Helping seniors develop a faith that is ready for college

Our Seniors Aren't Ready! It doesn't matter where you find yourself on the theological spectrum, there is huge concern regarding the complete abandonment of the Christian faith by our youth group students when they leave for college. There are movies like Divided, which see youth ministry as the main culprit for this loss of faith. And there are books like Sticky Faith, which want to reshape and redirect youth ministries to work more closely within the churches that fund them and alongside the parents of their community.

For as long as I can remember, there have always been an enormous exodus of students from the church the second they leave the comfort and confines of home and experience a world where there are no more boundaries, no more rules, and no more accountability to their former way of life. I find the statistics overwhelming and the actual students who choose to walk away heartbreaking. While I can not solve all the cultural or ecclesiological problems that contribute, I can be more proactive and intentional in the way I do student ministry so that my students have a fighting chance when they head off into the big, bad world.

Historically Confirmation Was The. Tool I was brought up in a Christian tradition that included something called confirmation. This was a class that was offered for 7th graders who were interested in joining the church. At least, this is how I understood it at the time. As an adult I have come to see that confirmation is the specific time the church makes space for kids who have grown up in the church and / or have been baptized as infants to "confirm" the faith as their own.

Up until this point, it is assumed that the faith they have has been passed down from their family. And now, as 7th graders they take an intentional step forward proclaiming that the faith they were brought up in is no longer just their parents' but is now their own.

Whether or not your church has an active confirmation program, it is an idea that is worth consideration and possibly even re-visioning. The presupposition with confirmation is that faith in Jesus Christ is a personal decision. It can not be passed on through blood. At some point, children, adolescents, or adults, must take personal responsibly for their faith and affirm it as their own. Confirmation is the process that affirms the faith of the family, the teachings of the church, and encourages 7th graders to take a hold of the faith as their own.

The problem that I have with this process is that 7th grade doesn't seem like the right age for students to own their faith separate from their parents. In fact, it has been my experience that most kids who participate do so at the strong request of their parents. With the lengthening of adolescence, it is safe to say that 7th graders 30 years ago are dramatically different than 7th graders today. they are still firmly in early adolescence with the culmination of individuation needing another 15 years or so to mature.

7th graders are at the very beginning of identity formation. Because of this fact they are totally unable to develop a faith that is separate from that of their parents. I am not saying they are unable to have faith at this age. I am simply saying that their faith is intimately tied to that of their parents.

Instead of throwing out confirmation because it doesn't seem to work for 7th graders, what if we simply took that concept and applied it to the demographic who is most able to wrestle through the issues that come up in confirmation.

A Confirmation Designed Specifically For Seniors

Seniors in high school are firmly in mid-adolescence and are fully wrestling with who they are. Identity formation is in high gear as students are continually reshaping who they are, where they fit in, and what sort of contribution they are going to make. As seniors they are getting ready to launch into college where they will have unlimited options to work this out.

A confirmation designed specifically for seniors gets to walk with a group of students who statistically are getting ready to bail on their faith and gets to identify the potential pitfalls they will face and give them the tools they will need to navigate this new world.

By starting with the end in mind, we are able to craft a program / class / small group (whatever term you find easiest to swallow) that will be able to maintain seniors interest in youth group and the church, allows space for difficult questions, equips them for their future, celebrates them in the church, and launches them into the world.

How We Do It This is the plan that we have come up with to pull off confirmation with our seniors:

1) Go On a Road Trip: Trying to communicate this idea is pretty difficult in a Sunday school or youth group setting. So we communicate this idea on a state-wide road-trip that is full of fun and adventure. While we are on this trip, we use our program time to clarify the expectations of our seniors. We say out loud that youth group is not for them. So when they feel bored, they are feeling the right things. Youth group is for the younger students and their job is to set the tone for the group and be our leaders. Since youth group is not for them, we have come up with a special monthly dinner for just seniors to wrestle with their faith and how to make it their own.

2) Senior Dinners: Once a month we meet at a different senior's house for dinner and discussion. The idea is that youth group fun and games is not relevant in the life of a senior who is leaning into a life outside of the home. Instead of pretending this isn't happening, we say it out loud and then craft dinner discussions that will allow students space to wrestle with their faith and hopefully make it their own.

The assumption is that up to this point their faith is mostly a shadow of their parent's faith or the youth ministries faith. But for them to have a faith that will last into adulthood they must make their faith their own. On our road trip we brainstorm ideas and topics for these dinners and then roll them out in a way they can build upon themselves. Some topics are repeats from their time in youth group, but all of them are spun with an application towards their life a year from now. Some of the topics we wrestle with are:

  • How to Read / Study the Bible
  • How to develop convictions
  • Peer Pressure
  • Navigating a world with no rules
  • How to make new friends (It is amazing that they don't know how to do this)
  • Finding a Church / Fellowship
  • Wrestling with Evolution, Sexuality, Politics, other Religions
  • Love and Relationships
  • Worry, Doubt, Anxiety

Most of these topics are their topics. The only ones I make happen every year are a challenge to read through the New Testament and how to develop convictions. Most students have been told their entire lives what is right and what is wrong, but have not been given the tools to discern from the Holy Spirit what is right and wrong. These then set the foundation for the rest of our topics.

3) Celebration Sunday: Every June our seniors take over the worship service at our church and lead our congregation in worship. It is a sweet time where our youth band leads in singing worship, and then our seniors share their testimonies. Since the goal of senior confirmation is helping them make their faith their own, I make every student write a testimony about where they are at in their walk with God.

Some of them are really amazing testimonies of God's goodness and grace, and some of them are a watermark of their seeking understanding and meaning. We let students from the entire spiritual spectrum share. As I meet with them I do allow them to share whatever is honest about where they are at and what they are going through. The only part I make them reflect on and add is to write a paragraph about how our church has been part of that process and to say thank you.

It is tiresome to have a never-ending stream of students be angsty towards the church. The truth is that our church and many churches out there invest thousands and thousands of dollars into the faith development of their students. Even if students choose to walk away from their faith, I want them to reflect on how the church has loved them and affirm that the church will be there for them. For the students who do choose to walk away from their faith, I want to make the easiest onramp back as possible.

When the service is just about over, I take the reigns back from the students and hand them over to our lead pastor. We wrap up our service with an intentional blessing and commencement as we recognize as an entire church that these young adults on stage are not children anymore, but adults and invaluable parts of our church body.

We invite our entire senior class up front. Then their parents, friends, family, and the rest of our youth group is invited to come up and put their hand upon them as they are consecrated and launched. It is a powerful service and a fitting end to a confirmation track.

What is Your Plan?  If we want our students to have a fighting chance to maintain their faith into adulthood, into college, then we must be intentional with the ways in which we prepare them. There are a ton of great resources and ideas out there. Which ones do you use?