to faith through other means than their parents, such as friends, relatives, etc. even when their parents are not believers. But it is harder. The Holy Spirit is the one who works faith, and He can work that faith through the hearing of the Word, and through baptism and Holy Communion...and that faith can prosper despite lack of support at home....but it is harder, and parents should be strengthening their children in this, not being passive to it, or worse, a stumbling block.

So the important point that I see, is to take it back home and strengthen the parents in this.

CPA said...

I really enjoyed this essay and linked to it here.