Thursday, March 22, 2012

How We Practice our Faith: Worship, Sacraments and our Family Traditions - 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

(This is another post in a series on thingschildren should know by the time they attend Confirmation Class. I have jumpedahead significantly in the list for a little change of pace!)

I have significant childhood memories of worshiping in places other than my home congregation – my grandparents’ churches, the churches of my friends of different Christian denominations, the church where my girl-scout troop met (a different Presbyterian church), a friend’s synagogue, and even a Muslim mosque in Washington D.C. on a youth mission trip. I even have memories of random congregations in places where we vacationed.

These experiences of other worshiping communities helped me look with fresh eyes at my own church’s worship practices and my family’s traditions. It would be incredible to have Confirmation students experience a variety of worship traditions before they ever start this year of study. More often than not they don’t, which is why many Confirmation courses include field trips to other churches/communities of faith to broaden students’ experiences.
What is most helpful, though, in teaching students the “whys” and “hows” of their own community’s worship, is not that they be cosmopolitan Christians, but that they have a solid experience of worship and life in their own church community and are aware of how church has been a part of their family’s tradition and history.

Here are the things they should know in these areas, and what we can do with that knowledge in Confirmation Class.
86. Basic worship practices
Let me start by saying that I am writing from my own Protestant perspective and a Presbyterian tradition – but I think that the basics of these elements should be the same in many traditions.

Students should be able to find their way through a church bulletin, at a bare minimum. They should know when you normally stand up and when you sit down. They should know the flow of the service: what comes first, middle and last. They should have attended worship enough for it to have sparked the following questions in their minds that make for great class discussions…
Why do we sing so many songs? Who gets to pick the songs? Why do I have to say a prayer of confession that makes me confess sins I didn’t do that week? Why is the sermon so long? Who decides when we have communion? Why do I have to shake hands and pass the peace with strangers around me? Why do the children leave in the middle of the service? Why is there such a long prayer at the end? Etc, etc…

When a student comes to Confirmation class steeped in the “what” and “how” of worship, we can spend time on these “whys.” We can spend time considering the purpose of Christian worship: what we bring to it and what we get out of it.

87. Baptismal Practices
When I ask students to share their favorite part of worship, most frequently they say baptisms. Coming from a member of an infant baptism tradition, this is totally understandable. Everyone loves a good baptism – especially in my congregation, where babies are treated like celebrities. Because Confirmation is in its essence a confirming of a student’s baptism, our conversations on baptism are especially important. Most likely students will not come with a fully fleshed out baptismal theology, but they should come able to describe what happens in worship when someone is baptized.

I like to teach the meaning of baptism by play acting a baptism, with the students taking on different roles in the sacrament: pastor, parents, elder, congregation, and children. (Usually we allow a baby doll to stand in for the baptized.)

By walking through the statements of scripture, the promises made by parents and members of the church, the beautiful prayer said over the water, the affirmation of faith, and the actual act of baptizing, we can explore the deeper meanings of the sacrament. We can move beyond that sweet moment they have seen in pictures from when they were young to what it will mean for them to make those same promises for others as adult members of the church. We can talk about what it means to be an adult who identifies as a child of God.

In our class this past year we have had the joy of welcoming a student who was not raised in any congregation and had not seen many baptisms herself. She is a very enthusiastic student, and so when I asked for my first volunteer to play the part of pastor her hand went straight up. (I love it when teenage girls want to pretend to do my job!) Despite her enthusiasm, she was somewhat lost when it came to how she should actually fulfill her role. It was fascinating to watch the other students talk her through the baptism, telling her how to hold the baby, how much water to use, how many times to pour, and then how she was to walk the baby around the sanctuary to show him off to the congregation, allowing a member to hold him and welcome him into the arms of the church. When students come in with this kind of knowledge and experience, they actually teach each other.

88. Communion Practices
I am a firm believer that the best way to teach children about Communion is to actually allow them to participate in the Sacrament of Communion. In many traditions (including some parts of my own) it is the practice to wait until an age of understanding (or even until Confirmation) before a child/youth is welcomed to the table.

I absolutely believe being very thoughtful and intentional about when a child first takes communion, or even each time they take it while they are still young. But I have never quite understood how we can tell our children that they are not ready enough or smart enough or holy enough for Communion. If those are the criteria then none of us should participate.

I teach Communion the same way I do baptism. We hold our own Communion service, with two of the students officiating at the table, leading their small congregation, breaking the bread, pouring the wine and sharing the feast with one another.

By walking through it with them, with their leadership, we can talk about all of the moments and gestures they recall - why we do them and what they mean. Who has given the invitation? How do we retell the story of the Last Supper? Who is welcomed to share in the feast together? While they should have tasted the bread and the juice for themselves many times before Confirmation class, it tastes just a little sweeter when they have done it for themselves and with each other.

89. Your Family’s Religious Background
This is a little bit of a shift, but I believe teaching children how you were raised (whether in or out of the church) falls into the same category as worship, because it speaks to how you walk together with your children in their religious life. It is so important for children to understand their family’s religious background, because it helps to root them in a tradition.
If they are being confirmed in the same tradition as family members before them, it helps them to consider what it means to carry on a faith that was handed down to them. If they are being confirmed in a new tradition, it is important for them to understand how and why that change was made – what was it about this new tradition that was meaningful or important to their parents or grandparents, and how might it be important to them? Students who do not come from a religious background especially need to understand what motivated their family to join a church and how they are part of a new tradition.

In Confirmation we walk through the history of the Christian faith and the traditions that have come out of it – how they are connected and how they are different. It adds so much to their interest in that story if they understand how their own story is connected to it.

90. How Parents (Grandparents) Volunteer or Lead in the Church
In at least one class session we always talk about how the church is actually run – how it functions, the ministries that we are involved with, the leadership, and the ways that members volunteer.

One of the things I always think is going to work is asking the students to pipe up and share additional details about certain aspects of the church based on the leadership/volunteering that I know their parents do. More often than not, I find myself enlightening them for the first time on the ways that their parents contribute to the life of the congregation.

I am pretty sure students know that their parents do things at church. But often they don’t understand the implications of their parents’ involvement, whether as an elder or deacon, a teacher, a cooker of meals for the homeless shelter, a member of a search committee, an organizer of a capital campaign, or even as the person we call when the toilets won’t flush.
A significant part of Confirmation is learning how to actually BE a member of a congregation. But honestly, talking about it in class is not really how they are going to learn. They are going to learn how to be a member of their congregation by watching their parents and grandparents be members of a congregation - for better or for worse.

If these are not conversations that parents and students have together before Confirmation, they are absolutely ones that need to happen during that year of study and preparation.

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