Post-Christendom Youth Ministry

I’m WAY overdue sharing some of the highlights from my DMin thesis, “Post-Christendom Confirmation.” I presented some of it in my talk at the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference back in March with the more expansive title “Post-Christendom Youth Ministry.” Here are my slides from that talk:

I also really appreciate Adam Walker Cleaveland’s sketchnote of my presentation:

AWC Sketchnote

Here are some of the key ideas:

  • This project began with conversations about why we have such significant attrition after 8th grade confirmation. About 60% (or more) of our high school students stop participating after confirmation. Based on some unscientific comparisons with churches in our area and churches our size around the nation, this is not atypical.
  • The current state of American religiosity is shaped by the overall decline of Protestantism (now including evangelicals) and the so-called “rise of the nones.”
  • It was once assumed that people would drift away from church during young adulthood and return once they partner and/or have children—I’ve been calling this the Protestant Rumspringa. But the decline of Protestantism and rise of the nones are contributing to the breakdown of this pattern and we can no longer assume that young people will come back once they leave the church.
  • However, this does not mean that these de-churched people do not have faith. Most of them believe in God (however they may define the divine) and many practice or are open to prayer and/or meditation.
  • Confirmation as it has been practiced in mainline churches has contributed to these trends because it produces individualized and autonomous expressions of faith that do not encourage communal forms of religiosity.
  • Yet we cannot give up on confirmation. At least in many contexts, confirmation still carries significant cultural cachet as a rite of passage. We cannot afford to lose this window of opportunity because for most mainline youth it will be the last substantial (congregation-based) faith formation experience they have for 15 years or more.
  • As compelling as Protestant decline and the rise of the nones are as narratives to describe where we are right now, post-Christendom and the birth of something new in American religiosity are better narratives with which to shape our thinking and work.
  • The cultural shifts of post-Christendom are beyond the church’s control and it is unlikely that the church will reclaim its hold on American culture—and given the many problematic distortions of the gospel that accompany Christendom, probably best that it doesn’t.
  • In this post-Christendom matrix, we are unlikely to woo youth back once they leave and will only ever retain a certain portion of youth after confirmation.
  • Our adaptive challenge is therefore to reshape our understanding of church and forms of ministry to meet the needs of this changing cultural landscape.
  • Confirmation should function as a catalyst, training ground, and launch pad for these new expressions of Christian faith. Instead of trying to replicate the religious DNA of previous generations and training youth in religiosities they are unlikely to practice, confirmation should prepare young people for religiosities and spiritualities they might actually engage.
  • These emerging forms of faith need to have communal elements but may not follow traditional patterns of congregational life and religiosity. We may be moving into post-congregational realities. The nature of social engagement in our culture has radically changed and will continue to do so. Congregations are one socially constructed form of religious life, but not the only one we can imagine.
  • While we should continue to serve our core constituents for whom congregational life is still meaningful and compelling, we must also focus on the “liminal” youth (and adults) who exist on the periphery of the church, or who have left the church’s orbit altogether (the “nones”).
  • More so than theological content, what youth take away from confirmation is a theological method. Instead of encouraging individualistic pick-and-choose theological methods, we should recast theology as a dialogical endeavor.
  • We must enter the social locations in which youth actually create and experience community rather than expecting that they will come into our socially constructed communal spaces.
  • Each young person should come out of confirmation with a network of 6-8 adults and as many peers with whom they have meaningful and long-lasting relationships.

My blogging has been very spotty lately, but I will try to expand on these and other ideas in the coming weeks.

Comments

  1. Michael Merriman says:

    First of all, 8th grade is too young. Spend most of high school years exploring faith and ministry and doubt. Leave it to the young adults to decide when confirmation is right for me.

  2. I’m so glad to see these notes and look forward to seeing more. Does your research address how we incorporate young people into church leadership/participation after confirmation is over? One of the hardest sells I’ve found is convincing adult leadership that youth are full members of the church and should have a voice in the way it operates. Instead, we give lip service to how confirmation is an adult affirmation of baptism and then send them back to youth group until they’re REALLY adults.

    • I didn’t address this directly, though I certainly agree with the need for this. One of my goals is to increase the number of adults in meaningful relationships with youth. My hunch is that if this happens adults will more naturally integrate youth into the wider life of the church.

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