Mark’s thoughts: Confirmation – the magic talisman of the Lutheran Church

Another great article by Pr. Surburg found over on his blog:


ConfirmationThis week will mark the tenth anniversary of my ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Of course, that stretch of time is nothing compared to many of my brother pastors.  However, a decade is also enough time in the parish to begin to recognize how things really work.

After ten years as a parish pastor, one of the single greatest frustrations that I encounter is the manner in which many parents treat Confirmation.  The topic of Confirmation has been on my mind recently because I am currently in the process of writing a series of posts about the history of Confirmation in the Church (Mark’s thoughts: The weird and wacky history of Confirmation, Part 1: Whenthere was no Confirmation – the western Churchbefore NicaeaMark’s thoughts: The weird and wacky history of Confirmation,Part 2: When there was no Confirmation in Rome).  It is also the subject of ongoing conversation among Lutherans as people wrestle with the fact that so many who are confirmed do not continue with a faithful life in the Church.  This conversation often focuses on the age at which catechesis leading to Confirmation is done or the methodology that is employed in catechesis.

While these are certainly important topics, I have reached the conclusion that they fundamentally miss the real issue – the real problem.  During the last ten years I have come to realize that there is an almost infallible predictor of whether youth who are Confirmed will still be regularly attending the Divine Service during the years that lead up to graduation from high school.  If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was regular attendance, this will continue.  If prior to Confirmation, the pattern of their family was absence from the Divine Service, this will return.

For all of the handwringing about the age of Confirmation and the methodology of catechesis, I don’t believe that changes in these areas will make a marked change in the outcome.  They won’t because the real issue is the faithfulness of the parents.  If the parents consider Christ and his Means of Grace to be important, they will regularly bring their family to church.  And where parents regularly bring their family to church – where they model for their children the importance of the faith by what they do on Sunday morning – we will see youth continue to attend church. Where this was not important before Confirmation and the parents didn’t bring the family to church on Sunday, it will not be important after Confirmation.  The result is that we will not see confirmed youth in Church.  The relationship between Confirmation and a later lack of faithful attendance by youth is not one of cause and effect.  It is instead the inevitable product of the manner in which the parents conduct their family and its life in the faith.

The fact that almost the entire issue comes down to parents should not be surprising to Lutherans.  After all, the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism says under the topic “To Parents”: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).  This a foundational responsibility of the vocation of parent that has been announced in God’s Word since the beginning of God’s people.  The book of Deuteronomy says, “And these words that I command you today 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” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 ESV). Parents are to teach their children the faith, and we know that actions speak louder than words.  If we define the Means of Grace as being the marks of the Church (Augsburg Confession, Article VII), then reception of the Means of Grace defines at the most basic level what it looks like to be part of the Church.  What parents choose to do on Sunday morning is one of the most powerful factors in determining whether their children will live in the faith or not.

And this brings me to the question that profoundly puzzles me after ten years of serving as a pastor: Why do parents who are not in any way faithful about bringing their family to the Divine Service invest the time and effort to see that their children will be confirmed, when after Confirmation the family is simply going to return to absence from the Divine Service?

In my congregational setting catechesis leading to Confirmation takes place over the course of two years when youth are in seventh and eighth grade (this year we have begun a process of catechesis that will lead to early communion for children who want to receive the Sacrament of the Altar and whose parents believe they are ready).  The process leading to Confirmation means attending the Divine Service during the course of those two years, and families do this.  There is an hour of catechesis on Wednesday night with the youth, and then after this parents and youth together attend Learn by Heart – a thirty minute period of time that uses Lutheran Service Book’s Service of Prayer and Preaching, and has a time of catechesis.  The rite of Confirmation comes at the end of a two year period that requires a significant investment of time and effort in an activity that repeatedly emphasizes the centrality of the Means of Grace for the life of a Christian.

Parents do this.  And yet I know with virtual certainty that parents who were not faithful in bringing their family to the Divine Service before Confirmation will return to this pattern after Confirmation.  I know it, because I have seen it happen again, and again, and again.  This is one of the greatest frustrations of that I have experienced during my first decade as a pastor.

The question then is why they do this.  Why do they invest time and effort into something that their previous and subsequent actions treat as unimportant?   I have come to conclude that for many within the culture of Lutheranism, the rite of Confirmation has taken on the role of a magical talisman.  Magic is usually defined as actions and beliefs that are thought to manipulate the divine in order to produce desired outcomes. In the minds of many Lutherans, Confirmation is a “get out of hell free card.”  It is something that from the perspective of many has a high price (one actually has to go to church and spend time with youth in catechesis).  Yet this price is worth paying because once the investment has been made, the future spiritual status has been guaranteed. Once the work has been done, the parents can revert to their normal pattern of behavior and reclaim Sunday morning for whatever they want to do. They can return to all of those things that are more important than Christ and his Means of Grace.

There are two things that are worth pondering here.  The first is reflection upon how Confirmation achieved this status in the Lutheran Church. The story of how something that did not exist in Wittenberg after the Reformation became a central feature in the piety and culture of the Lutheran Church is a fascinating one (the same can be said about the fact that Confirmation itself did not exist in the western Church for almost a thousand years). It is worth reflecting upon the cultural factors which gave Confirmation this status in Lutheranism, because many of them do not have anything to do with the Gospel. It is not surprising therefore that for many, Confirmation and its catechesis now function in ways that have little to do with the Gospel.

The second item to ponder is the general lack of faithfulness exhibited by parents in attending the Divine Service.  Ultimately, it is not a question of when and how we do catechesis and Confirmation.  If parents don’t bring their family to church before Confirmation, this is what will again happen after Confirmation. The deeper issue is, therefore, the general unfaithfulness of adults – and especially those whose unfaithfulness impacts their children.

There is always the danger that we will construct a “golden age” in the life of the Church that never really existed. Over the years, I have found the Fifth Part of the Large Catechism to be very comforting.  There Luther repeatedly emphasizes that Christians need to receive the Sacrament. While Luther’s immediate context of Wittenberg at the time of the Reformation (medieval practice being reshaped in evangelical ways) is different from ours, the basic problem remains the same.  Clearly people were not making use of the Sacrament in ways that were commensurate with the Gospel character of the gift and this frustrated Luther. There is an incessant refrain that is telling:

What is meant is that those who want to be Christians should prepare themselves to receive this blessed sacrament frequently (V.39).

Nevertheless, let it be understood that people who abstain and absent themselves from the sacrament over a long period of time are not to be considered Christians (V.42).

In the first place, we have a clear text in the very words of Christ, “DO THIS in remembrance of me.” These are words that instruct and command us, urging all those who want to be Christians to partake of the sacrament. Therefore, whoever wants to be a disciple of Christ – it is those to whom he is speaking here – must faithfully hold to this sacrament, not from compulsion, forced by humans, but to obey and please the Lord Christ (V.45).

Thus you see that we are not granted liberty to despise the sacrament. When a person, with nothing to hinder him, lets a long period of time elapse without ever desiring the sacrament, I call that despising it. If you want such liberty, you may as well take the further liberty not to be a Christian; then you need not believe or pray, for the one is just as much Christ’s commandment as the other V.49).

All we are doing is to urge you to do what you ought to do, not for our sake but for your own. He invites you, and if you want to show contempt for his sacrament, you must answer for it yourself (V.52).

It is certainly true, as I have found in my own experience, and as everyone will find in his or her own case, that if a person stays away from the sacrament, day by day he or she will become more and more callous and cold and will eventually spurn it altogether (V.53).

Surely it is a sin and a shame that, when he so tenderly and faithfully summons and exhorts us for our highest and greatest good, we regard it with such disdain, neglecting it so long that we grow quite cold and callous and lose all desire and love for it (V.67).

Thus you have on God’s part both the commandment and the promise of the Lord Christ. Meanwhile, on your part, you ought to be induced by your own need, which hangs around your neck and which is the very reason for this command, invitation, and promise (V.71).

If you could see how many daggers, spears and arrows are aimed at you every moment, you would be glad to come to the sacrament as often as you can. The only reason we go about so securely and heedlessly is that we neither imagine nor believe that we are in the flesh, in the wicked world, or under the kingdom of the devil (V.82).

What was true in Luther’s day is true also for our own.  And by the same token, the text of the Large Catechism tells us that the problem of parents failing to teach their children the faith by what they say and do is not unique to our day.  Luther writes about the Fourth Commandment:

Instead, they should keep in mind that they owe obedience to God, and that, above all, they should earnestly and faithfully discharge the duties of their office, not only to provide for the material support of their children, servants, etc. but especially to bring them up to the praise and honor of God.  Therefore do not imagine that the parental office is a matter of your pleasure and whim.  It is a strict commandment and injunction of God, who holds you accountable for it (Large Catechism, I.168-169).

The old man lives, and he will live until the Last Day.  The continuing collapse of cultural Christianity (and cultural Lutheranism) will exacerbate these issues – but it did not create them.  They have been there since the Fall, and they will exist until the return of Christ.  As pastors, we preach and teach Law and Gospel directed at these matters, for that is what we have been called to do. It is, at times a very frustrating calling, because often the old man wins.  People – those who claim to belong to Christ – say no to Jesus and his gifts.  We need to warn congregation members that faith does not consistently say “no” to Jesus without ceasing to be faith.  Indeed, our Lord warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Matthew 7:21 ESV).  These are the existential realities that confront us during this life in the now and the not yet.  We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can solve the problem, if we can just find the right age for Confirmation or the right way to do catechesis.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Mark’s thoughts: Confirmation – the magic talisman of the Lutheran Church — 55 Comments

  1. @David Mueller #45

    Definitely emotional. I don’t deny that. Taking you at your word and reading your response, all I can say is that you must be unaware of what I’m describing, because it is real. I didn’t dream it up. And it is the incredulity, denial, and invocation of the 8th which meets any public comment I make about this that makes me think something even larger is at work.

    If I really have completely misunderstood your comments and you really have no idea what I’m talking about, then I am sorry and would ask that you forgive me. I have been wrong before and done wrong before.

    But I do know that what I’m talking about is real. I may have the picture out of focus. I may not understand the extent or know who all the players are and how many different factions there are and how they all interact, clash, overlap, and so on. But what I have described exists.

  2. @Jais H. Tinglund #34

    “Assuming, when somebody says something, that he probably does not mean what he says, but rather something somebody else says, and acting on and reacting to that assumption – well, I have a good idea where that would be going, namely towards all reasonable and real communication being replaced by non sequitur shouting on the one side and GuARDED UTTERANCES AND DISHONESTY ON THE OTHER.

    And most certainly we would be doing wrong to others in the process; I am aware, by now, that the Eighth Commandment is not very popular with some on this site, but it is, nonetheless, a real Commandment.

    To interact with another in a Christian and brotherly manner of HONEST communication, is to react to what somebody actually says”

    The key to this is HONEST communication. As Helen’s comment about how the 8th has been used explained it is extremely difficult to play by the Marcus of Queensberry rules if those on the other side refuse to do the same, hold positions of greater authority and influence, and believe their moral, intellectual, and spiritual superiority justify any actions they take. It’s also incredibly frustrating to have people deny things that you read, hear, and see. This should not excuse my unfair assault on Mueller (which is what I apparently did if his reply is to be taken as true). But I hope it at least puts it in context.

    I will take all the criticism and condemnation of me, my tone, my actions, and so on. I am a big time sinner. But I would appreciate it if there was the slightest acknowledgement of what I’m describing. Unless you really have no experience of this sort at all. Which I find incredibly hard to swallow.

    I’m not interested in winning or being better. I comment on these matters because I think it is serious. And yes, I am emotional about it.

  3. @Jais H. Tinglund #22

    Jais, on the recent post about the SMP program you said

    “It is not just a matter of the books you read and the classes you take. Of almost equal importance – or perhaps not, I would not know how to quantify, but certainly of great importance – for the formation of a Pastor is the spiritual and academical environment of the Seminary, the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with the greatest minds, and with the (perhaps) lesser minds of other students, and being in a rich liturgical atmosphere”

    Why are SOME of the same voices echoing this message also pushing for homeschooling and Lutheran classical education via the internet up through High School and replacing organists with iPads? The commercials for such services are all over Lutheran radio. Why is a communal environment, in-person education, and all the rest so important for clergy but so objectionable for everyone else? I realize that you have no said this. I am not putting these words in your mouth. I am describing things that are frequently said, advocated, and promoted by those who seem to be on your side and who hold the same office as you. And I am asking you to give me a better explanation than the one I have put forward.

    I am not promoting the SMP program. I think pastors should be pastors. And congregations that can’t support (or are unwilling to support) a full-time, educated, called, and ordained pastor should either merge with another congregation or become a mission congregation supported by a healthy parish. For the same reason I oppose the talk of “worker-priests”. I realize that there are special and extreme circumstances that might justify all these things. I just don’t think they should be the norm and should usually be temporary.

    But why do SOME people who dislike the SMP program also protest women being educated as Deaconesses at seminary? The phrase “it’s a seminary not a feminary” is used. Why are parochial schools increasingly either attacked or neglected? Why is homeschooling and internet distance learning all the way through high school being pushed for children? Why does there seem to be an undermining of anything and everything communal or corporate unless it is reserved for the clergy or it is something the clergy are solely in charge of?

    If the things I am describing do not represent you, that’s wonderful. But they do exist. What’s your explanation?

  4. Lance Brown :
    I will take all the criticism and condemnation of me, my tone, my actions, and so on. I am a big time sinner.

    Let’s not go there; this is not about that.

    But I would appreciate it if there was the slightest acknowledgement of what I’m describing. Unless you really have no experience of this sort at all. Which I find incredibly hard to swallow.

    I will hereby acknowledge fully and completely, if I have not done so sufficiently clearly already, that what you are describing is real. I know about it, and I share your frustrations – well, most of them, I think. I believe I have already hinted at that – at least it has been my intention. And actually, I have been impressed several times by the insights you have displayed in your analysis. I have intended and attempted to express that also.

    Lance Brown :
    I comment on these matters because I think it is serious. And yes, I am emotional about it.

    And rightfully so, on both counts.
    My concern is that it seems to me that your immediate emotional response to whatever triggers your memories of what you have seen and heard from others tend to cloud your perception as to what is being said by whom, and what is not being said, and thus also cloud your judgement as to exactly who should be held accountable for exactly what. And it seems to me that your immediate reactions, based on your presuppositions, tend to cause you to end up alienating yourself from those who would otherwise be supportive of you and your concerns.

  5. @Lance Brown #1

    Lance Brown :
    Why are SOME of the same voices echoing this message also pushing for homeschooling and Lutheran classical education via the internet up through High School and replacing organists with iPads?

    I don’t know; you would have to ask them.

    Lance Brown :Why is a communal environment, in-person education, and all the rest so important for clergy but so objectionable for everyone else?
    Again, you would have to ask those who actually say that a communal environment, in-person education, and all the rest is objectionable for all non-Pastors.

    Lance Brown :I am describing things that are frequently said, advocated, and promoted by those who seem to be on your side and who hold the same office as you. And I am asking you to give me a better explanation than the one I have put forward.

    Well, they are not on my side when it comes to the issues you mention; hey, the way you describe things they are not on my side on any of the issues you mention.
    And any explanation from me as to why others believe to be right what I believe to be wrong would be mere speculation.
    Some people are not sufficiently committed to what is good and right and true.
    Some people are not sufficiently enlightened as to what is good and right and true.
    Some people are in a situation very different from my own.
    Some people are in a situation very different from my own, and fail to realise it.
    Some people are stupid.
    Some people are bad.
    Some people know things I do not know.
    When it comes to exactly which of these is the case for exactly whom, again, I could only speculate. And I would rather not do that, particularly not in public, and in writing.
    I can only respond to what I actually see, hear, and read.

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