When seven young members of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church knelt at the altar last week (Pentecost Sunday) to reaffirm their faith, they were participating in a centuries-old Christian ceremony repeated in many churches this spring.
Youth confirmation, in which a young person publicly affirms the vows his parents made during infant baptism, also is a rite of passage.It's a big event for the young people, culminating two years of classes in which they study the Christian faith and the Lutheran catechism, said John Erickson, teacher of the class at Our Saviour's.
People who join a church as adults are also confirmed. But that usually takes place separately from youth confirmation.
"Before confirmation class, I really didn't know what the church was about," said Jerry Block. "I didn't understand why I was coming to church, what God was about. After two years, I know most of what God has done for us, how he works in our lives, what difference he has made in my life. I understand what he does for us."
"I think it's neat we're going to be treated like adults now, have some say in what goes on in the church," said Polly Pearson. The young people will now be voting members in congregation affairs.
Other teenagers took a more pragmatic view. "I'm just glad we made it through two years. It wasn't as hard as I expected, but it wasn't easy either," said Gene Busse.
In the Lutheran Church, said Erickson, confirmation traditionally takes place in the eighth or ninth grade. "Basically it's an arbitrary age. Those have been the traditional age groups for many years. It's a time when young people are becoming young adults, a time when they begin to make their own decisions about things and about life. The church also feels it is a time they can make their own decision to publicly affirm their baptism.
"We believe as Lutherans they become part of God's family at baptism as infants, and through confirmation they become full members of the church."
Another preliminary in many congregations is questioning of the young people before the church board or the entire congregation. The Our Saviour's class was questioned by the church council several weeks ago. "It's not so much a testing for them as for them to have a chance to meet the church council," said Erickson.
"It felt like a courtroom," said Eric Hackbarth, "everyone staring at us and listening to what we had to say." But, said Busse, the scariness wore off after they found the questions weren't that hard. Besides, he said, "we knew we were going to be confirmed even if we didn't do very well."
"The only real test for confirmation is their own decision, under the guidance of the pastor and myself, whether they feel they can stand up in front of the congregation and honestly make a public declaration of faith," said Erickson.
The youths helped plan the confirmation service, giving sermonettes or readings and choosing the hymns. They even hired a limousine to drive them to church.
In some churches confirmation is also when the young person first takes Communion. Erickson said that is no longer necessarily true in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and most members of the confirmation class have been taking Communion since fifth grade.
"We do not want confirmation to be a graduation. And it's not something we do to them, it's something they do for themselves." He said the young people also took on new responsibilities - they were given a list of volunteer jobs in the church and each signed up for something.
According to a Lutheran booklet, in early days of the church baptism was mostly for adults. But by the fourth century, infant baptism had become common. First Holy Communion was the next step in the child's religious life. Confirmation became a separate rite under Pope Innocent I's influence in the fifth century.
Practices vary among churches. In the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, said the Rev. Merlyn Wagner of Christ Lutheran Church, confirmation is the time of first Communion. Young people study the meaning of Communion as part of three years of confirmation classes.
The Rev. David Crockett of Cottonwood Presbyterian Church said its young people also attend a pre-confirmation class on history and teachings of the faith.
More important, though, he said, they develop their own faith statement about "who is Jesus Christ to you."
Communicants meet before the session or the governing body of the church to give their faith statement and answer questions about their faith.
He said Cottonwood Presbyterian just lowered its confirmation age to eighth grade. Some believe the age should be higher, he said, because older youths can develop a better faith statement. "But we were also dealing with the reality that youths tend to fade from activity in the church in the critical junior-senior high period. We want to offer encouragement to make a faith statement at an earlier age." Cultural pressures were also involved, he said, since LDS youngsters are baptized at age 8.
In the Catholic Church, confirmation is one of the seven sacraments - unlike the Protestant tradition, where it is not a sacrament.
The Rev. Thomas M. McGreevy, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, the University of Utah Newman Center, said there are many different ideas about the meaning of confirmation for Catholics. In the early church, he said, people were typically baptized as adults and were confirmed at the same time. "It seems to be a sacrament meant to complete the graces that Christ offers to the members of his body in the sacrament of baptism," he said - one meant to help the individual not only share in the life of Christ, but to share that life in love, service and concern with other people.
Since people now are usually baptized as infants, he said, practices regarding confirmation vary. In the United States, the age of confirmation was once about 8 or 9, then shifted to seventh or eighth grade. In his parish candidates are now asked to wait until they are 17 years old.
However, in some parishes there's a reaction against this trend. Some want to return the age to about 7, when the child first receives the Eucharist, he said.