We’ve been reflecting much upon Christian education the last number of months. While there are always ways we can improve how we teach the faith, particularly to our children, this year we are implementing some bigger changes in our Sunday School curriculum and memory work.
As I think about Christian education at Zion, I’d like to share with the entire congregation a little explanation of what our goal really is, especially for the education of our youth that has traditionally culminated in the church ceremony we call “confirmation.”
In Matthew 28, Jesus commands the church to make disciples by baptizing and by teaching. The first part is relatively easy and is something that can be marked as accomplished. You are either baptized in the name of the Triune God or you aren’t. And once you are baptized, you are baptized. Teaching is much more of a moving target. We teach the faith, but there is always more to learn. Most pastors in the LCMS have a master’s degree in theology, and yet I can attest that there is still much more that I can learn about God’s Word. I will not complete the task of learning God’s Word even if I live for 70 more years.
Yet so often the way we speak about teaching the faith betrays what we really think is the goal. And for many parents, the goal is simply this: to have my child confirmed. As much as Zion’s pastors, past and present, have pleaded that we should not think of confirmation as the completion of Christian education, more than half of the kids we confirm at Zion become inactive in church and education attendance almost immediately after they are confirmed.
While it is not the cause of this tragedy, I think the way we speak about education reinforces the graduation mentality. Traditionally, the process has been called “confirmation class,” but that betrays a major problem and misunderstanding that the church has had for some time. Confirmation is merely a public ceremony of the church in which the church “confirms” that a person has a thorough grounding in Christian teaching and lives life according to that teaching. But the goal is surely to learn the faith, not simply be a part of the ceremony! We wouldn’t call high school English “graduation class” because the goal is to learn to read and write English, not simply to pass a class to graduate. In the same way, it’s time for a shift in how we talk about this process.
The goal we have in Christian education is not simply that Zion’s children will go through the motions and check enough boxes to be able to stand up front on confirmation Sunday. Instead, our goal really is to teach and to pass on the faith that was once delivered to the saints through God’s Holy Word. Instead of “confirmation class,” the church from ancient times called this process of learning the faith “catechesis” and the individuals being taught the faith were called “catechumens.” While these are words we have used in the past, this year I am redoubling my own effort to use this terminology. Our catechumens are there to learn the faith, not simply to jump through hoops so that they can be confirmed. Confirmation isn’t the goal at all. Learning the faith is.
That we have often called the process of learning the faith “confirmation class” is also misleading. The word “class” implies that learning the faith is primarily or even exclusively about learning a set of facts. Catechesis is more about living the Christian life that God has called us into through our baptism. This includes knowledge of the faith, to be sure, but it is knowledge applied and lived within the communion of saints in God’s holy church. To that end, much of what we do has been deliberately designed to look less like a class and more like an apprenticeship in living the Christian life.
Instead of meeting in a classroom, our catechumens are meeting in the sanctuary, in the place where the Christian faith is taught and proclaimed, and where Christ Himself is present in His Word and Sacraments to teach, to forgive, and to heal. Since the Christian life begins and ends with hearing God’s Word in faith, why not be in the place where God gives us those gifts week in and week out?
We also don’t really have homework assignments. Instead, we ask our catechumens to memorize God’s Word and the Small Catechism because living the Christian Life also begins with learning the language of the faith that God teaches us. The goal is not simply to regurgitate something for a test, but to internalize God’s Word in our hearts so that we may ruminate on it and that it may be at work in us.
The last thing I’d like to say about Christian education is that this task really falls to all of us. The parents are the primary teachers of the faith to their children, according to Deuteronomy 6 and other passages. The pastor certainly has a distinct office of teaching the faith to all Christians, including the children. But teaching the faith is something that we all should be concerned with. Even if your children and your grandchildren have long since completed Sunday School and confirmation, Christian education is still your concern too.
We need Sunday School teachers for this year still, and it is my prayer that some of you will consider taking on that role. But do you know one of the ways you can have a huge impact on Christian education at Zion? Model the importance of learning the faith by continuing to learn yourself! Be active in Bible study, both on Sunday morning and during the week if possible. Surely one of the reasons many people think of confirmation as the end of Christian education is that they see that the majority of adults are not active in Bible study. If you’ve never been active in Bible study before, now is a great time to start!
The other big way to help with Christian education at Zion is, of course, to pray. Pray that God would continue to open up hearts to hear the Word that He implants in them. Pray that the Word would bear fruit and sprout up into a harvest of eternal life for those who hear.
Thanks for partnering with us this year in teaching and learning the faith! May we all be diligent to hear, read, mark, and inwardly digest God’s Word that we may know Christ crucified and receive the crown of eternal life.