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.

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