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Confirmation and Profession of Faith Practices Are Changing

Two concerns, young adults who drop out of church and adult churchgoers who stop growing in discipleship, are pushing denominations to rethink their approach to the sacraments.

Two concerns—young adults who drop out of church and adult churchgoers who stop growing in discipleship—are pushing denominations to rethink their approach to the sacraments.

Denominations ranging from Christian Reformed (CRC) to Episcopal to Presbyterian (PCUSA) have historically required confirmation or profession of faith before allowing people to fully partake in communion. Some congregations are moving to allow any baptized person to receive the Eucharist. That change sparks more questions, such as what confirmation or profession of faith signifies.

Here’s a look at the variety of practices among North American Protestant churches that emphasize both word and sacrament in worship.

Lengthening the process

In his 30 years as a PCUSA pastor, Douglas J. Brouwer has seen several changes in the confirmation process. The age for confirmation has remained around 8th or 9th grade, but the model and length has changed.

“Presbyterians tend to emphasize learning the life of faith from older, more experienced ‘practitioners,’ as opposed to a classroom model of learning doctrine. Early on the key was to pass along a certain body of knowledge to young minds, thinking that if they understood the faith, they would be ready to live the faith.

“In recent years, the trend has been to apprentice young believers to older, wiser believers, with the hope that young believers would learn by imitating the life of faith. For many years, my congregation had a confirmation mentor process in which youth were paired with an older member.

“Members still tell wonderful stories about relationships formed and meaningful conversations about faith. Some were prouder of their mentor role than their elder role, which is astonishing in a way, but also revealing,” says Brouwer, head pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

New child safety guidelines prevent church members meeting alone with youth. Brouwer says they’ve tried pairing youth with church families but, so far, that doesn’t seem as effective as a one-to-one faith mentorship.

He’s also noticed a trend to expand confirmation classes from six or eight weeks to a year, “with a push toward two years.” Confirmation at First Presbyterian of Ann Arbor has been moved from 9th to 8th grade and lengthened to a year.

Raising or lowering the age

For centuries, the Episcopal Church did not admit anyone to communion unless they were confirmed. “In older days, people were getting confirmed at the age of 11 or 12 and then making their first communions. But a pattern was developing that children would be confirmed and then disappear,” says Edwin Pease, assistant for Christian education at Grace Episcopal Church in Newton Corner, Massachusetts.

“Since Vatican II, there’s been a trend in the Episcopal Church to move confirmation up to age 16 and provide communion to any baptized person who wants it. We’ve moved confirmation up to age 16 to retain the engagement of the children into adulthood. In the Episcopal Church, if you’re 16, you can be on the vestry board and you can be a delegate to the diocese and conventions and so forth,” he says.

Pease notes, however, that there’s an institutional lag in that many laypeople still think of confirmation as a gateway to communion, so wonder why it’s been delayed till age 16. Work remains to help Episcopal members see confirmation as a gateway to greater participation in a local congregation, diocese, and the church as a whole.

In the CRC, profession of faith “is a burning issue. Churches are divided right down the middle,” says Pat Nederveld. She’s a Faith Alive editor and member of the CRC Faith Formation Committee, which is beginning a five-year conversation with churches about baptism, children at the Lord’s Supper, and profession of faith practices.

Congregations that welcome the idea of full participation in communion for all baptized members see it as more consistent with Reformed covenantal theology. It also helps people understand the Lord’s Supper as a meal of grace.

Adding a “child’s profession of faith”

“I’m discovering a wave of experimentation and healthy diversity as congregations rebuild and revise local practices for remembering baptism, faith formation, professing faith, and coming to the Lord’s Table,” says Howard Vanderwell, who spent 40 years in Christian Reformed Church (CRC) ministry before becoming a worship consultant and serves on the CRC Faith Formation Committee.

In a 2007 survey of CRC pastors, a quarter of respondents said that baptized children take communion in their church before making profession of faith.

A third said they offer profession of faith for children of middle school age or younger and also have a way of publicly marking these students’ transition to taking on adult responsibilities in the church. These practices include:

  • Announcements in the church newsletter or Sunday bulletin
  • Simple ceremonies at which the young person (usually age 16-18) acknowledges agreement with the doctrines and beliefs of the church and acceptance of adult responsibilities
  • Ceremonies of reaffirmation of (prior) profession of faith
  • Two-tiered professions of faith, sometimes called by other names, such as
    • First communion/profession of faith
    • Children’s profession/official profession
    • Covenantal statement of faith/profession of faith
    • Profession of faith/profession of discipleship
    • Stage 1/stage 2
    • Participation in membership classes

“Profession of faith needs to become a much more dynamic event in the life of our youth and congregations. It needs to be a community celebration,” Vanderwell says.

Family cultures mark milestones, from birthdays to graduations to becoming licensed. Similarly, Vanderwell says that developing a new tradition of multiple faith milestones would be “helpful and affirming.”

Pat Nederveld believes that a multiple milestones approach might inspire adults to keep growing in faith. “Continuing to study the word together, beyond what we hear in sermons, adds a vibrant dimension to individual lives and the life of a faith community,” she says.