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
INTRODUCTION: A FRIDAY NIGHT RETREAT
When I arrived at the Friday night retreat, I first noticed what I expected to notice: brand names. The woman who walked in with her daughter in front of me carried a Coach purse, had on a long North Face coat, and was manicured and highlighted. I anticipated snobbishness, but she held the door open for me and then greeted another student inside. I appreciated that she knew her daughter’s friend in a group this size and knew right then I’d have to put my assumptions aside so that I could see what these people were truly made of.
Jeff and Samantha, respectively the high school director and interim middle school director, were greeting students in the lobby and were expecting me. As Sam ushered me and in pointed out Teri, she asked about the project and was clearly proud of her church for being in the study. She returned to her post and I sat and watched as students walked in, many wearing their confirmation t-shirts with “Apostle’s Creed ‘14” across the back. Gathering with their small groups of about 10, I noticed that the girls seemed more connected to their groups than the boys.
After small group roll call, they went through the logistics of the ceremony in the main sanctuary before moving to the building next door that housed the student center, where dinner was served. Parents had put together a taco bar and cupcakes for all 127 confirmands, and balloons, confetti, tablecloths and centerpieces created an environment of celebration. The sponsors I ate with reported they were glad to be there – on a Friday night that would run late – and both had children in the program. One mentor, whose daughter Jillian was there, had volunteered before and was enjoying the experience though she admitted a preference for ‘the old way’ of doing small groups. Both were surprised at the level of commitment their girls put into the group and agreed that they took confirmation seriously. Though they were sure that some parents put their kids in the program just because they were supposed to, they thought that most parents valued confirmation as something important.
The subsequent small group time consisted of discussion on the Apostles’ Creed as well as reading letters from their parents, who had written to them describing the growth they had seen in them during the ten weeks of confirmation. Students had one on one time with their mentors, who also reflected the ways they had seen students change. Meanwhile, the rest of the group had time for fellowship. Each group rotated through a prayer room where volunteers had set up the stations of the cross, and students were given time for self-reflection.
Worship was contemporary. The band leader used the phrase “confirming our identity” during prayer, and I appreciated his ability to address the specific context of this worship time. Director of Student Ministries Dave MaGee was up next and touched on the five core aspects of discipleship (Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service and Witness). He underscored that the commitment to these things, not the perfection of them, that makes people Christian. Once again, I found my humble expectations exceeded by the communication of high standards for a life of faith. After a word from one of the associate pastors, the retreat concluded. This conclusion was the beginning of the confirmation celebration that welcomed these Christian believers into the Church of the Resurrection.
The Kansas City metro area, which spans the border between Kansas and Missouri, is home to just over two million people – but somehow, it manages to have a small town feel. Residents take great pride in The City of Fountains; they love their sports teams and BBQ, and Midwestern kindness is evident at nearly every turn. Smiles come easily, strangers are quick to strike up a conversation, and it is not uncommon to share a story with a store clerk. People seem to take pride in offering a helping hand and a parting “have a good day” is genuine and sincere.
In the suburbs, lawns are green and well-kept and the proverbial “SUV soccer mom” stereotype prevails. Many of COR’s student population attend Blue Valley schools, which is one of the top districts in the state. With 20,000 members spread across 4 campuses in the metro area, Church of the Resurrection has a noticeable impact on the community with volunteers who serve regularly and members who give generously.
Though the church’s main campus is in Leawood, there are campuses in Lenexa, downtown Kansas City, and Blue Springs, Missouri. For some, the location they attend is based on proximity to where they live. For others it is the pastoral staff or a specific ministry. Some attend the main campus in order to see Pastor Adam Hamilton in person as opposed to on a screen (his sermons are streamed online, to other campuses and services). People will drive a half hour or more to get there, though crossing the city via highway makes the distance seem reasonable.
Immediately surrounding the church are two well-developed shopping areas. Close to the church, across from the far edge of its property, is a year-old development called Prairiefire that contains a large bowling and bocce establishment called Pinstripes. It is small, safe, and clean – a good place for both family outings and nightlife. In the summer of 2014, Kansas City natives and celebrities Paul Rudd, Jason Sudekis, and Rob Wriggle helped put it on the map by hosting one evening of their three-day annual fundraiser there. Dubbed The Big Slick, they started this fundraiser as a poker tournament in 2010 to benefit Children’s Mercy Hospital. They more than doubled their goal the first year, and now return annually.
The more established Town Center sits just a few miles north of the church and hosts a number of other retail chains. It is dotted with restaurants of every kind, ranging from more inexpensive options to fine dining. The development includes a large AMC movie theater and live music is performed on a regular basis throughout the summer. Lofts were added about five years ago when Town Center began to expand, making it a great area not just to work and shop, but to live. Joe’s Kansas City, one of the area’s favorite BBQ restaurants, recently opened a location just to the east of Town Center, where there is also a locally-owned grocery store, bakery, pharmacy, car wash, and a complex of condominiums. Sprint Headquarters has long been situated to the west and is another of the city’s largest employers; to the south you’ll find a hospital and a neighborhood that includes one bank of apartments and single-family homes. Directly north of Town Center are various office buildings, including banks, a physician’s office, and an optometrist. Everything one could need is nestled in this area.
Sports enthusiasts will appreciate the major league baseball stadium, home to the Kansas City Royals, who energized the whole of Kansas City by competing in the 2014 World Series and returned again to win in 2015. All reports say that the whole town was dressed in blue during playoff season, and even churches displayed their pride: one sign read, “Thou shalt not steal – unless you’re Billy Butler” after the Designated Hitter stole two bases in one game for a win. This is a place where hometown pride comes in spades.
COR’s youth ministry believes that young people are capable of becoming participating members of faith on the journey of knowing, loving, and serving God. The purpose of confirmation very much reflects that of the whole congregation and encapsulates the vision for faith formation well: “to build a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious students and their families are becoming deeply committed Christians.” The church is founded on the principle that everyone is somewhere on this spectrum of faith, with non-religious being on one end and committed Christians on the other. Like other specialized ministries of this congregation, the student ministries share the congregation’s vision of “changing lives, transforming communities, and renewing the Church,” and confirmation in particular aims to involve young people in various ministries of the church.
In terms of church life, this congregation strongly emphasizes serving. In fact, service is such a major component of the life of the church that it is required of every member. In addition to regular, ongoing participation, members are also encouraged to attend a foreign mission project at least once every five years. Besides getting connected with a small group, service is how members of this megachurch tend to find their niches and become acquainted with others. The size of the church means that on any given day, opportunities for involvement abound. COR regularly hosts major events like Bless the Schools, which entails services like painting to get public school buildings in better shape during the summer holiday. Sacred Steps is an annual 5K run with proceeds that help fund foreign mission, and proceeds from the annual car show are donated to the Hope Center, a youth organization in Kansas City. Regular blood drives and conferences are held in the main building, so there is always need for hospitality volunteers. Occasions for involvement happen on a daily basis as well, so virtually anyone can find a place to plug in, despite busy schedules. As a microcosm of the church, confirmation also requires service as part of its program.
Using one’s thinking brain is important to the people who are a part of this congregation as well. An encouragement to question and wrestle with tough issues is a huge part of this ministry and is easily seen in the pulpit. Pastor Adam regularly infuses his sermons with scholarly work and offers evaluations of varying theological perspectives, creating space for listeners to locate themselves both in the biblical narrative and in current issues. His preaching and leadership seem to be built on the idea that faith captures both mind and heart, so that thinking people can understand and properly live out Christian faith. This trickles down into all ministries, where questions and genuine seeking are welcome. Some of the eighth graders who participated in confirmation noted that they were able to ask questions and talk through issues that they didn’t previously understand.
Maddie is an eighth grader whose passion for the church was clearly ignited by the confirmation program. During our interview she expressed in different ways how confirmation made her just “get it,” and specifically talked about learning who the Holy Spirit is. Though she fumbled for the right words, she said that the high school youth minister’s talk made her understand “who the Holy Spirit is.” It was clear, however, that it was not just an intellectual knowledge, but that the small group experience, including her friendship with one of the girls in her group, helped her to embody the things she was learning. Confirmation played a huge role in Maddie’s experience of faith by giving her the intentional space to talk through it and make points of connection between life at school with friends and her experience of faith with small group friends.
Besides volunteering, the confirmation program feels separate from the congregation – probably because the church is so large that each specialized ministry seems to operate independently. The confirmation ceremony itself is held as a special service rather than during regular worship, so the congregation never witnesses young people being confirmed. Logistically, this makes sense: confirming 127 students would take a lot of time away from the regular worship service. A separate ceremony allows the church to make confirmation a special event, and having the “famous” senior pastor lead the service communicates something about its importance.
OVERVIEW OF CONFIRMATION
Something notably distinct about this program is that the church employs a dedicated Confirmation Director, Teri Chalker. Though she shares an office and works in conjunction with both the middle and high school youth directors, youth ministry and the confirmation ministry are not one and the same at this church. This indicates a high regard for confirmation.
Confirmation is a 10-week process1 that includes weekly small group Bible study, a mission project, serving as an acolyte during worship, a retreat, and regular involvement in church life. Study of scripture and memorization is encouraged, and groups compete against each other to provide for others; this year the competition was to see who could bring the most peanut butter to fill the Food Pantry (the boys managed a surprise win at the end). Each small group has two mentors who provide group structure and supervision, as well as some one-on-one time with each confirmand. During the final retreat, mentors give confirmands feedback on how they have witnessed him or her grow throughout the confirmation process. Attendance at the retreat is required in order to be confirmed; a maximum of four absences during weekly confirmation is allowed. If a family has an unavoidable conflict during the retreat, that student is invited to attend the next retreat and may be confirmed with the next class, the following year.
Each confirmation cycle begins with a mandatory meeting of students and their parents in which both are given notebooks that include the lessons that will be used for the confirmation program (the parents get the one with the answers) and the guidelines for the process. The meeting is required both for clear communication to families and in order to emphasize the commitment the program requires. Teri explains what confirmation is and how their program is set up, stressing that she does not require anyone to get confirmed. She simply invites them to participate and confirms those who, at the end, want to make the commitment. She believes that she will do her job, God will do God’s job, and confirmands can respond how they see fit. Of course, she takes seriously her job of nurturing Christian faith experiences with an eye toward forming deeply committed Christians.
Following the introductory meeting, students begin meeting in assigned small groups for an hour on Sundays. Confirmands must participate in at least one other weekly church activity in order to get connected, as well as complete a mission with their small group. Each group chooses where to serve; this year a popular site was My Father’s House, a ministry for urban and suburban populations with inadequate furniture.2 Each confirmand must serve as an acolyte or cross bearer during Sunday worship four times during the year, and a special baptism service is held for those who have not yet been baptized. Students are invited to an optional Christmas social and many plan outings with their small groups as well. Continuing small group meetings after the program ends is also encouraged.
On Friday before the confirmation ceremony is a culminating retreat in which students rehearse for the upcoming ceremony, eat dinner together, spend time with the larger group in worship, hang out with their small groups, and have one-on-one time with their mentors. During small group time confirmands are given letters from their parents, who have written to them about how the confirmation process has changed them. Mentors also reflect this transformation back to students during individual sessions, most of which take place in the hallways while the rest of the group spends time in fellowship in a classroom. There is ample space for each confirmand to reflect on his or her experience and to think about how their life and faith might look different as a result. Together with their small group, confirmands are led through the stations of the cross to pray before returning for worship, where the winner of competition is also announced before dismissal.
The program ends with a Sunday afternoon confirmation ceremony. The church describes confirmation as a proclamation of faith and one step on a lifelong journey of faith. As the culmination of the program, the ceremony marks an important milestone on this journey. Leadership verbalizes the journey metaphor often and recognizes that, like anything else, there are bound to be bumps in the road. A clear message is that faith is not a cure-all for the problems in life, but God’s presence is promised.
Students themselves report that confirmation is fun, and many agree that the contemporary music during their worship time and mission are the best components. Though there is homework, it does not seem to be burdensome; and though confirmation brings a set of obligations, young people seem generally enthusiastic about what they get to do. They rise to the high expectations and their participation results in a sense of belonging. These young people have forged true friendships within their small groups as well.
Confirmation at COR is best described as robust. Students’ minds and bodies are engaged through worship, service, and prayer. Confirmands are encouraged to struggle though real issues and to grasp their faith more deeply.
The student ministry, which encompasses grades 6-12, is known as “rezlife” – a play off the idea of life in Christ and the name of the Church. Director of Student Ministries Dave MaGee oversees 14 other staff members, which include an associate director, program director, directors for events and volunteering, middle school and high school, as well as various administrative, tech, and musical worship staff. The Confirmation Director is also a part of this team. Ministry in this congregation is highly specialized, yet the directors seem to understand themselves as one piece among several.
Teri is a real gem, and COR is fortunate to have her because she truly gets what confirmation all about. On staff since 2002, Teri says she feels support from the top – meaning, Senior Pastor Adam Hamilton. Like anywhere, she says, new ideas have to go through the proper channels and get refined, but very rarely does that seem adversarial to her. This allows her to think deeply about the theological reasons for confirmation and the impact the program will have on the lives of students. Her passion to help young people grow in faith is obvious, and she places a great deal of trust in her volunteers.
Parents are the most common confirmation mentors. Parent-to-parent referral is high and some even return to volunteer even after their kids have completed the program because they find the experience so rewarding. Besides parents, there are a few mentors who have been doing it for so long it has simply become “their thing.” I spoke with one volunteer who, with his wife, was unable to have children, and this is the way he feels he can impact young people. Like his co-sponsor who has served as a mentor more than a dozen times, he participates in this ministry because of his personal values. Without these volunteers to commit to regularly being there for students, confirmation could not sustain itself.
Participation in church life is a central component to confirmation. Unfortunately, there is really no way to track what each student is doing after the program ends. According to Dave, the small group experience can make or break a student’s confirmation experience because it is the main avenue for students to connect with leaders and friends – something that is particularly important for the (primarily) eighth graders who participate. Thus, a strong small group experience increases the likelihood of a strong connection with the church.
Forging friendships is central to forming a tight small group and thus to the whole experience. Elizabeth and Maddie knew each other before confirmation but attend different schools and did not get to know each other until they started small group together. Each of the girls were passionate about their confirmation experience, and both their moms were mentors.
Maddie, whose older brother and sister had been through confirmation, chose to go through confirmation to grow in her faith and meet friends who would help her do that. “Before confirmation I was like kind of in like a relationship with God, but like, I just think it’s actually really cool to be in a relationship with God and, like, meet new friends like Elizabeth,” she said. “Usually my friends, a lot of them don’t go to church and I like, can’t really have conversations with them like I can with other people in my group and stuff like that. And so I guess, like, meeting new people and growing closer with God [is why I came].”3
Her favorite part of confirmation was worship because she likes singing, mostly because it felt like one-on-one time with God. Confirmation, she said, had changed her: Maddie learned to put God first and endure through struggles because she could trust that God had a bigger plan. She said she felt more confident after going through confirmation and cited Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” as a particularly encouraging verse. “I think I’m a different person because of my confirmation journey and like, a lot of people can tell that and that’s, in my opinion, like, a really good thing.”4 Maddie remembered a specific Sunday when she felt like a better person and could strongly feel God’s presence working in her; this was later affirmed by her parents and mentor as they reflected back to her how they had seen her grow as a result of the program.
Like Maddie, Elizabeth also enjoyed worship. Her favorite part was doing charity work because she enjoyed helping people, and because they were trusted to do the work themselves. In the past when she had volunteered, there was always someone watching her. At My Father’s House she had a guide, but liked that they were able to work on their own. “It was fun because we got to do it ourselves and, like, lead ourselves doing it,” she said. Entrusting students to do legitimate work empowered them with a sense of agency and fostered a growing sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves – to both the congregation and to God.
One of Elizabeth’s more memorable experiences was also, like Maddie’s, the week they talked about the Holy Spirit; though she fumbled for words to explain it, she clearly had a new understanding of who God is because of it.
I would take one lesson out of this, and it was the ‘who is the Holy Spirit lesson.’ The person who talked about it, I guess I knew and he put it in my words to understand. Like the senior pastor I didn’t understand everything he said, cause he put it in adult terms, basically, that I didn’t understand. but like I didn’t – I know this sounds bad, but I didn’t know who the Holy Spirit was before this. But then, like, after that lesson I knew exactly who it was. It’s like, it’s him, but everywhere, but it’s not like – it’s hard. I get it though. But it’s the one thing I took out of this.5
The girls seemed to understand confirmation as a step on the journey and know that it will take work to continue in discipleship. Moving forward, they are well prepared for the struggles of life and will rely on their community of faith to help them through: “I think we have to try a lot harder to stay in Scripture…. cause we don’t have somewhere to go every week and we don’t have any place to like meet and stay with God, so we’re gonna have to do it on our own,” Maddie said, “We’ll have to take it upon ourselves to stay close to God.”6 She knows her small group will help, and Elizabeth is confident in the support of her church. Her smile was joyful and I could hear it in her voice as she said, “I learned that whenever you need a church family, there is always someone there. Like if it’s a small group or a leader or a friend, like Maddie, or anyone, if you need anything, someone’s always there no matter what. And God’s always there. Like, no matter what.”7
Most of those who volunteer to be confirmation mentors are parents of the confirmands, and often return to serve as a sponsor when their younger children are ready to go through the program as well. These mentors act as small group leaders, organize the group’s mission, and sometimes organize social gatherings. Like the confirmands, they have homework and are expected to be prepared to teach weekly lessons. Teri gives her cell phone number to her volunteers so she can literally be on call to support the team. The parents who volunteer are also members of the congregation – or at least regular attenders – and appear to have a grasp on the service component. Confirmation allows them to serve and to spend quality time with their children. They tend to see confirmation as greater exposure to the church and an opportunity to do more with the church.
Those who are not volunteers are also given a notebook at the mandatory introductory meeting so they can keep up with what their confirmand is learning. The book includes conversation starters related to the weekly lessons so that they can move beyond the general, “Did you have fun?” question and better address the content. The hope is that this will spark mutually beneficial questions about God,
the church, and spirituality.
A Confirmation Celebration
Sunday afternoon, following the Friday night retreat, the sanctuary boasted a large crowd with 127 confirmands, their families, and some friends – who were not otherwise involved at COR. In preparation, confirmands met together to quickly go over the order of service and line up to process into the sanctuary together. The ceremony carries weight, and every confirmand was dressed in Sunday best – a few girls even donned formalwear, though this was the exception rather than the norm. Students posed for photos with friends and groups, listened to music and waited for the ceremony to start while their families got seated in the sanctuary.
Before confirmands processed in, the “rezlife” band led the congregation in a both contemporary and traditional songs. Teri described what had been happening in confirmation to the congregation and began the service the way confirmation began: with the Lord’s Prayer. Confirmands were then asked to stand and recite the Apostle’s Creed. After a brief litany, Pastor Adam got up and started out by asking to take a selfie with the confirmands in the background. He asked how many of them had been baptized as babies, and traced their story through Sunday School and receiving their third grade Bibles to this day, when they profess to be adult members of the church. Recognizing the work of the leaders and volunteers, he invited applause.
His sermon focused on how the journey of faith can shape our lives to change the world. The call to the confirmands is to take that journey, recognizing that it will last the rest of their lives and that, at times, it will be difficult. He continued by reminding them of something he often says from the pulpit: “The worst thing is never the last thing.” When facing scary things, he said, they need to know they’re not alone because Jesus’ resurrection claims and promises that. He gave a brief history of the Apostle’s Creed and reminded them that they memorized it because it is the bedrock of Christian faith.
Confirmands were then asked to stand and respond to the following questions: Do you renew your baptismal vows? Do you repent of your sins? Do you receive and profess the faith in the scriptures? Is it your desire to follow Jesus? Following an affirmative response, confirmands were called by name and went forward with their parents, who stood behind them as they took their places on the kneelers The sanctuary was dark and quiet with a pianist playing softly, invoking a sense of reverence, and Pastor Adam muted his microphone as he confirmed every student by placing a hand on their shoulder and praying for them individually. Parents accompanied their students and held stoles that had been given to confirmands, while photos of each group were projected on screens during prayer. It seemed appropriate that Pastor Adam wore his red stole, though it was not Pentecost, to symbolize the Holy Spirit.
After praying for the group as a whole, Pastor Adam encouraged them to lean on their Student Ministries Director Dave, who briefly addressed the group with an exhortation to continue their involvement and encouraged parents to ask their confirmands what they would like to do next. Before giving the benediction, Pastor Adam asked if any of them felt called to ministry or had been told they could be seen doing professional ministry. About two dozen students stood up, and Adam wondered aloud if one of them would take his place in 20 years. He reminded them that they were all called to ministry, and some to ordained ministry, before leading the blessing.
Afterwards the staff hosted a reception in the expansive narthex with cookies and lemonade. Students enjoyed their friends and posed for a lot of family photos, and the pomp and circumstance reminded me of something between prom and graduation. A sense of finality was definitely present as the reception began to wind down. However, I suspect that it had more to do with the end of program and ceremony itself than with the church as a whole. Students, after all, were glad to be there and seemed to have had a positive experience overall. Remembering the persistent encouragement to remain plugged into some ministry of the church was a hopeful note on which to end.
- 15 weeks beginning in 2015 ↩
- One mother reported that they were in the process of transforming her daughter’s bedroom from a child’s room to a more sophisticated look when her daughter’s group served there. She came home and asked her mother if they could donate her old furniture. ↩
- Maddie Jacobs, interview with Kate Obermueller Unruh, November 2014. ↩
- Maddie, interview, 2014. ↩
- Maddie, interview, 2014. ↩
- Maddie, interview,2014. ↩
- Elizabeth Porter, interview with Kate Obermueller Unruh November 2014. ↩