Friday, July 17, 2009

Confirmation and Parochial Schools

Let's imagine a town like Seward in the year 1940. Our imaginary town did not have a Lutheran college, a Lutheran high school or a Lutheran elementary school, but did have a rather large Lutheran Church. What was the religious education in our imaginary town in 1940?

Children went to church every Sunday with their families. Everyone in the family wore nice clothes when they went to church. The males, even little boys, wore suits and ties and polished shoes. The females wore pretty dresses and often hats and gloves. After the church service, the children attended Sunday school for an hour. Then the whole family returned home and ate a Sunday meal, which was the best meal of the week.

When the children were in seventh and eighth grades, they attended confirmation classes, taught in the church by the pastor. These classes were a few hours every week, perhaps in the afternoons after school or perhaps on Saturday morning. During those two years those students were expected to attend church services on weekday evenings during Lent. Attending these confirmation classes and Lenten services was a bother, but you usually had a few cousins who were in the same boat, so you couldn't play hookey, because maybe a cousin would snitch.

One consolation in attending confirmation classes and Lenten services was that there were occasional opportunities to socialize with kids of the opposite sex. Seventh and eighth graders are beginning to become interested in sexual situations. Sometimes during confirmation classes the pastor talked about marriage and other sexual issues (topics that were avoided in the public schools). The pre-confirmation kids might form a special choir to sing at the Lenten services, so there would be choir practices. All around these various activities there were opportunities for the boys and girls to banter and flirt in circumstances that celebrated their physical maturation. On the day when they were confirmed, they ceased being boys and girls and became men and women.

After confirmation, much of the control on their religious activities was relaxed. They no longer had to attend confirmation classes. They attended Lenten classes less frequently or not at all. When they attended Sunday services they were allowed to sit away from their parent and with their friends, and then they might play hookey from the post-service Bible classes.

The confirmation experience sufficed, however, to maintain these young people in their religion until they married and had their own children. When they themselves became parents they took their own children to church every Sunday, repeating the pattern.

The interval between confirmation and marriage was about six to eight years. You were confirmed at age 13 and you got married when you were around 19 to 21. During that interval, there were enough church activities to maintain a young-adult seriousness about your religion. Even if your Sunday church attendance slacked off, you attended various weddings and funerals that reminded you about the church's role in a proper life. You belonged to a church softball team or to a church bowling team. You went to church picnics and fund-raising bazaars. You participated in the Walther Leauge. You served as a counselor at a church summer camp. You sang in a youth choir that practiced for and then performed in the Easter and Christmas services.

This system was reinforced by extended families. People married within their religion and had lots of uncles and aunts and cousins. The system resonated with the church seasons, which resonated with the agricultural seasons, which resonated with the town's economy. The system fit with a life cycle in which people married at around age 20 and then gave birth to children within a few years. The system suffered relatively little competition from alternative entertainment for young people.

Now into our imaginary little town we will add a Lutheran elementary school in the year 1941. Then we will jump ahead 25 years to the year 1966. The school's enrollment has grown from zero to about 200. (That was the growth of St John School, which grew from about 152 in 1941 to 362 in 1966.) In 1966, the school's seventh and eighth grades each have about 25 students, totaling about 50 students. Those 50 students now receive their confirmation instruction -- a far better instruction -- in their Lutheran school.

Out of necessity, the old confirmation system continued to exist during those 25 years from 1941 to 1966, but it became impoverished. Those seventh and eighth graders who did not attend the Lutheran school continued to attend confirmation classes at the church, but the classes had fewer students. In general, those remaining children belonged to families that were less informed about, and less committed and engaged in the church congregation and the Lutheran religion.

Furthermore, those remaining children were distracted increasingly by television, by popular culture, and by school athletics and other extra-curricular activities. Still, this old system in which some young people receive confirmation instruction at the Lutheran school while others receive it at church has continued to survive until the present time, but it has become less and less effective in perpetuating religion in the family for those receiving confirmation instruction at church

Other factors that were not present in 1940 now negatively impact the situation. Today, marriages are delayed and fewer people die before old age, so some religious concerns are postponed. The interval between confirmation and parenthood now stretches out to 12 to 15 or more years. During that increased interval, young people drift farther and farther away from their families and what was their religion. More and more frequently, they then marry outside their family religion.

On the other hand, families that want more seriously to perpetuate the religion continue to use the Lutheran elementary school to educate their children much more intensely through confirmation in the eighth grade. This better religious education raises the probability that young people will pair up and eventually will marry within their shared religion, and then will re-activate themselves in the church with their own children.

Unfortunately, many parents decided in recent years to withdraw their children from religious elementary schools and to give their children their religious educations instead at church through the old confirmation system, which does still function, but very ineffectively. Ironically, the religious elementary schools have impoverished that old confirmation system where they have co-existed. Everywhere, however, the old confirmation system has become very ineffective, because it no longer fits into our society well, like it did fit 70 or more years ago.

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