Monday, July 22, 2013

Christian Denominations: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

Because I am Presbyterian and my husband is Mennonite people always assume that we have a lot of disagreements about religion, that we have phenomenally interesting conversations over the dinner table, and that there must be a lot of tension in our family. I am never quite sure why people think that, because the people who make these assumptions usually don’t know much about the differences between Mennonites and Presbyterians to begin with.
I am pretty sure that they are not referring to the horrible period of time during the Reformation when Anabaptists were martyred for their refusal to baptize their children, sometimes by those who would eventually call themselves Presbyterians. (I am also pretty sure that they don’t know too many Mennonites, who for the most part tend to be the least confrontational people you will ever happen to meet.)

These days, when we talk about our Presbyterian and Mennonite differences it is usually because we are trying to teach our son about what it means to identify as both at the same time. Not an easy feat.

In my list of the 100 things that children should know before they come to confirmation class , I have included five different Christian denominations that a student should be aware of before they come to my class. They by no means need to be experts on ecumenical relations or be able to recount the various historic events that brought each new church into being. What they need to know is that there are different ways of being a Christian.

This is a very short list considering how many different ways there are of being Christian today. This is just my list; your list might be a little (or very) different.

I know for sure that this is a hard concept for children to grasp, because I am struggling to help my own son grasp it. Usually when we talk about why different churches split from others he can’t quite understand why _____ (insert very specific theological disagreement here) would mean they had to start their own church. Teaching the concept of denominationalism to beings seemingly wired for post-modern, post-denominationalism is not easy.

Things also get a little tricky because students tend to pull in things they know about other world religions into conversations about Christian denominations. I am not sure why, but any time I ask students to list different kinds of Christian churches someone always offers up Jewish for the board. A year or so ago I actually had one student tell me he always thought that they were connected to the Amish: “You know... Jew-ish... A-mish...” he said.

One might ask why we even need to teach these things in Confirmation Class, if we are moving more and more into a post-denominational church. Why do students need to be able to identify differences between Christian traditions that are fading from existence? If their parents did not join the church because of its denominational affiliation, why does it matter that we continue to recognize those affiliations?

I answer those questions in a few ways. 

I taught Confirmation Class as part of a congregation that is and always has been part of a mainline denomination. If my students are going to join that church, I want them to take that relationship seriously and not treat it as an incidental that can be ignored. I also know that these students will grow up and move away and hopefully choose a church of their own for their own family, and if that church is also part of a mainline denomination I want them to take that decision seriously as well. 

A lot of people shed blood and tears over the development of these churches; I think that is something students should learn to value. Maybe it will help them put into perspective the very real and church-dividing conflicts we are having in the mainline church today.

These are post-modern students who can come to see recognizing the differences in Christian traditions not as a way to identify which is the “real” church, and which denomination believes the right things or governs itself in the right way, but as an opening to a larger community of voices that can help us all understand the bigger picture of being the Church of Jesus Christ. 

So, below is my list of five. In class I always introduce many more (including Mennonites) and we talk through the history of the church, the men and women who are the faces behind these traditions, and the ways that OUR tradition is instructed by theirs. 

Under each church I have simply put what I choose to highlight from each tradition in class and the potential conversation we can have about their contribution to the faith. This is by no means a summary of each tradition, and if you are teaching these things at home or in your own Confirmation class you should find additional resources to use. One of my favorites comes from Faith Alive Christian Resources; it’s called, “What’s Up with the Church Down the Street.” 

91.Roman Catholic
So we start with Roman Catholic and talk about the many years when there was just one church in the western world. Often there are students in class who attend Catholic parochial school and so they can share their experiences of Catholicism and what they have learned is most important to Roman Catholics. When we talk about the Catholic church we can highlight the value of tradition, of apostolic succession, and of the monastic movement. I always take a moment to talk about saints, what it means to be a saint, and how we can experience God through the service and faith of others.

92. Episcopalian
When we talk about what it means to be Episcopalian, we look at the movement of the Anglican church away from the Roman Church (and always spend a few minutes on whether or not beheading one’s wife is a good idea), and then I often share my appreciation for liturgy in the church, and for the ways that Episcopalians have found a balance between change and tradition.

93. Methodist
I always move from Episcopalians to Methodists, since they came out of the Anglican tradition. We always talk about John Wesley and his work of evangelism in the United States. We talk about how Methodists remind us of the importance of personal faith and faith commitment in one’s Christian journey.

95. Lutheran
When we talk about the Lutheran tradition, I always make sure my Presbyterian students understand that so much of our identity as Protestants came from the writings and leadership of Martin Luther. We talk through the things that are important to us as Protestants - the priesthood of all believers, the value of grace through faith, and our commitment to the Bible being accessible to all people.

95. Presbyterian
Of course I spend a little more time on Presbyterians than I do on other denominations, but here is what I hope that others can come to value from our tradition. We talk about the value of governing a church equally between lay people and clergy, and how everyone in the church is given a voice in decision making. We talk about the sovereignty of God and God’s ability to love us beyond measure and beyond our worth. We talk about responding to that love through acts of Christian service and charity toward a world in need.

One of my theology professors in seminary had a great way of describing the need to preserve our traditions without falling into a stagnant repetition of what has happened before us. She said, “Tradition is the living faith of dead people. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.” Confirmation is about keeping alive the faith of the church and valuing the contribution of the many who came before us in the larger Christian family.

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