“Can We Answer Them When They Cry to Us?”
It has become a religious rite of spring. Most years, as we enter the homestretch of confirmation, one or more upset parents of confirmands call me to seek help with their determined tweenager who is refusing to go through with it. While 95 percent of the class moves forward to confirmation, the religious rebels dig in.
The encounter goes something like this: Their child does not want to become a Christian because Christianity is oppressive and irrelevant. Why would they want to join something so awful as the Christian Church? Mostly it’s tweenage girls who dissent and defend their anti-Christian turf (usually the tween boys have not matured in theological warfare yet). As an aside, my favorite challenge through the years came from a 13-year-old who announced he was a Buddhist. He completed the class but felt he needed to be true to his new-found Buddhist practices and not be confirmed. Fifteen years later, he is a practicing Buddhist. He remains my plumb line for confirmand resistance.
I celebrate the 288 tweens in my time at our church who have received the anointing oil of confirmation. They have inspired me all the days of my ministry. But it is the 15 who said “no” whose voices I hear calling in the night.
I sit down with my anti-Christian warrior and we talk (usually over ice cream and this year by Zoom). Every single one is sweet and loves First Church (although they offer biting critiques of our worship and other failures to be relevant). It is the rest of the Christian world they despise. They see Christians as right-wing, reactionary, and harmful to their friends who are LGBTQ and tweens of color. They believe Christian pastors and priests are money-hungry and abusive (“not you, Rev. Tim, just the rest of them”). Through these withering denouncements, I listen carefully. When appropriate I offer insights or rebuttals (trying not to sound defensive). They listen respectfully. But the high ground they have seized and the position they have claimed appear impenetrable. The older I get, the smarter they get. They all seemed destined to become great courtroom prosecutors.
Something Deeper is Going On
Serving in ordained ministry in local church settings for 36 years, I have seen and heard a lot. Because I have been senior minister of our large downtown church in Columbus, OH, for more than 21 years, I performed the weddings for many of their parents. I was there the day these tweens were born. I baptized them and raised most of them in the faith. I have known most of them most of their lives. As I look at them, in my head I am singing Tevye and Golde’s duet, “Sunrise, Sunset,” from Fiddler of the Roof: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older—when did they?”
I have lots of thoughts—some proud and hopeful, some worrisome—about my full-armor resisters. Probably in some cases they are pulling a power move with their parents. They are saying “no” because they can say “no.” It’s a powerful word. However, I believe something deeper is going on. Even though I want to support their choice about confirmation, whatever that choice becomes, I worry that they don’t see a global church growing and flourishing. They see an America church that is unresponsive and outright resistant to the changes in our culture and times.
I believe my anti-Christian warriors are canaries in the coal mine for American Christianity and First Congregational UCC. I have listened carefully to understand their songs and their messages. Beyond their beautiful songs, in the avian world canaries and all other birds have alarm calls, contact calls, begging calls and flight calls. As Christians, we only want to hear the sweet songs of our flocks of youngsters. Yet my rebellious tweenagers are not singing songs. They are sounding four different calls to me and others to pay attention and help them.
• They are lifting alarm calls. Alarm calls warn the other songbirds of an approaching raptor whose purpose is destruction and death by talons. My young alarmists have a “lover’s quarrel” with church and they need to be heard. Although they know I am with them in battling hate, oppression, sexism, racism and homophobia in church and society, they are sounding the alarm that they see the Christian church as silent and thus complicit in the abuse of women and men and those who are vulnerable to attack and abuse. They have friends in other churches who are wounded by the words of pastors and theology which isolates and alienates them week-in and week-out. Moreover, they see the refugees, immigrants, homeless, and abandoned youth and cry out, “Where is the church aiding and assisting the needs of the poor?” I answer, You and I are the church. What do you want to do that is not being done? Together we can address any wrong and protect and defend any one abandoned in their need. Often, our church’s response to injustice has started with our youngest, brightest, and best sounding the alarm.
• They are making contact calls. A bird issues a contact call to others to keep them aware of one’s presence and location. These sounds are short, quick, and quiet. If they get separated from their parents, the volume increases. It becomes a separation call, loud and urgent. My young warriors are telling me that they need our support and example. We try to answer their plaintive calls when teens are killed in mass school shootings or die by suicide, a deepening national crisis. Their cries for help get louder when they feel separated from the flock and get hungrier for real Christianity. One of my 2021 confirmands (not a rebel) lists his church activities as “feeding the homeless and reading his Bible.” How am I nurturing him? How is my support of his growth as a human and a person of faith making a difference in his life? I hope each one of you reading this will answer this question in your own situation. Contact calls are like texts and tweets. They are short, simple, and direct. But they create urgent connections and shape young lives of faith. Our tweens and teens need positive contact with us. They need our hopeful, joyful, and faithful presence in their lives. When they get separated from us, their volume increases. That’s my experience with tweenage anti-Christian warriors. Their contact cries for help become louder, more anxious the more distanced we become. Our challenge is to stay in contact with them.
• They are sounding begging calls. We know that young birds make “feed me” noises, often while simultaneously fluttering their wings to get their parents’ attention. They often repeat these calls until someone feeds them. Feeding our young is essential Christian practice. If we don’t give them healthy food for the soul, someone else will feed them, and there is no guarantee that their alternative food source won’t be toxic and well-disguised poison. Years ago, the late Brevard Childs, the great Bible scholar at YDS, told our large class of Introduction to Old Testament, “Long after people have forgotten your funny stories and your cute antidotes, they will still have the word of God. Give them the word of God. With God’s Word they will always be well-fed and sustained for their life’s journey.” We have to answer the begging calls coming from our young who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice.
• They are twittering flight calls. The truth is, confirmands are migratory creatures. Inevitably they will take flight following their confirmation process. The question is: will they fly together with us in formation or will they fly away? Have their parents, mentors, other church members, and pastors given them the tools to move through the winds of change and the crosscurrents of life and faith with confidence? Do they have the physical and emotional strength—an internal spiritual voice that encourages and guides them when they are in solo flight? How are we helping them take flight?
Teaching Them the Songs of Zion
Have we raised generations of Christians who can differentiate between songs and calls? Have we taught them to sing the songs of Zion in a strange and foreign land? Meanwhile, do we hear their calls of alarm, contact, begging, and flight? Can we answer them when they cry to us?
I started by telling you that 95 percent of my confirmands move into their decision to be confirmed with relative ease. I celebrate the 288 tweens in my time at our church who have received the anointing oil of confirmation. They have inspired me all the days of my ministry. But it is the 15 who stepped away, quit the process, said “no” to confirmation, or chose another path of faith whose voices I hear calling in the night.
I pray that you and I will awaken and respond to the rite of spring and the songs and calls of our beloved anti-Christian warriors before our young dissidents have all flown away and led the others to fly away with them.
The Rev. Tim Ahrens ’85 M.Div. received the YDS William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice in 2008. He earned a D.Min. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2015, with a thesis entitled “Young and Growing Stronger: Creating a Model of Social Justice with a New Generation of 21st-Century Prophetic Witness Leaders.”