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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ask the Matriarch—Baptizing/Confirming the Christmas'n'Easter crowd

Sorry this is late! I'm on the west coast this week, and so 6 pm is three hours later than usual, for me.

One of our readers wrote in with this:

I’ve got a baptism coming up for a 12-year-old boy. In preparation, we’ve been meeting to talk about what it means. Normally, I’d do a pastor’s class, but he’s the only youth considering baptism at this point. All of this has happened at his mother’s request. Yet, this family hardly ever comes to church. They’ve been only once since Christmas because the little boy plays ball. He has games out of town every weekend. I don’t know – I just don’t feel good about this baptism.

How do you approach a situation when the parents want their child to be baptized into a community of faith but they have absolutely no interest in being a part of the community? I know I’m passing judgment – and I feel guilty about that too! But, it bothers me that this child is being baptized into a faith family, and we probably won’t see him again until Christmas Eve. I don’t get the impression that church is a priority for his parents at all. Any advice? An experiences to share?

I have my own thoughts that I'm going to put in the comments later, because I'm not a matriarch and while sometimes I'm comfortable sharing advice in this column, I'm not going to go out on a theological limb in the column itself. But then the matriarch's responses came in, and we got interesting feedback from both sides.

Karen says: Do you know the whole story?
"What else do you know about the family dynamics at work here? It could be that the Mom really wishes the family were more active, but she's fighting against her husband's disinterest.

"We've got a similar situation in my congregation right now. The Mom wants the family to go to church. The Dad isn't interested and plays the "Sunday is my one day to be with the kids" card. "Be with the kids" means being heavily involved in their Sunday sports activities. Not wanting to make an already rocky marriage rockier, she doesn't fight this too hard, thus she and the kids come to church only sporadically. I'm sure when these kids reach confirmation age, she'll want them to do it. And I'd want to support her in that. You may be right on the mark that church is not a priority for this family, but just be aware that things aren't always what they seem."

Abi says: There's an opportunity here
"You know, if you are meeting with him about baptism, then you can address what being baptised means to him and what your denomination understands it to mean into the body of Christ. And when you meet with his parents you can emphasize that too. Perhaps hook them up with a family or a mentor of someone who can get them interested in coming to church and getting involved in the church.

"You say it doesn't mean much, but it must mean something that they want him baptized, so maybe find out why and what is holding them back from their own involvement? Find out if they are baptised or not. Once when I was to baptize a girl, found out that the whole family was not. In meeting with them and discussing baptism with them, was able to get them all baptized. We were able to get the children coming regularly to church, even if the parents weren't. Don't miss an opportunity here. But use your discomfort to move you to be proactive on the part of the child to the family. There is a new study out that states the impact of children attending church that was done by Mississsippi State University. You could use that with them to encourage their involvement in church."

Singing Owl says: Err on the side of inclusion
"On the one hand, I do not think you are being unduly judgmental. Even Jesus said we know a tree by its fruit. It is a very reasonable question to enquire why someone wants to be baptized into the church, into the "Body" if there is no connection. Perhaps the answer might differ depending on denomination and expectations regarding baptism, but if the boy is 12, he can express his opinions and listen to yours, even though mama requested the meetings. (I wonder why?)

"Is it possible that this boy has more understanding, or more faith, or more connection, than his parents do? We have a young lady of 16 in our congregation who was baptized a few years ago. Her family all started attending about the same time, but she was the one of the family who seemed to understand the most, the one who seemed to really want to be a 'disciple.' Her family stayed a short time, and now are pretty much C and E attendees. Except for the daughter. She is an absolute joy. She has grown in her faith, grown as a person, grown in courage...she shines. I did not
necessarily think this would be the case.

"Otherwise, maybe a conversation with mother is in order? Maybe I should mention that once this young teenager decided she was part of our church, she asked to be picked up for church, and when the family left town she often stayed behind because church was important. Not saying that will be the case with this boy, but might it? All that to say, if the boy understands what he is doing and why, I'd err on the side of inclusion."

Peripatetic Polar Bear says: Listen to the kid's reasons
"Does the boy want to be baptized? He is old enough to have a say and take some responsibility in this. At 12, I don't really care how involved his parents are in the church community. At 12, it needs to be about him—about his involvement and his desire, his faith. If he wants to worship but cannot attend due to a lack of a ride, I'd get the session or deacons or vestry or whoever involved in making that happen.

"If he doesn't really want to do this, then I'd be facilitating a nice conversation with mom about this being his decision. Yes, ball games (argh, the blessed, blessed ball games) are a problem—but they are probably not 52 weeks of the year. Is he attending youth group or any other activities that happen outside of Sunday morning during those ball game seasons?

"It is a conundrum. Twelve is not an adult, but it's not really an infant either. In infant baptism, it is the parents and the congregation making the statement of faith. With an adult, it's the individual. With a 12-year-old, it needs to be something in between that. And just because mom wants to have this 'done' doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Likewise, mom and dad's inactivity need not impact the child's potential for membership."


  1. Yes. I agree with the matriarchs. The emphasis needs to be on the 12 year old, not the parents, per se. Yes, it is the parents (mom) who got him there, for whatever reason. But the son is not an infant, he too has something to say about this. I'd find out if this is something the boy really wants. I know I wanted to be baptized even though it was not important to my parents. And I was only nine. SO. maybe he does want this. But if he doesn't really get it or want it then I'd ask his parents for a conversation about why this is so important to them (her, mom)....and then that conversation is where I'd go from there. I'd also spend time teaching them that baptism and what it means in your tradition...

  2. I think I would want to hear the young man's thoughts. If mom is the one who wants this, and he does not, I would explain to her that at 12, he is too old to be baptized as an infant would be, with his parents making all the promises.
    Of course mom may be calling because 12-year-old boys aren't good on the phone. I recently baptized the 4-year-old daughter of C and E church members, because she asked to be baptized herself. We used the order for child baptism, but before I asked her parents anything, I asked the young lady to say her name and asked if she wished to be baptized. Her intense and emphatic "yes" had a powerful impact on the entire congregation. We then went on to ask the questions of the parents and to baptize her.
    I think it's a good idea to hear the whole story and to be prepared to say either yes or no, as the Spirit suggests.

  3. I really appreciate this question and the answers from the Matriarchs.

    About 3 years ago there were 25 youth in the confirmation class at the church I served as Director of Christian Education. After the confirmation, the attendance and participation in worship and youth group dropped to less than 1/4 of that number.

    I would have predicted that based on the families involved. I've struggled with whether we failed the kids by not really making it their decision or whether the exposure to the class may bring fruit later in their lives we just don't see now.

    At the end of the day, I'm not comfortable with treating confirmation as a "coming of age" ritual. But I struggle with how to avoid that.

  4. My 12 year old was confirmed recently, along with about 60 others. About 1/4 I recognized (even in their dress up clothes!), but even though I am at one or two services a weekend, the majority were strangers. Having participated in the formation of the candidates, I know why. At a session about "the Body of Christ", in my group of 10, only 2 attended church regularly, another few sporadically and the remainder were C/E. As I think about working with the next group, I've struggle with "should I bother?" "what can we do as a community to bring these families/kids into fuller communion?" and "can I let the Spirit work as SHE will, not I?"

    In the end, my 40 yr old never confirmed brother's journey this year gives me hope. The seeds from his early very sporadic religous formation (my family lived in a rural area where the church had no education for teens) sprouted this year and he was confirmed in January. The work done long ago certainly played a role in his choice to return to church. I think I need to be willing to plant seeds that I won't know if they ever bear fruit or not!

    So at the moment, I'm coming down on the side that these people are choosing some connection with church for their child, to fail to nourish it in whatever way they can accept seems contrary to the lavishness that God approaches us with.

  5. Jesus was in the Temple questioning his heart out at 12 years old..they tell us. The child is at an age where Songbird is right. Mom and he, must know this will be his own decision and promises.

    Baptism is becoming a member of the church...the basic membership.

    In the churches I've been in Confirmation was at age 13. Now it's often later. It is a tricky question.

    Give all the information up front. It is the child's decision
    So, speak with him alone, so he can say on his own where he, himself, stands on this. He should not be pushed into this.

    Funny how we would not even think of allowing a person of this age to marry and make "people-promises", but will often do that for "God-promises". Marriage is two people and God.

    His father may be an undermining part of this, but I went through all of this without my parents being church-goers. I would have felt pushed out, or not accepted by a church that refused to accept what I knew to be what I dearly wanted. It made all the difference in my life.

    The spirit will guide you...take some time with the child and get his understanding and then the nudge will tell you what you need to know.

    Thank you God, for what you're going to do!

  6. This is where the catholic bits of Anglican theology come in handy, because I'd say that Baptism is a Sacrament, which has an objective power of its own, regardless of the shortcomings or fervour of the boy's own faith. So that means that I'm willing to baptise anyone who asks, giving great thanks for the responses in our service which run
    "With the help of God, I will..."
    His call!

  7. My pastor would also tend to "err on the side of inclusion"; would point out that, even if the kid's or the parents' reasons for seeking baptism aren't fully formed, so to speak (the "fire insurance" baptism, the "we're doing this for Grandma" baptism, etc.)...there's still a sense there that baptism matters. And that's something that can be built upon.

  8. I would come down on the side of talking alone to the boy, seeing if it is really his desire, doing it if so (and helping him find a way to be connected) and helping him stand up to his mom if not.

    I have various experiences informing my thinking, mine and others.

    I had completely lapsed/atheist parents, and became involved in church voluntarily at this age and it was a passionate commitment and refuge from abuse and addiction at home.

    My husband was the one kid in his confirmation class to take it seriously enough to refuse the sacrament when he wasn't ready, to great harassment from his parents and pastor alike. By the next year when he chose to do it, pretty much every other kid there had stopped going to church and youth group, and he became extremely involved in both, youth deacon, etc.

    My best friend grew up like me with no family formation, and likewise began going to church as a teen. Since she was in the evangelical/charismatic context she was never baptized till my second year of college, her third, and it was a tremendously powerful experience I was greatly jealous of (since my parents had infant baptized me just before decamping). I have come to appreciate my own baptism and am all for baptizing infants of committed and even semi committed parents--on the "err on the side of inclusion" principle. But since he's past the age for that if he doesn't truly want this or it means little I would hate to see him lose the opportunity for a freely chosen and meaningful adult experience of this sacrament later.

    And our own RevGal Kate tells of being pressured into baptism and confirmation at 12 and 13 by her mom and not only getting nothing out of it but the guilt about making promises she didn't believe in (precisely because she is so spiritual) later became an initial hindrance to her rediscovery of church and a strong and growing vocation to ministry. Hopefully she will speak up here herself but in the meantime you can check out her story





  9. Oops, Catholic bias showing. Should have referred to my sweetie's confirmation as an ordinance or ??? (help me out here) rather than a sacrament as it happened in a PCUSA congregation.

  10. Mother Laura's told my tale pretty well; I'll just repeat my plea to talk to the kid alone, find out what _he_ wants and how _he_ feels.

    If I'd been able to hold out against my mom then, things might be very different now. I feel very much as if I wasn't _really_ baptized, as if it didn't take, because I didn't believe.

    Which it did, of course, from a theological perspective (at least I think so, anyway) but then there's the way I feel about it...

    I'd like to do something to mark my actual acceptance of Christianity, but I don't know what's left. I can't get baptized twice, can I?

    Possibly best to continue this on my blog, as it's getting to be far more about me and far less about this boy with whom I sympathise without knowing enough of his story to know if I should...

  11. tomorrow I'll definitely be confirming at least 2 C&E-ers. They claim they want to be more involved, but I'll believe it when I see it. The other 18, though, are at least youth we see around, even if only in worship once or twice a month. We'll see what happens, I guess. I had one-on-one meetings with all 20 youth and offered them the out more than once. All 20 have decided to go ahead, so I guess that's something...

    this is me, trying to remember and take to heart Oscar Romero's words about watering and being a worker, not the growth giver/master builder. I don't always get to see the results of the Spirit and the seeds...I just water and water and hope and pray.

  12. That's about all you can do, Teri. About all any of us can do, and leave the rest up to God...

    Gonna pray for you and for the kids you're confirming.

  13. I have dealt with similar situations, because the church I pastor is 110 years old, and a lot of people have sentimental attachments to having the events of life happen there (baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc) without a regular attachment to the day to day or week to week community of the congregation. My feeling is "an inch closer to God is better than an inch furthur away." I myself was a 12 year old like the one you described. My mom mostly went to church because of the singles group. But what happened to me there gave me a place to return to after some forays into rather toxic expressions of the faith, and that led me into ministry. Never underestimate the evangelistic capacity of the Sacraments. There is real transformative power there. This young man's baptism could have effects that may be years in happening, or it could change the life of the family right now.

    Additionally, I would suggest, based on Acts 8, that the only requirement for baptism is faith, of the individual or her parents. As much as we would like to attach the dispensing of the Sacraments to community membership, I am not sure, based on the situation of the Ethiopian eunuch, that it would be appropriate to do so.


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