Church and youth: ‘Young people want more commitment, not less’

02 February 2018

We need to bring young people to God, not just talk about him, says Stephen Cottrell

MARC GASCOIGNE 

The Bishop of Woolwich, Dr Karowei Dorgu, confirms a young man at St Luke’s, Downham

The Bishop of Woolwich, Dr Karowei Dorgu, confirms a young man at St Luke’s, Downham

CONFIRMATION is the blos­­som­ing of baptismal faith into active and committed whole-life disciple­­ship. I say this to candidates at just about every confirmation service I lead — usually as we stand around the font , and I in­­vite them to sign themselves with holy water — reminding them that con­­­­­firmation is connected to bap­tism.

Of course, confirmation itself, as we have inherited it, is a historical accident; but it is one that we can turn to our pastoral and catechetical advantage. When someone is con­firmed, the faith that was made real in baptism blossoms and bears fruit. People claim the faith for them­selves. If they have not yet been admitted to communion, they take their place around the Lord’s Table.

They are commissioned to wor­ship and serve God, and, very specif­ic­ally, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the break­­ing of bread and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil; to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ; and to seek and serve Christ in all people. This is exciting and heady stuff. It describes what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Confirma­tion is baptism ignited — baptism set on fire.

You can’t set water on fire? Let me try again. Confirmation is bap­tism carbonated: baptism injected with a fresh impulse of the spirit. It is a sacramental ministry of grace, a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It makes faith fizz.

 

FOR adult candidates, all this is usually self-evident: adults are nearly always confirmed as a result of a recent and vivid coming to faith. For younger candidates, the situation is more varied. There are still some parishes (and schools) where con­firmation is a rite of passage that chil­dren are guided through at a certain age, and as a matter of course. But this is on the wane. Others are pre­­sented as a result of various paternal proddings. This is still common, though not as much as it used to be.

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In 2016, 15,900 people were con­­firmed, of whom 24 per cent were under 12, and 45 per cent were 20 or over. This is down from 29,380 in 2006, when 39 per cent were 20 or over. In 1960, the total was 190,713.

The good news is that, today, most younger people are confirmed because it is what they want. If this is in a parish where children are not admitted to holy communion, there may be a tendency for confirmation to happen when they are quite young; so the decision itself, though real, is not made with quite the in­­­depen­­dent decisiveness of adolescent vigour.

But parishes that are admitting children to holy communion are well placed to enable confirmation to happen when young people are a little older — at least 12 or 13 — and then really make something of it as a commitment to whole-life discipleship. I think this is the best pattern, and one to be encouraged. There is a wonderful nobility to the decision of young people to be confirmed when childhood, and the directing of parents, is left behind, and in­de­pendence and the life choices that go with it are beginning to be em­­braced.

It never fails to move me; for confirming anyone is a great joy, but to see a young person make the faith their own is a special joy indeed. Such commitment, and a pattern of preparation and confirmation that enables it, provides the Church with a great opportunity; for even if the church that presents them has not fully realised it, these young people are claiming the Christian faith for themselves, and committing them­­selves as disciples of Christ. They want and need a preparation for confirmation, and a liturgy that will match this aspiration.

Therefore, if this pattern is to be encouraged, and if the young people themselves are going to be able to put down roots in the Christian faith, confirmation preparation needs to shift from learning about the faith to learning to live the faith. Young people want more commitment, not less. They still need to know what it is that Christians believe, but they are hungrier to know how it works, and how it cashes out in their daily lives. Most of all, they need God.

 

THIS is such an obvious thing to say that I’m almost embarrassed. But I still fear that much of our youth work — and possibly our confirma­­tion pre­­paration — concerns itself with talking about God rather than bringing people to God.

The central question of the bap­tismal and confirmation liturgy is this: do you turn to Christ? It is a question is about focus and direc­­tion, not knowledge. It is about facing Christ, and all the joy and challenge that that involves. It is about chang­ing the direction of life, and there­fore about the whole of life.

This means that those who lead young people and prepare them for confirmation need themselves to em­­­­body this close relationship with God, this orientation to Christ, and this desire to live out faith each day.

They also need to be people who have an attitude of hope and antici­pation that expects to receive from young people, as well as to give to them, and expects all of us to receive from God. It is about placing God, and the enjoyment of God’s company, at the heart of all that is en­­­deavoured. Therefore, giving young people the opportunity to pray, re­­sources for reflection, and the op­­por­tunity to put faith into action must take centre stage in confirma­tion preparation.

Finding and nurturing the right people to do this will probably be the most crucial decision that parishes take, and should also cause the whole Church to reflect on the priority that it gives to youth min­­istry. It may require churches to work together more collaboratively. It may also require clergy to look again at their own priorities.

I know that it is dangerous for bishops to talk about when they were in parish ministry: but for 13 years as a curate, a parish priest, and later as a canon of a cathedral, I led a youth group every Sunday evening. It seemed to me to be such a stra­tegically important thing to be doing that, although I shared it with others and trained them on the job, I didn’t think it was something that I should delegate.

Confirmation is also about be­­­com­­­ing part of the Church. The Christian life is a life to be lived in community. Young people are drawn to communal expressions of the Christian life precisely because they combine the contemplative and the prophetic. Confirmation preparation should do the same.

This is why the leadership should be shared. This is why a confirma­tion group may well grow into a fresh expression of Church. A thriving little group of young people living out their faith is the best way to evan­gelise other young people.

If we get confirmation right — and I am suggesting that a pattern of baptism in infancy, admission to holy communion as a child, and con­­­­firmation in adolescence is a good pattern for parishes to adopt and develop for those growing up in the Church, and also creates a cell of young people living out the faith that is missiologically attractive — then baptismal faith is given the fizz it needs to last a lifetime, and to make a difference.

 

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelms­ford and co-author of the Pilgrim course, which can be used to prepare candidates for con­­firmation. Youth Pilgrim is due to be pub­lished in April.

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