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
“Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.” – Psalm 107:28-30
Inverted Student Ministry at Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church, a confirmation- equivalent practice, functions as a haven – a safe space to rest from the buffeting winds of the dominant culture, a culture that seems always to want to bend you to its will. A place for young people to be with others who are on a similar journey. A safe place to explore the meaning of Scripture, of one’s doubt, questions, and faith. A place to be loved and cared for and to love and care for others. A place to refuel for the week ahead.
When you first arrive in Salt Lake City, it is easy to see why Mormon leader Brigham Young announced, “This is the place,” choosing the site for settlement in 1847. The city is bordered to the east by the Wasatch Mountains and to the northwest by the Great Salt Lake. The sky is vast and blue, the views unparalleled. The planned city is laid out on a grid, making it hard to get lost, even for those who struggle with directions. The streets are wide and well-marked, and the mountains provide a constant landmark. As suggested by its founding, the city remains a bastion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), with 56 percent of residents belonging to the Mormon church (83 percent of total church-goers).1 Only about 10 percent of residents identify as Roman Catholic, and less than 10 percent identify as either Evangelical or Mainline Protestant.2 There is a history of tension and conflict between the Mormon and non-Mormon residents of Salt Lake that has led some to describe the city as “a city of two selves” with a unique character all its own.3
Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church (MOPC) is on the east side of the valley, nestled up near the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. This area is more homogenous than the west side of Salt Lake City. It is also whiter, wealthier, and more highly educated. The closer you get to the mountains, the wealthier it becomes. It also tends to be highly transitory, with professionals moving into and out of the area for job opportunities and advancement. The drive to the church on I- 215 is beautiful, and Mount Olympus looms over the church’s parking lot once you arrive. Its neighborhood is residential, comprised of both smaller, single-family homes and more upscale housing, complete with the requisite housing development culs-de-sac. Several elementary schools, a middle school, and two high schools are in close proximity. The meandering streets of the nearby housing developments contrast sharply with the planned grid of the rest of the city and suggest that one has wandered into suburbia.
The oldest part of the church looks right at home in its mountain setting. It is a rustic structure of stone pillars and wood shingles, with tall, scraggly pines growing up next to it. Once I entered, however, the feel became more modern, with a coffee shop atmosphere and lots of hip (and helpful!) signage. This is particularly important as the original building has had two additions, resulting in a maze of hallways and stairways that lead to offices and classrooms. The classrooms used for the Sunday morning youth learning labs are clean, bright, and well- furnished. Time has clearly been taken to paint and decorate. Home-made artwork and framed photographs of student activities adorn the walls, making for a welcoming and homey atmosphere. In some of the rooms, couches suggest a more relaxed environment for discussion, while in others tables and chairs provide space for study and projects. Evidence can be found throughout of the program’s ties to mission sites, particularly in Kenya.
Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was chartered in 1963. Currently, the congregation has about 360 members, but about 500-600 people are involved with the congregation. The congregation is predominantly white and middle- or upper-middle-class. Many congregants are professionals. Parishioners come from a range of religious backgrounds, including un-churched, evangelical, LDS, and Roman Catholic.
MOPC describes itself as a “relaxed, inter-generational congregation” whose mission is to “invite people to experience Jesus Christ and to become his passionate followers.”4 Average worship attendance is about 300 people per week combined from three services. Each worship service has a different feel. The 8:30 am service is attended mainly by older adults, who were described to me as the “meat of the congregation” because they are “so strong in their faith.”5 The service feels like a traditional Presbyterian service. The service centered on the sermon, preached by Pastor Phil Hughes on texts from Deuteronomy, as the congregation makes its way through the entire Bible during 2015. The choir led traditional hymns, accompanied by the organ. The contemporary service at 11:00 am replaced this traditional hymnody with praise music led by a team of young musicians. This service was attended by a younger crowd, with more families, many of whom wandered in during the opening songs. While both services reflected the relaxed character of MOPC, this service was more casual. (The pastor even took off his tie for this service!) Most of the youth who were present on Sunday morning attended this service, sitting together in groups, although some sat with their families. Communion was offered at both services. A third service, the Mount, is geared toward young adults and meets at 6:00 pm on Sunday evenings.
MOPC feels like a West Coast, evangelical-leaning Presbyterian church. The casual, coffee-shop-like atmosphere of the entry space contributed to this feel. The language used by congregants, the youth, the pastor, and other staff also suggested an evangelical culture. Frequent references to the authority and power of Scripture – God’s Big Story – indicated the centrality of the Bible for the congregation, as did the congregation’s decision to focus on Biblical literacy through devoting a year to reading through the Bible. Parishioners that I spoke with described their faith and their hopes for students’ faith in terms of “growing in a personal relationship with Jesus,” “becoming followers of Jesus,” and “having a heart for Jesus.” A major emphasis for the congregation appears to be the life of discipleship and how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. The sermon for the Sunday I visited was about the connection between love of God and obedience to God’s commandments as found in the book of Deuteronomy.
One of the most significant aspects of this congregation’s culture and identity is their existence as a minority church. Christian churches are fewer and farther between in Salt Lake City than in many other parts of the United States because of the high proportion of residents who are LDS. Wards (the equivalent of parishes for the LDS system) can be found every few blocks throughout the city and are a major source of communal identity. Less than 20 percent of the population in Utah identifies as Christian (non-LDS), compared with about 75 percent of the total US population.6 Especially given the significant emphasis in the majority LDS culture on conversion and missions, congregants tend to see MOPC as a sort of haven. They can come to church and have a respite from being in the religious minority. Youth Director Jamie White told me that although people in the church come from a variety of religious backgrounds and do not agree on everything, they like it that way. Something bigger draws them together. Pastor Phil Hughes put it this way: “There’s a sense of safety here. People think, ‘I don’t know what I am, but I’m not that [LDS].’”7 MOPC is, then, a place for people to come and explore what it means to have a relationship with Christ while being accepted, where they are, in the journey. This existence as a minority church, coupled with the West-coast evangelical culture, may help to explain why there is a low level of denominational identity at MOPC. Although some members were raised as Presbyterians and would self-identify as such, Jamie suggested that perhaps 60 to 70 percent of adults in the congregation would not identify as Presbyterian and as many as 90 percent of students. Most identify as a Christian and as part of the MOPC family.
OVERVIEW OF CONFIRMATION
Over the years, the youth and confirmation programs at MOPC have gone through several iterations. Prior to the arrival of the current youth director, the confirmation program was more traditional, with an emphasis on mentoring relationships and the use of workbook activities. Parents who had children in that program described it as “more structured” and “rigid,” as well as “program-oriented.”8 However, they did appreciate its use of small groups, which one parent said had been an important anchoring point for his daughter during a difficult time. All the parents I spoke with appreciated the shift within the youth programs at MOPC to becoming more relationally-oriented. The mother of a current student said that, because of this emphasis, she sees the church as the first place to go when her child is struggling.9
Youth ministry changed leadership in 2004, when current director Jamie White started Inverted Student Ministry, aimed at “a life right-side-up in a world upside- down.” Confirmation, however, still operated as a separate program until 2011. In that year, a review of confirmation was initiated, due in part to low attendance. The review included assessment of a wide variety of curricular resources. Jamie told me that she, “bought or downloaded any curriculum I could get my hands on,” but that none were a significant improvement on what they had been using, which was no longer working.10 During the review, Jamie and congregational leaders also assessed understandings of and expectations for confirmation. Jamie found that many parents were no longer even asking for a confirmation program, and few knew what confirmation actually meant. This, in part, led to a decision to integrate confirmation into the overall youth ministry program. Inverted Student Ministry remained as an integrated middle- through high-school program focused on youth discipleship, with opportunities for profession of faith or baptism along the way, based on student desire and readiness. Implementation of the integrated program began in 2012.
Accounts of the transition vary, although parents of past and present students indicated that transition was “hard” with “growing pains.” One parent felt that some students had gotten lost in the shuffle of the transition. However, this sense of difficulty in transition did not appear to negatively impact their views of Inverted Student Ministry. A long-time volunteer also said that the changeover had been “hard,” but that she was now “seeing really good things” coming out of the change and was excited about the future.11 Jamie told me that the transition period had been fairly smooth, partly because most people in the congregation did not appear to care about the changes, at least not enough to put up any resistance. She attributed this to a lack of understanding and engagement among many parents, students, and the congregation at large. She based this also on a survey recently conducted among MOPC families, most of whom admitted that they rarely, if ever, talked about faith or church at home.12
Inverted Student Ministry at Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church consists of students in grades six through twelve, roughly 100 in total. The program meets twice per week, once on Wednesday nights and once on Sunday mornings. Most students (60-80) attend the Wednesday night session (7:00 to 8:30 pm), and approximately 20-40 of those students attend the Sunday morning sessions (9:45 to 10:45 am). These numbers fluctuate greatly from week to week. About 60 percent of students involved in the program are from families involved with the church and the other 40 percent are from families with no other connection to the congregation. The program is led by Youth Director Jamie White and Youth Ministry Assistant Jared McClure, with assistance from over 30 other adult leaders who serve as mentors, chaperones for retreats, small group leaders, and teachers.
On Wednesday nights, students are divided up between middle and high school for their Track One teaching time, with additional time for small group discussion and whole group fellowship. Track One classes present foundational material for faith development, focusing on the big picture questions like “Who is God?” and “Who is Jesus?” These classes are usually based on sermons or inductive Bible study. Last year, the entire year in Track One was focused on the Gospels. Choices about the course material are made alongside the children’s and adult ministry teams to fit with the overall theme for the congregation. This year in Track One, students are learning about the church and what it means to be a follower of Christ.
On Sunday mornings, two sessions are usually offered, one in Track Two and one in Track Three, with Jamie and Jared each teaching one class. Topics have included technology and its effects on teens and their faith, the Bible, servant leadership, what happens to us when we die, and the problem of pain. Students usually have a choice of which session to attend, although Jamie felt that the class on technology was important enough that she did not offer an alternative. Classes in Tracks Two and Three are set up to function as “learning labs,” modeled after science labs. Students listen to a video, sermon, or discussion and then are expected to put what they have learned into practice. This includes a lab assignment to do at home, involving, for example, practices of reading and studying scripture, self-guided labyrinths, or trying out the principles of servant leadership. Attendance at Sunday worship and Track Two and Three learning labs are required if students want to go on the program’s mission trips for middle or high school. The high school mission trip is to Kenya, where students teach Bible school and do construction work in urban and rural areas. There are many other opportunities for retreats and camps throughout the year.
Students wishing to make a profession of faith or be baptized have the opportunity to do so each year. Students preparing for baptism meet with Jamie during a day- long retreat to learn about its significance and meaning. Each year, a group makes a trip up to a site in the canyon for immersion baptism in the river. Those being baptized or making a profession of faith meet with elders of the congregation beforehand to be asked about their desire to do so and about their faith journey. Youth described this process to me as “awkward” because they did not know the elders well and felt like they were “on trial.”13 Pastor Phil Hughes agreed that this is “one place we need to get better… to take away the fear-factor and ‘on trial’ feeling, but also encourage the youth to speak their faith convictions.”14 But, at least for those being baptized, the process seemed to be worth the trouble as they found their baptism to be very meaningful.
Most of the materials for the classes in all three tracks are developed by Jamie and Jared, who are both trained teachers. Jamie indicated that much of their time and energy goes into curriculum development because so much of the confirmation and youth materials out there “have no depth for teens.”15 One of the only outside curricula the program has used recently is Echo the Story, by sparkhouse, as it is “mainline and meaty” with a lot of resources so “you can pick and choose what works.”16 Less frequently, Jamie and Jared use materials by Alpha, Simply Youth Ministry, Download Youth Ministry, or denominational curriculum from the PC(USA).
Inverted Student Ministry, like many youth programs, is highly relational in character. It was abundantly clear from their interactions with youth that leaders Jamie White and Jared McClure know their youth well, love them, and treat them with respect. They always called students by name and referred to their lives, families, and experiences. In the focus group, at which their leaders were not present, youth shared that they “can tell” that their leaders “really love and care about us, and really want to know what’s going on with us.”17 An opt-in six-month- long mentorship program intensifies the relational aspect of the program for some students, as they meet one-on-one with a lay member of the congregation with whom they have been specially – and prayerfully – matched.
The youth also have strong relational bonds with one another. In the group of 20 students that I interviewed, students ranged from fifth grade to twelfth grade (about ages 10 to 18). With that significant of an age range, I was surprised at how well the students knew each other and how well they got along with one another. They had a good rapport – jokes and good-natured jibes abounded. They also were comfortable disagreeing with one another and working through conflicts among their different perspectives. They built on one another’s observations and comments. It was abundantly clear that they felt at home at MOPC and with each other. The consistent refrain of our time together was that this was a “safe” and “non- judgmental” space, where they could be free to doubt and question. Pastor Phil Hughes thinks this sense of safety at MOPC may be an “[unconscious reaction] to the larger LDS culture which can tend to be judgmental and discouraging of questioning one’s faith.”18
A unique feature of the program at MOPC is its strong emphasis on student initiative. In contrast to earlier iterations of confirmation, which Jamie said were driven by “parental pressures and motivations,” the current program relies heavily on students’ self-motivation and decision to opt-in.19 Students who come on Sunday mornings normally have a choice between attending either the Track Two or Track Three classes, based on where they think they are in their faith journey. (Jamie did say that sometimes she strongly encourages individual students to attend one or the other, based on her own assessment of their needs.) The mentoring program, which was mandatory under the old confirmation program, now is optional, but more students are choosing to participate in it than before. Although one parent expressed to me a wish that more would be required of students, it seemed to me that, on the whole, this focus on student initiative is quite effective.
Inverted Student Ministry at MOPC also trusts students to engage with advanced theological and biblical material. Students, for their part, take great pride in this trust, and live into the challenge. During my visit, Track Two students were learning about the story of Noah after the flood (Genesis 9:8-29). This story, about Noah’s drunkenness and conflict with his sons, was “less Sunday-school safe.” Students took a great deal of pride in having access to this type of more “ugly” or “weird” story in scripture.20 They were attentive, interested, and engaged, asking insightful and difficult questions. In the focus group time, students again mentioned that one of the things they love about their youth program is the opportunity to go deeper into the Bible – to learn not just the “Sunday school, felt-board stuff,” but also the “bad stuff.”21 One of the sixth graders referred to that morning’s session on Noah, who “gets drunk because he’s so depressed – it’s embarrassing,” how stories like that “show you how God acts in both ways” of love and judgment.22 Jamie related that one of the program’s values is “trusting students to think critically,” and it was clear that this value had a profound impact on students’ experience of the program.23 The winter retreat’s focus on the book of Hosea demonstrates that this commitment to engaging the difficult parts of scripture runs deep. Students I spoke with loved that they were entrusted with the fullness of scripture, consistently listing this as the most important learning they have done while in the program.
The youth ministry program at MOPC differs significantly from traditional confirmation programs in several key ways. First, it spans the student’s entire middle school and high school years (seven, in all). Unlike many other Presbyterian confirmation programs, which last from as little as a few weeks to as long as two years and often take place separately from the other youth programs, Inverted Student Ministry allows for consistent and prolonged discipleship formation over the lion’s share of an adolescent’s development. This also makes it flexible enough to account for students’ different starting points when they enter the program. No student is expected to be baptized or make a profession of faith before she is ready because of scheduling. It reduces the number of transitions among programs that students make and facilitates transitions from children’s ministry and to young adult ministry. Parents, the youth directors, and the children’s minister all mentioned the relatively high retention rate that already exists for students heading into college. It will be interesting to see in the coming years how the revised program (started in 2012) impacts how many students keep attending after they graduate. Most of the students in the focus group indicated that they expect faith to continue to be important for them as they get older.
However, very few of the students expressed any sense of identity as a Presbyterian Christian. The exception was those who had grown up going to MOPC and whose families had been longtime members. None of the students expressed any interest in confirmation or profession of faith as a means to formal membership in the church. When I asked about this, students responded this way: “Is it like a sign-up?” “What would you do?” and “I thought we were already a part of the church.”24 Several, however, who had recently been baptized gave positive accounts of their experiences, and many viewed telling others about their faith as important. The youth directors (who come from Assembly of God and non-denominational backgrounds) and the pastor (who is Presbyterian) all indicated that formal church membership is a relatively low priority for their congregation as a whole. Unlike most mainline churches, MOPC has many more active congregants than members. Part of this they attributed to negative connotations of membership in Utah because of connotations of doctrinal conformity in the Mormon church, but Pastor Phil Hughes pointed to larger conversations in the PC(USA) and mainline Protestantism about redefining membership. It seems that youth are being shaped by the broader Reformed tradition implicitly in this program, rather than explicitly, as in more traditional confirmation programs.
Planting the seeds, tending the garden. One metaphor that comes to mind for confirmation-equivalent practices at MOPC is that of a garden. Several parents expressed their hopes for youth discipleship in terms of “planting the seeds” of faith in youth that may not grow until later. There was a sense of hopefulness but also realism about this work, that we do not always see the harvest or the fruits. Yet the image of planting seeds alone does not do justice to the ongoing work of discipleship formation that happens at MOPC. Seed is not merely scattered in the hope that it might one day grow. Instead, gardeners are constantly at work. They have a relationship with the garden: spending time in it, watering, weeding, nurturing. The leaders and, I think, the youth are in this for the long haul. This metaphor of the garden speaks to the relational heart of Inverted Student Ministry and to its integration with other ministries of the church. Some of the garden’s growth can already be seen in the excitement of students in their study of Scripture, in their encouragement of one another, in their service in the world. Other seeds may lie dormant, not yet ready to sprout, but still cared for and nurtured in this garden by these workers in hope and expectation for the future.
Haven: a place to be Christian in a non-Christian context. This metaphor applies as much to the youth ministry program at MOPC as to the whole congregation, perhaps even more. Students clearly were drawn closer together by their experiences of being Christian in a predominantly Mormon context. Students spoke articulately and eloquently about their experiences growing up in this context. They shared stories of the positives – of their Mormon friends and neighbors welcoming them and bringing them food when they were in the hospital. But they also talked about “harsh treatment” from the LDS community, of being excluded by friends and neighbors when they did not convert to Mormonism.25 Jamie, Jared, and others talked about this in the language of “shunning,” saying that by high school many of the students will have lost friends because they are not Mormon. One student said that being in the religious minority led her to question her beliefs more, especially since it can be hard to understand and explain the differences between Christianity and Mormonism. She appreciated that there was space for questioning and doubt at MOPC.26 Inverted Student Ministry, including its confirmation-equivalent practices, offers students a place to learn what it means to be Christian and to just be Christian in the midst of a culture that wants them to be something else. As a haven, it performs an important stabilizing and sustaining function for students as they grow in faith and discipleship.
The youth program at MOPC once again demonstrates that relationships are essential for youth discipleship formation. Students time and again referred to relationships – with each other and with their adult leaders – as being a primary motivator for their current participation and as a primary factor in considering their future connection to the church. About half of the students I interviewed said that they come to Inverted Student Ministry because of the “support system,” “friends,” or because it is “a good community.”27 The consistency of the adult staff and the length of the program deepens this relational element. Parents identified Jamie and Jared’s leadership as being fundamental to the relational culture of the program.
Others can also learn from MOPC’s student-centered approach. Jamie and others have worked hard to create a culture of self-motivation and accountability among students for their own participation and faith development. None of the students I interviewed said they were there because their parents made them come. All said they were there because of either a desire to grow in their own faith or because of the community.28 These are compelling reasons to participate that seem less likely to fade with time. Inverted Student Ministry is also student-centered in its expectation that students can and will engage with challenging theological and biblical content. Access to difficult biblical texts humanized the Bible for youth in the program and gave them a sense of coming of age, which they took seriously and in which they took great pride.
The youth program at MOPC strikes a delicate balance in structure, content, and method that appeals to its students. Students enjoyed telling me about group games, retreats, mission trips, Bible study, critical engagement with faith and culture, and small group fellowship, all of which form a part of Inverted Student Ministry. When students were asked whether they would change anything about the program, a fascinating thing happened. Students initially made different suggestions: using fewer videos, playing more games, having more discussion, and playing fewer games, to name a few. They engaged in a back and forth dialogue, negotiating these suggestions with each other. Eventually, though, they decided that the program had “a good balance to get everybody’s needs.”29 What a testimony to the balance struck by the leadership of the needs of its students! Churches would be wise to consider how they can strike a balance appropriate for their own students and context.
Finally, others can learn from MOPC’s engagement with questions of what confirmation means and to what extent denominational identity plays a role in youth faith formation. Jamie noted that “denominationalism is quite intentionally not emphasized. We teach church history and talk about what it means to be Presbyterian, but we don’t prioritize it over any other denomination.”30 Mainline churches such as the PC(USA) will have to think deeply about what membership and denominationalism will look like in the future, and how confirmation will impact and be impacted by these shifts. MOPC, for its part, has moved away from a traditional confirmation program and rite toward an integrated pattern of youth discipleship formation with opportunities for public profession of faith. Others can consider what might be lost and gained from such a move.
- “Salt Lake County, Utah (UT) Religion Statistics Profile – Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Sandy, West Jordan, Taylorsville,” http://www.city-data.com/county/religion/Salt-Lake-County-UT.html. PewResearch Religion & Public Life Project Religious Landscape Survey indicates that 58 percent of Utah residents are affiliated with the LDS. http://religions.pewforum.org/maps. Accessed February 25, 2015. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Nels Anderson, quoted in John S. McCormick, “Salt Lake City,” Utah History Encyclopedia, Utah History To Go, http://historytogo.utah.gov/places/saltlakecity.html. Accessed February 25, 2015. ↩
- Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church, http://www.mtopres.org/#/about-us/what-we-believe. Accessed February 10, 2015. ↩
- Jamie White, conversation with author, February 2015. ↩
- PewResearch, “Affiliations,” Religion & Public Life Project Religious Landscape Survey, 2013, http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations. Accessed Feburary 25, 2015. ↩
- Phil Hughes, conversation with author, transcript, February 2015. ↩
- Margaret and Eric, interview by Sylvia Bull, transcript, February 2015. ↩
- Margaret, interview. ↩
- Jamie White, interview by Sylvia Bull, transcript, February 2015. ↩
- Barbara, interview by Sylvia Bull, transcript, February 2015. ↩
- Jamie White, interview. ↩
- Youth, focus group led by Sylvia Bull, audio file, February 2015. ↩
- Phil Hughes, e-mail message to Sylvia Bull, March 2, 2015. ↩
- Jamie White, interview. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Youth, focus group. ↩
- Phil Hughes, e-mail message to Sylvia Bull, March 2, 2015. ↩
- Jamie White, interview. ↩
- Youth, focus group. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Natalie, ibid. ↩
- Jamie White, interview. ↩
- Youth, focus group ↩
- Youth, focus group ↩
- Candice, focus group ↩
- Youth, focus group ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jamie White, interview ↩
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