My parents raised me in the Lutheran tradition.
This upbringing included an expectation that I learn and participate where and when I could.
I attended Sunday school and worship services. I participated in youth group activities and many other activities.
When I was old enough, I started preparation for Confirmation. This included serving as an acolyte — lighting candles and assisting with Communion and other aspects of worship services. I also took sermon notes to indicate I understood the pastor’s messages. I attended classes on Wednesdays, such as as “Lutheran Catechism,” “Sacraments” and “Lutheran Doctrine.”
I was confirmed in the fall of my freshman year of high school. This required that I stand before the congregation with classmates. Each of us affirmed our baptism and took responsibility for our faith life and development from that point on.
These are the logistical aspects of my familial, cultural and selected religious beliefs — the practical markers of my faith. For me, Confirmation was the milestone that helped me understand why meeting those requirements is important to a faith community.
That’s what religious rites of passages are supposed to do — signal a coming of age, confer adult status and elevate our commitment to our congregations.
In my case, the religious rite probably worked the way it was intended: I crossed over, consciously adding personal commitment to my parent’s choice.
In most cases, that’s not necessarily what happens. Of my Confirmation group, about 20 percent of us continued attending worship services and serving in various ways.
That’s relatively common. Across the board, national religious organizations report a decline in attendance and participation after young people achieve internal or external milestones, such as a religious coming of age ceremony or high school graduation.
I’m not sure why I felt compelled to continue active church membership and participation. The affirmation I made as a teen didn’t stress the difficulty of keeping my promise when it wasn’t easy, fun or flashy.
Nearly 30 years after my own Confirmation, my daughter, Zoey, will be confirmed.
She entered the process because of my requirement: Take part in the preparation with an open mind. Once you complete the process, it’s your decision to become confirmed.
We discussed it again a few weeks ago, and she’s looking forward to the milestone.
Frankly, I’m amazed. When I try to look at my requirement through the eyes of a busy, engaged and involved teen, I see I’m asking a lot. I’d understand if Zoey viewed acolyting, regular worship and Sunday school attendance, evening classes and volunteer activities as a major inconvenience. I’d empathize if she didn’t want to add a public declaration of her faith to that list.
But she’s open to it. I’m hesitant to ask her why, largely because I’m not sure I could have answered at her age. It was just something I wanted to do. I believe it must be that she’s found a group of people with whom she can express her beliefs in her way. She appreciates and loves the people and enjoys her time there.
Over the years, I have thought a lot about what makes teens adhere to active religious development, even as I acknowledge it’s probably easier to understand why they don’t.
I don’t believe it’s all a matter of personality, preference or motivation. Likewise, I doubt it’s all about a congregation’s alluring presentation. I’ve experienced faith communities with few resources that boast loads of devoted adults and engaged youth. I have tried to figured out how they cultivate interest and spur participation — and how that could be replicated.
Ultimately, I keep thinking it must be this: It’s less about striving to be appealing and more about being open and available.