From Confirmation or Profession of Faith to Multiple Milestones of Faith

What is confirmation or profession of faith for? Does it certify knowledge, open the communion table, affirm acceptance of baptism, mark a milestone in a continuing faith journey? A feature story exploring the meaning behind profession of faith.

“Are we not full members of the church the day we are baptized?”

“How much should we ‘know’ to make profession of faith? What is the ‘right’ age? Is there a ‘right’ age?”

“At least 90 percent of the kids in our church go to Sunday school. Attendance becomes mushy in 11th or 12th grade, after they get confirmed. The percentage of people attending adult Christian education is much smaller.”

If these comments sound like someone’s been eavesdropping on your congregation’s conversations, take comfort. Your peers in several Protestant denominations have similar questions and concerns.

Churches are looking at what’s working (or not) in their confirmation or profession of faith practices. Instead of seeing that public event as a once-for-all ticket to communion or full church membership, churches are asking whether a “multiple milestones of faith” understanding might more deeply engage people of all ages in a life of discipleship.

Reverse troubling trends

Congregations in denominations ranging from Christian Reformed to Episcopal to Presbyterian are changing their confirmation and profession of faith practices. Whether they raise or lower the average age…or lengthen the confirmation process…or move between classroom and mentorship models…or add a “child’s profession of faith”—churches are trying to address a common problem.

Too many young adults, including those who have been confirmed or made profession of faith, drop out of church. In the United States, among people ages 18 to 30 who attended a Protestant church in high school, 70 percent drop out of church by age 23, according to LifeWay Research.

Equating confirmation with membership is “especially problematic” for Douglas J. Brouwer, pastor of the International Church in Zürich, Switzerland. 

“The youth of my congregation ordinarily leave the church for college and seldom return. Several years later, if they have not found a church home or if they worship at a church that does not keep membership records, we remove their names from our membership rolls.

“Most of our youth seem ready to embrace the faith of this church, but few seem ready to become church members in any meaningful way,” Brouwer says.

Most youth confirmed at Grace Episcopal Church in Newton Corner, Massachusetts, cannot return to that church after college even if they want to. “Children are the topic of a lot of conversations here. You can’t maintain a family over several generations in a place like Newton because nobody can afford to live there,” says Linda J. Clark, Grace director of music.

Match educational development

Pastors are rethinking the old practice of having all youth go through confirmation or profession of faith at a certain age.

“As I dig into this, I am identifying what I felt in the pastorate but could not really label. We’re realizing that everybody matures spiritually at different times.

“Our profession of faith practices and rituals are too rigid, not flexible enough to apply to various ages and personal formation,” says Howard Vanderwell, who spent 40 years in Christian Reformed Church (CRC) ministry before becoming a worship consultant. He serves on 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.

Though children mature at different rates and respond according to multiple intelligence preferences, they generally go through the same developmental sequence. For example, many kindergartners have a strong sense of God’s presence.

Meanwhile, devout yet self-absorbed teens may view confirmation as an individual decision in a specific congregation. When they transition to college or to a new community, they view their profession as less relevant.

“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,” says Edwin Pease, Grace Episcopal assistant for Christian education.

Rather than automatically send 16-year-olds through confirmation, Pease says Grace is “trying to engage them in church life at a time the teens are thinking of leaving home for college.” He offers confirmation as an option to be “acknowledged in the community as equipped for new levels of responsibility.”

Grace teens attend a regional confirmation service led by a bishop. “The upside is they look around and say, ‘There are a lot of us and we come from all over,’ ” Pease says. This helps confirmation candidates see themselves as joining the church universal.

When they leave for university, Pease tries to connect them with a local Episcopal church or chaplain. And this Christmas he plans to invite “confirmation alumni” to a conversation with Grace adults and high schoolers about how they’re continuing their faith journeys.

Celebrate milestones

The old if-then approach may be rigid but is clear cut. If you make profession of faith, then you may take communion and vote at congregational meetings. In churches that now provide communion to all baptized members, the reasons to seek confirmation feel fuzzy.

The fuzziness resolves when you see baptism, communion, confirmation, and other events as multiple milestones in a faith journey that “begins at baptism and continues till you die in Christ,” says Pat Nederveld, a Faith Alive editor and member of the CRC Faith Formation Committee.

“Milestones shift the focus away from that idea that if you know enough to make profession of faith, then you have arrived. Milestones give a more helpful and realistic way to look at how kids’ faith develops and how the church can be an ongoing part of that, not just an occasional part.

“In the multiple milestone approach, a faith community says that, by baptism, kids are full fledged members, not members in waiting or members in training. Celebrating milestones in spiritual growth asks the church to minister intergenerationally and asks each member to think about where they are in their own faith journey. You don’t graduate, ever,” she says.

Life transitions provide natural opportunities for marking faith milestones. These may include baptism, first communion, profession of faith, moving to a new community or church, graduation, engagement, marriage, changing your vocation, or surviving an illness or divorce.

Nederveld suggests pairing an object with a milestone, such as lighting a candle of Christian symbols at milestone moments, or giving a piece of art to someone celebrating faith during transition.

Engaging All Ages in a Life of Discipleship

As Willemina Zwart recalls, her congregation’s emerging multiple milestones of faith model began in a conversation she had with the lead pastor and youth director.

“We were talking about people’s concern that if you include children at the Lord’s Supper, then what happens to profession of faith?” says Zwart, pastor of congregational life at First Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in London, Ontario.

As she, her colleagues, and other Protestant church leaders rethink confirmation and profession of faith, they’re realizing they need to pursue several kinds of changes to truly engage all ages in a life of discipleship.

Not a finish line

“We live in an age that has lost that ‘rites of passage’ sense of marking time. I love the Old Testament image of the standing stones,” Zwart says. Proclaiming faith “again in front of church in a fresh new way” can be as powerful in individual and faith community memory as setting up stones was for Jacob, Moses, and Joshua.

Sharing stories of faith may be powerful but is also, Zwart knows, a stretch for “a culture of people who are faithful but don’t necessarily want to get up in front of someone and say why faith is important to them.

“It’s still in people’s minds that you do profession of faith once—and then you’re done, right? That’s the climax of their faith. It’s kind of a bummer, though, that it happens at age 17 or 18. So we started batting around the idea of progressive professions of faith.”

She and her colleagues brainstormed a list of situations worth marking as faith milestones. For example, children ages five and up could attend a sacraments seminar and then make “a profession of first faith,” where they’d receive a devotional or picture of Jesus with children. Someone who’d left the church in rebellion or apathy, but had repented and returned, could make a “profession of recommitted faith” and receive an appropriate book or picture of Jesus laughing or the prodigal son.

“First, though, we really need to focus on discipleship. If people don’t understand what it means to be a disciple, how can they begin to articulate their story, their pilgrimage, which is what these professions of faith are supposed to be about,” Zwart says.

Time for testimony

First CRC worship sometimes includes a time for testimony before the congregational prayer or within the sermon. Once, a new member asked to explain what it meant to join the congregation after her Anglican church closed. “That was powerful. It brought a spirit of celebration and encouragement.

“Another time, a woman in our church—late 60s, very vibrant and charismatic—got up front to tell how she felt God calling her to ministry in a seniors home. She was actually moving to go there.

“When you start hearing stories of faith and God’s work in people’s lives and how the church has been or can be part of that, then people go, ‘Oh, okay,’ ” Zwart says.

To help members see discipleship as a progressive journey of faith, First CRC has offered a council retreat and all-congregation morning seminars on spiritual development. The idea is to get people to make a plan for spiritual fitness, just as they might for physical fitness.

She and Pieter Pereboom, lead pastor, began a sermon series on spiritual disciplines that flow from various streams of Christian tradition. “If you see yourself in the holiness tradition, how can you capitalize on that strength? Let’s say the charismatic tradition intrigues you, but you don’t know how to go forth. We gave practical ways to do that,” she says.

One way that other churches work to make sharing faith stories normative is to ask students to write a testimony as they prepare for profession of faith. Students may choose to read these statements of faith during their profession or simply put them on the church bulletin board.

Let children lead

Studying what it means to be a baptized member—rather than a confirmed or professing member—helped renew worship at Grace Episcopal Church in Newton Corner, Massachusetts. “We started a singing school, upgraded the junior choir, and put more energy into learning to see worship through the eyes of children and how they might participate in it,” says Linda J. Clark, Grace director of music.

Grace children are usually in Sunday school from before worship till Eucharist begins. Last Advent, however, a bell rang five minutes before worship, and children processed into the sanctuary as the congregation gathered. The kids led the Advent wreath and candle lighting part of the liturgy, then went back to Sunday school and came in again for communion.

Those ten minutes “changed the whole feeling. Advent became more meditative. Having children lead extended the notion of what the worshiping community is,” Clark says.

Since 2007, Grace middle schoolers have planned an experiential stations of the cross Good Friday service that lead worshipers through the church garden, parish hall, and sanctuary. Edwin Pease, Grace Episcopal assistant for Christian education, says for these kids and families “the whole notion of what it means to affiliate with the church has changed.”

In fact, parents spontaneously volunteered for something Pease had thought he’d need to recruit for—finding local mission outreach opportunities so teens can discern their spiritual gifts and choose a mission opportunity for the whole congregation to join.

In 2004, when Douglas J. Brouwer became head pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, confirmation classes met for six weeks. Along with the youth director Brouwer proposed lengthening that to a year.

“We feared resistance. But parents report to us that the youth love the new, longer confirmation process. They push parents to get to church by 9:15 a.m. so they can participate in ‘munch and mingle,’ which is how class begins each week.

“For years the pattern had been a single mission trip for high school youth. Now, confirmation youth are encouraged to make a mission trip together, separate from the other trip, to emphasize that they are being commissioned for a life of service,” Brouwer says.

Learn More

As a church board, consistory, session, or vestry, read and discuss one of these books together:

Concerned about young adults dropping out of church? Maybe your congregation will find insight in reading UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.

For two decades, the Christian Reformed Church in North America and Reformed Church in America have been discussing whether or not to encourage and include baptized children at the Lord’s Supper. There’s a wide diversity of Lord’s Supper practice within the CRC.

Read Reformed Worship stories about profession of faith, including one on combining testimony and profession of faith at Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan. Learn about confirmation rites in the United Kingdom and Episcopal rites of transition.

If your church is thinking of opening communion to youth of different ages, you may appreciate the Children’s Profession of Faith Kit and Jessie Schut’s I Believe: Getting Ready to Profess My Faith, which comes in amentor’s guide and teen’s study guide.

Browse related stories on baptismfaith formationintergenerational worship, and Lord’s Supper practice in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition.

Start a Discussion

  • Which issue in these stories resonates most strongly with your congregation’s confirmation or profession of faith experience?
  • What is most nurturing about your communion and confirmation or profession of faith practices? What would you like to change—and what would be the first step toward that change? What in your practice is so valuable that it must not change?
  • What do you think about the idea of multiple milestones of faith? How might you incorporate that approach into your church life?
  • People interviewed for this story consistently mentioned Methodists and Baptists as known for active adult participation in Sunday school and Christian education. Describe a congregation that has a clear culture of lifelong learning in discipleship. What worship elements, values, practices, or programs uphold this culture of learning?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to deepen or adapt your confirmation or profession of faith practice?

  • If you’ve contacted or visited other congregations to learn about a specific approach (such as confirmation, profession of faith, communion participation, intergenerational worship, or adult Christian education), what did you learn? If you developed a template to help evaluate those visits and apply your findings, would you share that with us?
  • What has worked best—or not worked well—in your efforts to engage teens and young adults in worship and the life of the church? As you compare these observations with peers in your region or denomination, what common themes emerge?

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