Our teens need to know they belong – doubts, hard questions, and all. In this church, they do.

Our teens need to know they belong – doubts, hard questions, and all. In this church, they do.

Our kids haven’t had an easy time these last few years.

As the parent of a teen, I’ve been paying close attention to the effects the pandemic and the social isolation that came with it has had on my daughter and her peers. It’s a lot to take in. Statistically, teens are more at risk than ever – 20% of high schoolers say they’ve at least thought about committing suicide, and after the pandemic, over 44% of them report feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

It’s hard to know what we can give our kids at a time like this. While I am never sure what to do, there’s one place we can always return to: community. Can we give our youth a real sense of belonging? A community where they feel safe, supported, and seen? A place to bring their doubts and questions and be met without judgment?

Like a lot of churches, Winnetka Congregational Church practices something called confirmation. Confirmation is a time for young teens to talk about God, faith, the church, and think about what they believe about all of it. In my experience with different religious traditions, I’ve come across confirmation processes that involve signing off on a set of dogmatic beliefs, professing unquestioning faith, and promising that you’ll never change your mind. In some churches, confirmation seems like a way to determine who’s out and who’s in. And sometimes it feels like it demands that your young person not think and simply follow the exact instructions, to churn out as many newly minted Christians as possible.

My daughter’s freedom to change, question, grow and think for herself is something I’ve worked hard to protect as her father. And the last thing I’d want for her is a confirmation experience that was the opposite of that.

One of the things that drew me to Winnetka Congregational Church, and that’s kept us here, is that this isn’t a faith community that’s about the dogma. We don’t expect anyone, from our youngest kids to our beloved seniors, to just fall in line and keep their doubts to themselves. WCC is centered around the love of God, and the safety that love gives us to acknowledge that we ALL have questions we can’t answer. Faith is a mystery, and not having it all figured out is an experience we share with our kids, every day.

So, we do confirmation a little differently here. We embrace those who are ready to become members of the church, and those who aren’t. The confirmation process is all about asking our youth questions that get them thinking about their faith, about what’s important to them, and how (or if) they feel they experience God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in their lives. We plan events and provide mentorship to create space for them to bring beliefs and doubts and start to practice what it means to walk the talk as a community that is open to ALL people, wherever they are on their journey.

Through this process, the youth discover that their questions are everyone’s questions. They get a chance to share the doubts that feel so overwhelming, even damning, to them and find out that the adults around them struggle with the exact same things. And they wind up leading and inspiring us all through the crystal-clear ways that they express their thoughts.

For example, here are some of their thoughts on the Bible:

“Today in this current moment I understand the Bible to be the way in which we learn how to treat each other. The way we treat our earth and all the wonderful things that exist upon it.“

“To me, the Bible is a book of morals told through stories. These morals symbolize what God is, and what God believes in. Whenever I am reading the Bible, I experience the Holy Spirit.”

And about church:

“I love our church because every time I go to church, I find new people in the church. Our church includes anyone no matter the color of their skin, their gender or sexuality. Our church never tells them they are wrong, or they have to think about something else.”

“Being a church is being a family who won’t judge you for your beliefs or past, which I think we are. A church is a place you can go to and feel safe and wanted, to be able to be yourself truly. I don’t know exactly where I am with my beliefs with God but I do know this: I want to be a part of something that makes me a better person.”

“In confirmation class we went on a retreat where we…had an activity where one of us had to hold a rope tight while another one of us used that rope as support while crossing a tightrope. And when it was my turn to hold the rope tight, I realized that this is what church is all about, working together as one to reach one goal.”

About Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and the ways they experience God:

“I see the Holy Spirit as explanation to the unexplainable. And in this current moment, I know God to be love.”

“I think that I experience the Holy Spirit whenever I am cared for or when I care for someone.”

“I think that Jesus is the human embodiment of that concept of church working together as one towards one goal. Jesus treated all of his followers as he would treat himself. Just like how a church treats every one of its members with respect.”

“I think that God is like the ocean and we are all drops that originate from that one ocean. I see this when everyone cares about each other. God is in every one of us. I think God is a foundation that brings people together.”

“Participating in confirmation class this past year challenged me to figure out what I believe about God, regardless of what other people may believe or have told me. I finally feel like today I can say truthfully, I believe God is a spiritual aspect of our lives. I believe God is in our hearts and in nature. I believe that in the world God connects people.”

When our teens get to the end of the confirmation process, they get to share these faith statements with the church. And no matter where they land on confirmation day – whether they believe in God, or don’t, whether they want to join the church, or not – we celebrate them.

Here’s an excerpt from the Rite of Confirmation Jeff led them through this month:

This was, from the beginning, an open process. Both parents, faith guides, mentors, and I have asked that these youth commit to the Confirmation journey, and then, to discern for themselves. And, they have!

And so, we celebrate each of them.

We honor the sacred fruit of their discernment ― whatever they’ve decided.

And we affirm that if you grew up in this church…
… then you are forever a part of our spiritual family,
… and you will always have a safe place here
… whether or not you choose to join in a formal way.

To me, the way that Jeff, and the church as a whole, give our young people the freedom to discern for themselves is a beautiful picture of faith. It’s the kind of faith that says: “I trust you.” The kind of faith that looks at hard questions and says “Yeah, I’ve wondered that too. I don’t have all the answers, but I can go there with you, and you aren’t alone.”

I think that’s exactly what our kids need most right now.

I love the way that the confirmation process created space for my daughter to be honest about her convictions, to ask her hardest questions, and to be loved exactly as she is. I love that we never pressure our youth to draw conclusions or conform. And I love that because of the freedom and unconditional love they are given, issues that might feel overwhelming to our young people become the mysteries we’re all holding together. They become a welcome part of our family.

Our kids learn that no matter where they are in their journey, no matter how hard it gets, no matter what – they belong.

And that – just like we read over and over in their faith statements – is what being a church is all about.