By: Jacob Sorenson

Too often, people think of confirmation as a class. Those in the Reformed traditions seem to have a particular knack of reducing confirmation ministry to a transfer of knowledge. When lessons come after busy school days, it reinforces this notion.

If confirmation is a class, it is something we have to complete rather than a lifelong process. It is knowing the right information rather than getting to know the Savior of the world.

We don’t want young people to pass or think of confirmation as graduation from Christian education. Confirmation curricula have improved markedly, but it is difficult to transcend the limitations of space and time. It is important to include learning outside the classroom–elements like faith mentors and guided conversations in the home. Another practice that holds particular promise is the confirmation retreat.

According to The Confirmation Project, Presbyterians are the most likely of the five denominations studied to require attendance at an overnight retreat (36% of programs require attendance). I know that people use the word retreat to describe all sorts of experiences, but I am going to insist on two things: it must be away from home and include an overnight. If you go somewhere without spending the night, you have a field trip. If you spend the night but don’t go anywhere, you have a lock-in. A retreat is different because it offers both space and time.

New space is critical. Getting young people away forces them out of their routines and can prompt them to think about their faith in new ways. Retreats get them away from the constant pressures of daily life, including things like parents, school, and cell phones.

Wait, did I say cell phones? Yes. Take their phones away, and put yours away, as well. Some people have become so dependent on their devices that they do not know how to sit in silence and are uncomfortable in face-to-face conversations. Use the space of your retreat to offer them these new opportunities.

Time is the other critical element that retreats provide. An hour or two is simply not enough time to detach from the craziness of a day at school and reflect substantively on major tenets of faith. Young people need extended time to be immersed in a community of faith. Christian summer camp is one of the few places they can find this. Your retreat is another.

The learning goals at a retreat are also different than typical classroom goals. Retreats are not about covering material. You want participants to internalize three things:

  1.  This Christian community has my back.
  2.  This Jesus stuff is meaningful.
  3. I had fun at a church event.

Some well-meaning pastors and educators fill the retreat schedule with multiple lessons they would otherwise do in their regular classroom. This is the cardinal sin of confirmation retreats! Do not bring the classroom with you. A retreat is for greater depth, not wider breadth. Resist the temptation of becoming part of the firehose of information in the lives of these young people. Instead, choose one topic and dwell in it. Do an entire retreat on prayer or baptism or the second article of the creed. Ditch the Power Point and videos. This is not about imparting knowledge. It is about living differently.

At a retreat, relationship is the primary curriculum. Get to know your young people. Show them why faith is meaningful in your life. Structure the retreat with intentional ways of them getting to know one another. Use the retreat as a way for mentors to build relationships with their mentees.

Do you have a small group? You are not alone. Half of all Presbyterian programs have five or fewer young people. Join with other congregations and plan your retreat together. The first place to look is your local church camp, which is already equipped with sacred space, interactive activities, and staff that can help with group building or other program needs. In fact, a quarter of all Presbyterian camps offer specialized confirmation retreats designed to supplement the ministries of constituent congregations. If your camp has one of these, all you have to do is register and show up!

Give your confirmation students the gift of space and time. Demonstrate that discipleship is not something to learn but rather a lifelong journey of following the living Christ.

Jake Sorensen is the founder and director of Sacred Playgrounds, a ministry offering research and training to camps and congregations. He was the camp consultant and senior data analyst for The Confirmation Project (www.theconfirmationproject.com). He has a PhD in practical theology from Luther Seminary, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and more than 15 years of experience in camping ministry and congregational youth ministry. He has authored numerous articles on camping ministry, has taught in colleges and seminaries, and has presented at camps and conferences across the country. He lives in rural Wisconsin with his wife Anna (a Lutheran pastor) and their two boys, Elijah and Nathanael. He enjoys gardening, running, singing around the campfire, and most outdoor recreational activities. You can contact him at [email protected].