On Monday I submitted the final version of my DMin thesis at McCormick Theological Seminary and since then everything has advanced such that I will graduate a week from tomorrow. I have thoroughly enjoyed this program and highly recommend it.
Next week I’ll try to get back to more regular blogging by reflecting on the thesis and some recent things I’ve been doing and thinking about regarding youth ministry. But for now, here is the abstract and acknowledgments from my thesis, “Post-Christendom Confirmation.”
This thesis project begins with the observation that the youth ministry I oversee typically loses a significant number of youth after eighth grade confirmation. Parents and adults have taken for granted that these young people will return to church once they begin to partner and/or have children of their own. But recent trends in American religiosity—namely the overall decline of Protestantism and the so-called “rise of the nones”—suggest that once our young people leave church many of them may never come back. If there is to be a future for the Christian witness of mainline Protestantism in 21st century America, these realities must be addressed. Of the numerous interventions we could consider, this project focuses on the unique faith formation opportunities found in the practice of adolescent confirmation. Even in post-Christendom America, confirmation maintains a high degree of cultural cachet as a rite of passage and therefore represents a brief window of time during which mainline churches have the attention of youth and their parents, an opportunity we cannot afford to squander. Confirmation is the last significant church-based faith formation that many young people will experience. We must ensure that youth who participate in confirmation programs receive quality discipleship because this experience may end up sustaining them for a decade or more. Yet I argue that typical confirmation practices—in which youth are empowered to pick and choose the theologies and practices that they find most compelling—have directly contributed to the decline of mainline Protestantism. After studying the long term impact of these confirmation experiences as I have facilitated them in two PC(USA) congregations, I suggest potential interventions that might feasibly transform our confirmation practices to better prepare young people to participate in vibrant expressions of post-Christendom Christianity.
I am thankful beyond words for the support of my loving wife Anna. She is a far more patient partner than I deserve. With the completion of this project I look forward to spending more time with her and our two amazing sons.
I will be forever grateful for the lifelong love of learning instilled in me by my parents and the numerous ways they have supported my education from pre-school through this degree. There is no greater gift to give a child.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the exercises in practical theology that comprise the Doctor of Ministry course of study. To do this work with such faithful and thoughtful colleagues has been a blessing. I am particularly grateful for Peter Bartlett, evangelist to the conflicted, with whom I have travelled this journey from start to finish. I am very thankful for the guidance, wisdom, and patience of my advisor, Jeff Japinga, who as dean of the program has always gone the extra mile to make us feel welcome and cared for. Among my many great teachers at McCormick, I am especially appreciative of Lib Caldwell for her encouragement and support.
As the contextual laboratory in which my studies and this project were grounded, Fourth Presbyterian Church has been a wonderful congregation to serve. I am grateful for the generous support of the Session and their trust in my work. While numerous members of the Youth Ministry Committee and others have contributed to my thinking about our practice of ministry with young people, I am especially grateful for my Advisory Group for Ministry: Kimberlee Frost, Lies Garner, Mark Nelson, and Kathi Rodak. Calum MacLeod was a helpful sounding board throughout my studies. I have enjoyed collaborating with Daniel Holladay and Katie Patterson as their entry into youth ministry has coincided with the completion of this project. Most of all, I am profoundly grateful for the youth it has been my pleasure to serve, both at Fourth and at Community Presbyterian Church in Clarendon Hills. It was at CPC that my love for youth ministry developed and I will always be indebted to my friend and first youth ministry mentor, Deb Helms.
Finally, I offer thanks for the members of the first Mid Councils Commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and especially our moderator, Tod Bolsinger, for helping me see the value of using post-Christendom as a framework for understanding the adaptive challenges of the church today.