Thursday, September 23, 2010

What shall we tell the children? (Sunday Reflections for September 26, 2010)

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13)

Once again I am about to begin a new year of teaching confirmation. I have been doing this for a long time—almost 30 years if you count my seminary internship. It’s a bit frightening to realize some of my first students could now have children of their own in confirmation class (if they’re still in the church).

For as long as I have been in the ministry, confirmation has been an unsolvable mystery. The attitude of most clergy I know was revealed in a candid moment at the time the new ELCA was electing its first synod bishops. Upon hearing of his election, one about-to-be bishop blurted out, “I don’t have to teach confirmation anymore!” I lost count long ago of how many confirmation programs Augsburg Fortress or its predecessors have offered. It seems there is a new one almost every year. Then there are those from independent publishers, plus the churches or pastors who make up their own (I’m now basically in this category).

I think what makes confirmation so problematic for pastors is that it forces us to confront the most difficult puzzles of the church and of Christianity, ones we would often rather avoid. If they are honest, I would guess every pastor would admit to thinking at least once, and possibly every year, “What the hell are we doing?” It’s not enough that we’re dealing with one of the most difficult times of life: junior high and early adolescence. We’re also trying to answer, for these theologically innocent young people, all the questions the church can no longer answer for itself.

Historically, the primary resource for Lutheran confirmation preparation has been Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (1529). Luther wrote it, he says in the book’s preface, in horrified reaction to the theological ignorance he found while visiting small town and rural parishes in Germany. Thus, it was intended for use by adults, as much as for older children.

The Small Catechism (and yes there is a Large Catechism, read mostly by theological over-achievers who usually are or become pastors) provides a simple explanation of the basic elements of Christianity: the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and communion. It is a classic and, for Lutherans, the book has become an icon in itself.

In some ways this was the high watermark of traditional Christianity, for it essentially has been all downhill from there. It wasn’t long before all the things Luther sought to make clear with his little guidebook were being questioned for their meaning, accuracy or value. After nearly 500 years the contents of Luther’s Small Catechism and the confirmation preparation efforts it inspired are creaking and stumbling to near collapse. For that reason, publishers crank out one new program after another (“Now Online!”), trying to keep the old machine going just a little longer.

Like the Small Catechism, confirmation preparation has primarily been about conveying ideas and content—people, events, beliefs, rules, vocabulary, memorization, etc. In the past, the primary motivation for young people to cram this stuff into their little heads has been fear of the thundering wrath of a Herr Pastor and/or one’s own parents. The days of such motivation are, of course, long gone. As a result, the content of confirmation has changed to . . . what?

It seems to be all over the map. Learning this content isn’t as important anymore because . . . well, because the content isn’t as important anymore. The simple reality is that much of what Luther was so sure Christians needed to know we just aren’t sure about. Here we again face the yawning gap between our world and Luther’s and the Bible’s, between ancient times and modernity.

Consider this “simple” question: Where is God? Ancient people knew and Luther knew. God was in heaven and heaven was “up there.” There are even ancient and medieval maps that show where heaven is. Now: Your answer? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. Why do we have trouble believing in heaven? Because we have no place to put it. “Up there” has no objective meaning anymore. There is no up or down in the universe; there isn’t even a beginning or end. So today God is “in our hearts,” or “all around us,” or “everywhere,” or—fill in the blank.

Now I can work with all that, and some of those ideas are even in the Bible, but they’re not the mainstream. So we have to be honest and admit we’re not really talking about our ancestors’ Christianity anymore. We’re moving on, and that’s okay. We need to because the world certainly has moved on. In doing so, however, we’re leaving things behind, not unlike when we grow up and leave home. And as the saying says, once you’ve left you can never really go back.

Our world is in flux, and that includes Christianity and religion generally. We’re now in a mode of exploration and experimentation. To do that effectively, I think it’s important we know where we are coming from. For that reason, teaching the Christian tradition is important because it has profoundly shaped us and the world around us. In doing so, however, we have to be honest with ourselves and with our kids that this was the world of our ancestors but it isn’t ours anymore.

In education today, teaching content isn’t nearly as important as it once was. We have more content at our fingertips than we know what to do with. Answers to more questions than we can even imagine are seconds away via Google and Wikipedia. No, the challenge is learning what to do with all that information: how to find it, sort it, evaluate it, judge it, and synthesize it.

I think something like that is what we should be doing with our kids in the church. The goal is no longer to teach them “The Truth.” First, we’re not sure what that is or means. Second, even if we had it, it’s not what they need. Why not? Because truth is not something handed to us on a silver platter. It doesn’t arrive in a box labeled, “Contents: The Truth.” In fact, when something does show up like that, alarm bells should go off because it almost certainly is a fraud.

In the past, young people were taught lots of practical survival skills: how to hunt, fish, plant, cook, sew, build, and so on. Religion, however, was pretty much handed to them ready-made. Today I think the reverse is true. Most of the “stuff” we need to live is made for us, but our religious beliefs and practices are what we need to learn how to develop and construct. Some techniques are better than others and some materials are better than others. There are good sources for these things and there are hucksters peddling crap and we need to learn how to distinguish between them.

If we can convey to our young people the basics of the Christian tradition, something about the world’s other historic religious traditions, an understanding and appreciation of the great questions of life, an ability to sort through and judge possible answers to those questions, and—most importantly—an appreciation of what a gift life is and what a joy and responsibility it is to be a part of that life—If we can provide them some basic tools to start down that path, then I think we will have done them a great service. We will have helped them become truly good persons—and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?

Now, how am I actually going to do that starting next Sunday? Well, that’s another question.


Kim said...

My favorite part is the compelling rationale that what our kids need from us are tools for constructing meaning thru development of religious beliefs and practices.

In the explanation of why it was necessary years ago... don't forget that until a relatively few years ago, 8th grade confirmation was the gateway to the sacrament of the altar... and its salvific grace. If it doesn't confer anything you didn't get in baptism, and you don't need it to receive holy communion... on the other hand, it can be very freeing. You don't have to, you get to.

Doug said...

Thanks Kim. When I was in seminary, our Presiding Bishop told me he thought that separating confirmation from First Communion would be the end of confirmation. He was wrong, of course, but it has made purpose of confirmation much more vague. Now it's a rite of passage but into what isn't very clear. I think intentionally focusing in the direction I point to here could help give it a clearer purpose and identity.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated that post. Incredibly, I was "elected" a Sunday school teacher on a rotating basis. You helped confirm my attitude about the job. I like your suggestion to consider our similarities to other faiths and to share my "appreciation of what a gift life is and what a joy and responsibility it is to be a part of that life". Thanks- David Mc

Karen said...

Doug, being Baptist I never had any confirmation class so anything I learned about faith was taught by whoever my Sunday School teachers happened to be that year. I think having a "what we believe" class as a young kid would have helped me a lot. Confirmation class is pretty much pillars of the faith, right? What Lutherans believe and why. I would have loved that - I would have cleared up some confusion as well as giving me a reason to believe what was being taught - not just "we're Baptist and we believe it, you don't need a reason" attitude that I encountered alot over the years. Good blogging - keep it up! Karen

Michael_SC said...

This is an excellent post, with admirable honesty. The fact is, what is often taught in 'confirmation' is essentially categories and answers from a pre-modern time, which have questionable relevance or certainty now. In my Presbyterian context, in my 'confirmation class' (consisting of my sons) I try to teach the contents of the Bible and church history and life but with 'Love God and Neighbor' as the foundational criterion. I can't in good conscience teach pre-modern ideas and understandings as rigid dogma. I think we should train our young people to be kind, Christ-following people, not ideologues, at least I do.

Steve Martin said...

"We will have helped them become truly good persons—and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?"'s NOT what it's about.

It's about making sure they know they need a Savior, and that they know Who that Savior is.

Doug said...

Steve, I'm sorry you didn't respond to anything else in the post to give me a better idea what you mean. To your brief comment all I can ask is, savior from what and for what? The need for a "savior" is not at all obvious anymore.

Steve Martin said...


Sin. There can be nothing in Heaven that is tainted by sin, and that includes us.

Why in Heavens name did Christ come and die on a cross?

The law convicts of us sin, and the gospel frees us from the condemnation that is a result of our brokeness.

Brigitte said...

Doug, hello, we have not met before.

The way I came here was by making a blog post about Luther's Small Catechism, I sought to find a picture to go with it, and I came to your blog post and linked to it.

In terms of confirmation classes, I need to say that I grew up in Germany and received a confirmation training something like what you are suggesting. Luther's Small Catechism was not dealt with at all. The result is that children do not receive a solid footing when you have the opportunity to give them one so--a huge responsibility and great opportunity, for which you are accountable. This is very serious stuff.

Luther's Small Catechism does not contain any ancient, irrelevant stuff which is optional; it should be affirmed that it is the basic Christian teaching. Most of all children need to learn about their Savior, as Steve says, but also how to live as Christians. They need to know about their future, where to go with their failures, how to know that they are forgiven and accepted and how to go on in spite of life's set backs, living their lives in loving and God-ordained community.

I felt I was deprived of this, and for the longest time was not sure if I could call myself even a "Christian" because it seemed like such a high goal which I could not ever achieve. I did not know that I could be and was supposed to be sure that Christ died for the forgiveness of my sins and that I need to and get to return to this forgiveness every day anew and draw my joy from there and from his goodness not mine.

Please, I beg you, to consider returning to basic doctrine and teaching this to the children and find the resources to be grounded in it yourself, so that it overflows from your own convictions. It is Christ himself, who was incarnate, died for them, rose for us and is coming, whom they actually need.


Doug said...

Steve and Brigitte, I hope you'll excuse me if I respond to both of you at the same time. I'm afraid that what is obvious to you is simply not obvious at all to me, nor to many people both within and outside the church. It is the orthodox/liberal divide. You maintain that traditional ancient and medieval Christian orthodoxy is still relevant but I find very little of it to be so.

More importantly, I find much of this church tradition to have little basis in the actual life and teaching of Jesus. Frankly, I think he would be stunned and appalled by much of what the church has done and said in his name over the centuries. And nowhere would this be more the case than the church's diversion of attention from Jesus' concern for people's real lives here and now to a self-serving obsession with sin, salvation and getting to heaven. While this filled pews and offering plates for centuries, people have finally seen through this charade and voted with their feet.

The reality is that the church is becoming an after thought for most people and for Western culture generally. Christians are becoming fewer and older and often more fanatic. It may well be that the church has outlived its usefulness and the Spirit is moving on to other methods and venues for the ongoing task of restoring the creation and establishing God's shalom. One way or another though, the biblical and prophetic vision will continue.

Steve Martin said...

:...the church's diversion of attention from Jesus' concern for people's real lives here and now to a self-serving obsession with sin, salvation and getting to heaven."

Why do you think he left them the next day when they (the 5,000) came back to him for more?

He said, in essence, 'this isn't a hunger program, but a program to give you the True Bread which comes down from Heaven. It's a salvation program!'

Jesus could have waved his hands and healed the whole world and solved everyone's problems in the here and now. He did not. And those he did heal ended up dying anyway.

He came that we might have eternal life when we needed it again.

Sin, Judgement, Forgiveness, Resurrection....these are the realities that the Bible speaks of.

If one really believes that this is not true and ALL will be automatically saved (why then the cross), then what the heck are people even bothering with church at all?

Doug said...

Well, most people aren’t bothering with the church for just that reason. Steve, the Jewish and Christian traditions are ancient, wide and deep. I appreciate your desire for certainty but I would encourage you to also pursue the wisdom and understanding built up by their centuries of theological tradition.

No, Jesus could not “have waved his hands and healed the whole world and solved everyone's problems in the here and now” and there is nothing scriptural about such a notion. In any case, you certainly must be aware that many Christians do not read the Bible as an objective report of historical events. I read the “Feeding of the 5000” as a metaphorical story, not an account (or multiple conflicting accounts as is actually the case) of an actual event.

And finally, the Bible speaks of many things beside the esoteric subjects of resurrection and the afterlife. I believe its primary concern is very much with real people and their real lives in this world: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5)

Brigitte said...

Hello Doug: thank you for your responses. You will understand, that in spite of decades of liberal thought, your comments are still shocking to some of us.

Most of all, I see a false dichotomy here. Being concerned about "salvation" is not a selfish thing. "Shalom" that you seek is via reconciliation. This is what salvation is. It is reconciliation with God and with each other. God is holding out his hand to us offering reconciliation. It was his idea. He wants us to know that he loves us, that we have infinite value, each one.

The program of the church is firstly this reconciliation and forgiveness of sins, through Christ. There is no other way for this reconciliation. God himself accomplishes it. From there a genuine love and community can exist.

There can be love also among unbelievers, but I find that it is not the same thing. It is not born of the same humility of knowing that each one is a sinner, and not born from the same exaltation of knowing each one worthy of
God's love and concern.

There is a vital difference. In any case, as we undergo various difficulties in life, it is essential to keep or eyes on
God and what he does and how he loves. And he has shown us how. This is our witness.

Brigitte said...

Hello Doug, I don't know if you appreciate such things, but I thoroughly enjoy Luther. This is a link to some brand new translations:

A hundred pages of the new Volume 58 of Luther's Works. Someone sent this to me today. God bless.

Joe Scarry said...

Thanks - I found this because I was looking for an image for adult ed that we'll be doing at St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square in Chicago in the days leading up to the NATO summit:

It reminded me of a blog post of my own:

Thanks for your work!