Posted by Megan Shitama Weston ● Fri, Jan 24, 2014 @ 14:01 PM
The Keys to Confirmation: Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason
One of the goals of a United Methodist confirmation program is to help students understand our Wesleyan theology. Sometimes we struggling to teach theology in an engaging way, but I believe one of our Wesleyan ideas - the Quadrilateral - can be one of our greatest strengths in teaching students.
In the past, I have shared my belief that the Weslyan Quadrilateral could be one of our best kept secrets when it comes to the spiritual formation of millennials. I also suggest that the quadrilateral is a great way to structure our Confirmation programs.
When we incorporate Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason into our Confirmation curriculum (or better yet into every class) we are teaching students to practice theology - and engaging their hearts and minds in faith formation.
This may seem like a no brainer, but there’s a lot of history and theology to squeeze in no matter how many sessions we devote to confirmation classes. Sometimes we can forget to squeeze scripture in there too. And Scripture is the foundation of the quadrilateral!
I often start lessons off with scripture reflection. I choose a passage related to whatever topic we are covering that day. We start with prayer, and then the students read or hear a passage, and sit in silence for a few minutes reflecting on how God is speaking through that passage. At the end of the time of silence students are invited to share their reflections.
From there we would move on to the rest of the lesson, encouraging students to allow the scripture reflection to inform our discussions of theology, doctrine, and history.
This approach worked for us because it gave out students experience reading and reflecting on Bible passages prayerfully. Sometimes when teaching lessons on specific topics we can tend to use scripture to support the point we are trying to make, rather than as the starting point for our theological reflection.
“Tradition” can be a loaded word nowadays. We often think of tradition as meaning “this is the way we always do things,” and we may be tempted to think that tradition will seem irrelevant to our students. I think it’s all in how we present our tradition.
In terms of the quadrilateral, tradition is the collected wisdom that we find in the practices and writings of Christians throughout history. Scripture is the beginning of the story of the people of God, and tradition picks up where scripture leaves off.
We are part of that story, and so are our students. Tradition becomes relevant to our students (and to us) when we find our place in the story.
I believe that there is a great deal in our United Methodist tradition that can resonate with young people today, many of whom are looking for a faith that will make a difference in the world. Our history of working for social justice, our balance between inward devotion and outward action, and our excellent network for global mission and disaster relief are just a few reasons that our tradition can resonate with millennials.
The key is that we can’t just “dump” all that info on our students. Instead, we need to think about how to introduce aspects of our tradition that will resonate with students.
At this point I'd like to take a minute to talk about our good friend John Wesley. He's quite the character, isn't he? And a bit intense at times.
At first glance he might seem a bit too stern to resonate with our students. But look closer.
Failed attempts at ministry?
Fear that he isn't doing enough?
Awkward and messy romantic relationships?
Hang on a minute, this guy is definitely someone teenagers can get!
And how about his Aldersgate experience?
"About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Isn't our deepest desire for our students that their hearts would be strangely warmed?
But more on that later.
On a practical note, the re:form Traditions DVD on Methodist history COULD be the best $20 you spend for confirmation. There is a great video on the Wesley brothers that packs a lot of history into an entertaining and fairly short video, and there are also videos on the quadrilateral, the stages of grace, and the UMC four areas of focus. It's a great supplement to your other materials.
Field trips are another great way to bring our tradition to life, and we in the Peninsula-Delaware Conference are blessed to be living in The Garden of American Methodism.
- Set up a visit to Barratt's Chapel, where Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury met in November 1784 to discuss the future of the American Church. The birthplace of American Methodism is right here in our conference!
- The Baltimore-Washington Conference also claims a birthplace of American Methodism, because they have Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, "The Mother Church of American Methodism" where the Christmas Conference was held in 1784.
- Take a trip to Washington DC and visit The United Methodist Building where the General Board of Church and Society engages in education and advocasy work on Capital Hill. Learn how United Methodist women in the 1920's raised money to build a site for social reform work.
- You can also visit places like Wesley Theological Seminary and The National Cathedral while you are in Washington DC.
- Learn the history of your church and other UM churches nearby. Many of our churches date back to the earliest days of American Methodism. This is also a great opportunity to see which churches were Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Protestant, etc. Discuss denominational splits, and how our current denomination is made up of many denominations coming together.
In my blog on the quadrilateral I mentioned the Barna study that found that people often perceive the church as being antagonistic toward science, too simplistic and judgmental, and unfriendly to those who doubt.
In light of that information, why aren't we doing more to lift up the importance of reason in our tradition?
When we revamp our worship services to appeal to seekers, are we intentionally offering welcome to thinkers, doubters, and questioners?
Are we offering that invitation to our young people who are beginning to wrestle with doubts and questions?
Many people outside the walls of our churches (and many inside the walls) think that being a Christian means unquestioning assent to certain doctrines.
On the other hand, our tradition tells us that we are called to use our God-given reason to reflect in community on scripture, examine tradition, and make meaning out of our experiences (I'll get to experience soon).
Theological reflection is in our DNA as United Methodists. It is essential that we invite out students into this work and encourage them to use their reason. Of course, we do need to be mindful of where our teens are developmentally.
Middle schoolers usually aren't going to be ready to tackle big abstract theological concepts, but they can look at a story from scripture and draw conclusions about what the story is teaching.
Some high school students will dive headfirst into Christology and that nature of the Trinity, and others will just want you to give them concrete answers. It is important that our discussions make room for young people wherever they are developmentally and theologically.
Sure, it can be scary to set up a "no wrong answers" environment in which students can practice theology, because you never know what they will say.
But quite often my students amaze me with their insights.
Last, but most definitely not least, we come to experience. I had to start with scripture, because it is the foundation of the quadrilateral, but when it comes to having a quadrilateral confirmation process, we want students to be actively experiencing scripture, tradition, and reason. We also want them to be actively experiencing what it means to be part of the life of the church.
That means they need to experience helping lead or support the worship service, as well as attending. They should experience the church's mission and service work, and even church committees! These experiences in the life of the church also place our students in setting where they can build relationships with other adults in the church.
Let's go back to that heart-warming experience that we pray each of our students will find.
If a kid is going to be confirmed, our hope is that they are making a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.
And ideally they will have knowingly experienced Jesus by this point.
Not every student is going to experience God the same way.
Some will come to know God's love through moving worship.
Others will find God in nature.
Believe it or not, some will find God when some theological concept clicks for them.
Others will experience God's grace in experiencing a call to a particular kind of ministry.
Many will come to believe in God's love because of the love they have experienced from individuals in the church family.
The list goes on and on.
If we are hoping for our confirmation students to experience God personally, then we need introduce them to as many experiences of God as we can. We set the stage, trust God to show up, and pray that our students will recognize the Good Shepherd's voice calling.
And just as importantly, we need to ask them to share and reflect on their experiences of God. When we invite our students to share how they have experienced God, and they will begin to teach each other how to see God.
During my first time teaching confirmation, a 7th grader who I will call Claire decided that she wasn't ready to go through the process yet. She continued as an active member of our youth group.
A few years later we were at the youth rally, and another student shared that she felt God taking her hand during one of the worship sessions. She tearfully described how that experience had helped her to feel God's love.
After that conversation, Claire asked to talk to me. She said that that she had never experienced God that way, and wasn't even sure she believed that the other student's experience was really God. I don't remember what I said to her. I do remember sensing her desire to know God, as well as her very rational doubts and questions.
Claire joined our confirmation group a few years later when she was in 10th grade. She participated enthusiastically in our discussions about theology and enjoyed learning all of the big theological words. Each of our students was asked to complete a project on a theological concept and present the project in worship, and she chose to create original artwork for her project.
She presented her beautiful image and shared her very thoughtful reflection in church one Sunday. A few weeks later, she posted on Facebook that after seeing her presentation one of our members had decided to encourage her creative development and paid for her to attend an afterschool art class at the local community college. Claire's post concluded with the words, "How great is my church family?"
Her heart was strangely warmed.
Putting it all together
John Wesley's heart was warmed when his understanding of theology was verified by an experience of God's love. In confirmation, we are continually setting the stage for this to happen.
Having a quadrilateral confirmation process means that however we decide to structure a confirmation program, we should make sure to include plenty of experiences with scripture, tradition and reason. It also means finding different ways for our students to realize that they are in the presence of God.
In fact, I find that the quadrilateral is a pretty great framework for designing individual confirmation lessons.
- Begin with scripture, which is always our starting point for theological reflection.
- Introduce some aspect of our tradition, history, or theology
- Allow students to exercise his or her reason: What does this topic teach us about God? How does it matter to me personally? How can this idea inform my faith?
- Find or create experiences that will help the theological concepts come to life for students, or that will help illustrate abstract ideas in a more concrete ways.
- Also include creative experiences of prayer and worship.