ABOUT THIS REPORT
In addition to a national survey, researchers from The Confirmation Project visited congregations, using the research method of Portraiture to understand how confirmation and equivalent practices are practiced in congregations. Portraiture is a method of inquiry that shares some of the features of other qualitative research methods, such as ethnography, case study, and narrative, but it is distinctive in its blending of aesthetics and empiricism in an effort to capture the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life. Portraiture first came to prominence in the works of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. This Portrait is one from a gallery that can be found at www.theconfirmationproject.com/gallery.
RECOMMENDED CITATION: 2017. http://theconfirmationproject.com/gallery/4thdistrict Moss, Kermit, “The Fourth Episcopal District Christian Education Congress of the AME,” The Confirmation Project
The Fourth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church held their Christian Education Congress on July 27-30, 2016, in St. Charles, Illinois at Pheasant Run Resort. Pheasant Run Resort is located approximately 26 miles from O’Hare Airport outside of Chicago. The journey to the resort was like exiting one time zone and entering another. One leaves the fast-paced, pulsating activity, and vibrant streets of the metropolis of the Midwest and ventures into a different world marked by the absence of the bustle, noise, and activity of the big city. This new world consisted of quiet bedroom communities, suburbia, and slow-moving towns outside of the city limits. Along the winding highway toward Pheasant Run, urban sprawl was apparent evinced by the appearance of subdivisions, newly constructed shopping centers, a plethora of industrial parks, and the remnants of farmlands on the periphery of Chicago. Yet, the road to St. Charles was not simply like venturing into another time zone but was akin to venturing into another world. This new world had a striking lack of diversity the closer one draws near to St. Charles, Illinois.
St. Charles is a quaint small city tucked outside of the broad skyline of the Chicago. Its allure is connected to its small-town charm and its proximity to the cultural, entertainment, and other amenities of the big city. St. Charles is a small city of approximately 33,460 people with a relatively homogenous population.1 The majority of its population is white (almost 88.9 %) but the city does have a small African-American population (2.5%). The black-white contrast was evident in observing the stares (or the racial gaze) of some white lodgers when encountering black youth at Pheasant Run Resort during an African Episcopal Methodist Conference. Pheasant Run Resort is a sprawling resort center in St. Charles situated on 250-acres, which includes an 18-Hole golf course, three tennis courts, indoor pool, outdoor pool, spa, on-site entertainment, and multiple dining options. In addition, the resort center has 293 guest rooms, 33 suites, 33 meeting rooms, and a 320-seat amphitheater. The resort was a combination of newer and older amenities that included manicured grounds, spacious meeting spaces, and a quiet atmosphere.
There was an observable comfort exhibited by some of the conference goers due to their familiarity with Pheasant Run. The resort had been the site previous Christian Education Conferences. Thus, the resort was a place where fond memories had been forged, friendships had been established through fellowship, and faith in God was strengthened in worship. But there was a tangible buzz of excitement in the air regarding this year’s conference. This enthusiasm was expressed on the faces of both youth and adults as conference dwellers checked into their rooms. There was an excitement among church leaders as they awaited the combined worship service on the first night of the conference. An in-demand preacher was scheduled to preach on the first night of the conference. In addition, other dynamic speakers scheduled for other worship services, and a variety of well-planned sessions in the program guide. But it was the eager arrival of the new Bishop and Episcopal Supervisor of the Fourth District that contributed to anticipation.
The Fourth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church consists of Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and India. The newly elected Presiding Bishop, Rt. Rev. John F. White, and Episcopal Supervisor, Mrs. Penny H. White, were present at the conference. The Bishop spoke about his commitment to contribute to a bright future of the Fourth District and the AME Church. His commitment to reaching the next generation was demonstrated when he conducted a Q & A session with children, youth, and young adults. The theme of the Youth Impact Experience was “Courageous.” Young people were encouraged to have the courage to be unafraid to be bear witness to Christ in their actions, attitudes, and commitments to improve local communities in the United States and Canada. The diversity of young people was reflected in their accents, style, and conversations. Yet, there was a common goal among young people to gain a deeper understanding of their faith that motivates them to change their world. For these young people, full participation in the church is linked to transforming the culture and society.
OVERVIEW OF CONFIRMATION EQUIVALENT PRACTICES
A notable aspect of the spiritual formation of young people in the AME church was the significance to an inter-generational approach. Accordingly, age appropriate sessions typically included individuals from multiple generations in each session. For example, the middle school sessions included young parents, middle-aged adult youth leaders, and elderly parishioners who cared deeply about the challenges of young people of young people. Christian education occurred in a village like setting where youthful zeal and the wisdom of adults would be beneficial to all. The inter- generational approach to formation and education revealed a collective commitment to the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual development of young people. Yet, adult leaders and parents assisted the facilitator only when called upon and were relatively quiet during the sessions. This ensured that adults would not become a hindrance to the facilitators and youth. Moreover, the adults also were taking notes and being formed by the content in the youth sessions. Informal conversations continued after the sessions between adult leaders and youth regarding the content of the sessions.
This pedagogical approach did not simply rely on the banking model (the distribution of information from teacher to student) but involved the participation of both teacher and young person in a learning community. Subsequently, all voices were heard and individuals were recognized as being vital participants. According to the young people I spoke with this teaching community was not the norm in local churches due to a reliance on adult teachers in Sunday Schools and new members classes merely disseminating information to young people. This can contribute to a generational divide that was notable in informal conversations with youth. Furthermore, it can become an obstacle to a learning community because adults are not compelled to learn from young people. James asserted,
I feel like the congregations of people who I can talk to are people between 25 and their early 40s. But everyone else who is older is more traditional, and they believe in doing things the traditional way. But the younger people are more for the change and open to listen to your ideas and stuff. But you still get the stubborn old people who kind of feel like everything should stay the same; they think there is there’s no reason we should change it now.”2
Another young person felt disrespected because they perceived that their perspectives were not important to leadership. Ray asserted,
Just because, not the oldest people but the older people like ten years or 15 years older than us, they feel just because we’re young we don’t feel what they’re feeling. We can’t praise God how they praised God exactly. It’s probably true we don’t have the same worship ways, but at the end of the day, there’s one person that we love and that’s God. If it comes down to it, everyone should be included in that kind of stuff.”3
Inter-generational approaches to confirmation equivalent practices as demonstrated at the conference aid in developing relationships building a stronger sense of community between youth and adults in local congregations.
The process toward the full participation of young people as seen at the conference included a commitment to the individual care of young people. As a result, ministers in the sessions committed themselves to conversations, informal counseling, and times of prayer with individual youth. Furthermore, the honest testimonies of these adults aided in the creation a safe space for youth to be transparent. Facilitators shared their stories about their mistakes, God’s transformation, God’s graciousness, and examples of God’s faithfulness in their lives. New membership processes were holistic and instill hope in young people despite the obstacles they may encounter. Therefore, youth were validated, recognized, affirmed, loved, and challenged. The individual care of youth was also seen when adult leaders prayed, consoled, laughed, and worshipped alongside youth. Furthermore, Christian education extended beyond the classroom into daily interaction. For example, young people had discussions about faith over lunch and walking between the sleeping and eating quarters with the ministers who were leading the sessions.
Commitment to Community
New member processes included an emphasis on community. Youth were reminded that they were also part of the broader African-American community. Thus, youth were encouraged to have an ethic of community. This commitment to community included an emphasis on young people working to the build stronger local communities and contributing to the empowerment of black people. New member processes melded the development of individuals and corporate responsibility. There was an emphasis on loving one’s neighbor, commitments to justice, and using one’s talents and resources to build stronger communities. As a consequence, the lives AME youth were intertwined into a larger fabric of African-American history and collective destiny. Youth were not simply being initiated into the life of the church but were being developed to become leaders in the African-American community. Hence, youth read scripture, danced, served as junior ushers, shared poems, and shared testimonies. Confirmation included a commitment to excellence and a covenant of contributing to the lives of others. As a consequence, the new members processes signified the participation of AME youth into the life of the church and community.
This commitment to community was rooted in African peoples emphasis on harmony with God, self, and creation that African slaves brought with them through the Middle Passage. The Fourth District recognized that education and formation of young people included fellowship and fun. Spiritual formation and educational opportunities at the conference were fun whether in the sessions, the dance party with glow sticks Glow Party, or hanging out in the pool. Young people were not simply talking about the latest Hip-Hop music, clothing styles, social media posts, but also were involved in theological conversations while having fun.
Conference sessions revealed the significance that the development of positive identities is to confirmation equivalent practices in the AME Church. First, positive identity formation was connected to young people’s union with Christ based on redemption. Reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ was an important theological motif because redemption was a relational, emancipative, and hope inspiring concept. Moreover, union in Christ led to the development of self-worth, dignity, and a sense of belonging. This understanding of connectedness to God was important in combating the onslaught of negative images and stereotypes African- American youth encounter. Christology was an important doctrinal theme in identity formation. Accordingly, youth were encouraged to imitate the life of Christ in their daily interactions, were reminded that they are loved by Jesus, and encouraged to extend love to their neighbors. The telos of identity formation was ethical responses rooted in love and the desire for relationship with others.
Identity formation was involved the shaping of individual and collective identity (both racial and denominational). Corporate identity involved a commitment to church and community as the self was positively shaped. Consequently, the question was not simply What Would Jesus Do? but also Who are You in Christ? Identity formation took place within families, churches, and denominational meetings. Yet, there was a notable absence of male mentors to assist in the development of positive identities in young men and women. One minister said, “What is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about? There is an absence of men to speak to our youth. We need not only the presence of men and women but the perspectives of both men and women.” A lack of male presence was evident during a worship session when female pastors and ministers prayed with young women pertaining to issues African-American women encounter. However, there were not enough male leaders to pray with young men.
CHALLENGE TO RE-IMAGINATION AND RELEVANCY
“When I go to college I am going to leave the AME Church.” This statement was reflective of unexpressed frustrations put forth by some young people at the Fourth District Christian Education Conference. These hidden points of view were like an unpermitted concealed weapon that could cause alarm, anxiety, or angst if revealed. However, one could conclude that all was well with the souls of young people in the Fourth District. This conclusion was possible based upon hearing wondrous sounds of laughter, seeing radiant smiles on the faces of middle school kids, observing youth seminars led by inspiring pastors and articulate ministers, and witnessing talented youth participate in combined worship during the conference. Moreover, the conversations of young people revealed that belief in God was important to them, religious faith mattered, and God was neither dead nor irrelevant. Yet, like rifts and ruptures below the earth’s surface before a volcanic eruption, there were rumblings of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and secret conversations of discontentment among young people regarding their return to their local churches.
Some young people asserted that “confirmation equivalent practices” (such as Sunday School) at some of their local churches were on life support.4 Accordingly, they deemed curriculums to be outdated and wanted to participate in the planning of new educational and discipleship programs in their churches. Regarding the new members process and curriculum, Ray responded,
It’s like a book for new members and they do everything out of the book. This is the same book they used when they baptize people. They’re reading the same stuff that they’ve been reading for the past centuries and decades whatever that was. It’s like a book everything is textbook. It’s like, ‘Do ye, thee, thou.’ You got to say all of this stuff with these accents. We are just textbook.”5
Some youth even considered the preaching in their local congregations to be irrelevant to their lived experience. Joe described their activity during preaching as “Typically, my job is to sit back and listen. But we sit back and do act like we listening because we don’t understand what the preacher is trying to get to. I feel like the message should be a little bit more simpler.”6
Also, most of the sermons, priests are targeted more to the adults. But at some other churches that I’ve visited too that aren’t AME, they have an adult service and then later that day, they have the youth service. That’s held by a younger pastor, preacher who’s in their early thirties or late twenties, so they can relate to the youth more on that.”7
Others put forth that they would rather not go to Sunday School. Vanessa explained, “I feel we don’t get as many opportunities as the adults do. I feel the church is basically for them, and then we only get one Sunday out of the month to actually do what we want to do or get something out of the service.”8 James described Sunday School with the following analogy:
Some books you got to read in school, but when you’re reading a book that you like to read, you get through the book, you look forward to sequels to the book. But if you sitting in a classroom and you just talking, and there’s nothing coming out your mouth, and I don’t get the message, then I’m going to go to sleep. That’s just it. Sunday school changed a lot from the way it used to be. When I was younger, Sunday school was way different, and it was fun, I used to look forward going to it. But now, it’s like some days they come here with these different messages, you opening up to the same part of the Bible you was in last week, they give you homework you don’t do because you got a life. Now, it’s just different.9
Some youth deemed Sunday Schools did not effectively address the questions they wanted answered. Some of these questions were similar to the following: 1) How would Jesus respond to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland? 2) How do black youth respond theologically and practically to violence, police brutality, and the negative portrayals of black people in the media? 4) Why does a loving God allow suffering; moreover, why bad things happen to good people? 5) Why is racism so prevalent among people who say they are Christian particularly during this presidential election? 6) If marijuana is legal in some states, why it considered sinful to use it recreationally? 7) What can Christians do about the mass incarceration of black men and women?
Similar to Karl Marx’s critique of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel or James Hal Cone’s response to racism and Black Power in the 1960s, these socially conscious youth wanted to bring theology from the heavens to the ground. Accordingly, they were interested in discourse regarding the role of faith in matters such as public policy, gun violence, police brutality, politics, immigration, educational reform, racism, drug policy, mass incarceration and how do Christians help foster a more just and equitable society. Yet, the importance of ethics, politics, culture, and economic matters to their faith did cancel out their desire for vibrant spirituality, which included deep longings for impactful encounters with the Holy Spirit. To illustrate, high school students during the Youth Impact Experience articulated a desire for a deeper relationship with God.
This religious passion was displayed by their enthusiastic participation during the Courageous Conversations sessions, the vibrancy of their prayers for each other during Midday Worship, and by the tears that flowed down their cheeks when reminded about God’s love for them. Middle school students demonstrated an ardent desire to learn more and know more about their faith. This was clearly seen in their attentiveness during their Workshops sessions such as “Project Syncere (i.e. Sincere)” and “Who Are You? Who Am I? Who Are We?” Project Syncere was a workshop that encouraged youth to ask difficult theological questions. In addition, it was a space where youth could engage in conversation about the joys and pitfalls of their young lives in a safe environment. “Who Are You? Who Am I? Who Are We?” focused on one’s identity in Christ and the development of positive identity. Young adults expressed a hope for robust theological discourse in their session “One Call, What’s Your Answer?” that was not abstract but related to concrete existence. In addition, these young adults also hoped for spaces to be authentic and transparent when discussing controversial subjects without fear of being judged by older Christians. Based on conversations with young people, ministers, and lay people, existing practices equivalent to confirmation may require re-examination and re-imagination.
According to young people attending the conference, matters of discipleship, education, and formation in the AME Church should consider the importance of the following: relevancy, relationships, reasoning, recognition, religious passion, righteousness, and “realness”. Vicky said,
Your discipleship is all about your relationship with God. That’s a big debate in the Christian community right now is religion versus relationship. Your discipleship shows how you communicate with God, because — I feel like, there’s no real way you got to do things with God. You can be just as real as God, as I’m with you, and still show respect at the same time. It’s about the relationship you all got together.”10
As a result, this can lead to reimagining confirmation-like practices and spiritual formation in the church that is relevant to the lives of young people. It is important to note that the solutions to transforming confirmation equivalent practices such as Sunday School, The Young People’s Department, The Richard Allen Youth Council and the construction of new discipleship and youth ministry models are not located in a historical publication or seminary library. The solutions were present at the conference as exemplified during the elementary, middle school, high school, and young adult tracks during the Youth Impact Experience. The prescription to transforming confirmation equivalent practices is to bring the best practices of the Youth Impact Experience back to their local churches. Young people can play a significant role in contextualizing aspects of the seminars, fellowship, and worship in their churches. Moreover, youth can become agents of creativity and develop new educational tracks—that are relevant to their questions.
The Youth Impact Experience at the Christian Education Congresses can be a catalyst in the transition of youth in the AME Church into full participation in the church. These conferences have the potential to act as incubators of creativity, spaces of inter-generational re-imagination, testing sites for new discipleship methods, and igniters of religious passion. As a result, re-imagined practices for education and formation can serve as a catalyst that aids the AME Church in becoming more than an option in the spiritual marketplace for young people when they leave for college but assist the AME Church in becoming a preferred destination for both AME and non AME youth and young adults.
CONGREGATION/CAMP OF THE CONFIRMATION MINISTRY
The Youth Impact Experience at the Christian Education Congress functions like two hands gathering up hundreds of grains of sand. For a moment, these youth are held by the protected hands of the AME church. Leaders have a unique chance in this moment to give their genuine attention to youth who have concrete ideas and important questions that could help shape the AME. If this attentive listening does not happen it seems that these youth will quietly slip through the well-intentioned hands of the AME without having left their mark, and perhaps even more sadly, without anyone noticing their absence.
- U.S. Census Bureau. (2015, July 1). State & County Quickfacts: St. Charles City, Illinois. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from http://quickfacts.census.gov ↩
- James, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. Names in this document have been changed to protect the privacy of the youth. ↩
- Ray, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. ↩
- Shonda Gladden, “African Methodist Episcopal Church Christian Youth: Learning and Living the Faith,” (unpublished paper for The Confirmation Project research team, Princeton Theological Seminary ↩
- Ray, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. ↩
- Joe, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. ↩
- Jackie, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. ↩
- Vanessa, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. ↩
- James, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. ↩
- Vicky, focus group led by Kermit Moss, transcript, July 2016. ↩