“The Tribe13 Experiment”
A true story about a different kind of
children & youth group, and Confirmation experience
by Neil MacQueen
This article (treatise?) has several sections of varying details for those who wish to go deeper.
This is a true story about not accepting the status quo, or following traditions and assumptions about ” the right way” to do children’s ministry, youth group, or Confirmation class.
We did an experiment with a group of kids that last seven years and taught us many things. I hope our experiment, it’s insights, outcomes, and unanswered questions will help your ministry.
The American Church now has 5+ decades of experience creating youth groups and conducting Confirmation classes to usher teens into church membership and claim their faith as their own. And yet statistically, and undeniably speaking, that experience has failed to bring kids back to the church as adults. The emperor has no clothes. As a parent and pastor, I take that problem very seriously. Children and Youth ministry is supposed to be about setting our kids on the road to lifelong discipleship.
In 2001, I was lucky enough to be in the right church at the right time with the right group of parents and kids to try and RE-THINK our kids’ journey through our children and youth ministry. We called it the “Tribe 13 Experiment.”
- The Tribe13 Experiment grew out of my 25+ years experience and insights in youth ministry, family ministry, and raising three kids.
- The “Experiment” sought to overcome many of the chronic problems and unmet goals of traditional children and youth ministry, including the Confirmation experience.
- It sought to create a family atmosphere among the kids, and include their families.
- And it sought to re-invent our Confirmation experience in the process.
In many ways, Tribe13 functioned like a typical good children or youth group, but with several significant differences.
One of the BIG differences
The Tribe 13 Experiment challenged the assumption that churches should group and move kids by grades like the public schools do. We questioned the wisdom of sending 6th graders “up” to the youth group each year, which in our church, meant ripping them away from the 4th and 5th graders they had grown up with in the church and become friends with. (And the older teens didn’t appreciate having the “kids” come into their group every year.) In our town, the school system didn’t agree on where and when to “move up” their grades, and decided to build a school for 6th graders only. We simply asked, “can we keep the natural peer groups that already existed in our church, together, like a family?”
What had we structured our classes and groups by grade anyway? Kid naturally have friends in different grades, if we let them. And unlike the public schools, our curriculum and activities weren’t so grade dependent. We wanted them to be friends, and be a family, so why were creating classes and groups that arbitrarily lopped off a grade each year to move them “up”?
The Simple Question & Big Opportunity
Why not keep kids together? We were lucky in our church to see that we had two grades of kids who had already bonded with each other when they were in the 1st and 2nd grade. So we thought, why not keep them together as one family through the transitions of 5th and 6th grade, and have them go through Confirmation together? And why not transition them into youth ministry-style opportunities, without splitting them up? (or forcing the older teens to accept the “little kids”?)
- Who splits up a family?
- Why split off your oldest children and send them into a group of teenagers RIGHT on the cusp of puberty, self-consciousness, and self-esteem?
We also made several other changes to their experience which the rest of this article will share.
You might have 3 such younger grades in your church that already begun to bond . The point is, YOU decide based on who your kids are. The other point is, stop thinking like the public schools and the past 40 years of youth ministry (which didn’t produce young adults coming back to the pews).
A Brief Description of Tribe 13
♦ We took our 1st and 2nd graders and formed them into one group. “Tribe 13.”
♦ We kept them together each year. The first year they were 1st and 2nd graders together, the next year they were 2nd and 3rd graders together, and so on. Didn’t matter what school they went to (they went to many different school, actually.) We completely dropped the “grade” distinction altogether. It held no meaning to us. We were Tribe 13. We taught them that they were a family.
♦ We gathered a group of three parent-leaders who committed to being the Tribe’s leaders for the next 6 years through Confirmation. Those 3 parents committed to being more than event leaders.
♦ We involved every Tribe member’s parents in some leadership role, and as we held some meetings in homes, the parents stepped into leadership, the other family members joined us in those home meetings.
♦ We also involved the siblings of the Tribe members, both younger and older. We reached out to a teen brother or college age sister to join us for games, help lead discussion, and go on a retreat with us. Family.
♦ The Tribe took part in our children’s ministry fellowship on Wednesday night, dinner, and sometimes playing games with the rest of the group. But then they had their own family time and course of study. We did normal things you would do with them when they were young. But as they grew older together, we started to do more ‘youth fellowship-style’ things with them.
♦ We could have added a third grade group to the Tribe, but in our particular small church, we didn’t have a kid in the grade “above,” and the two children in the grade “below” the Tribe were good friends with kids in the grade below them. So our group was a natural grouping for us. Yours might vary. And we left open the possibility of adding a kid to the Tribe as needed, including friends of the kids who wanted to join.
To the Tribe 13 kids, leaders, and parents, the group was a great success. Many goals were met, we became close, the parents were very appreciative and got to know each other through our programming, attendance grew and stayed strong, and we had an amazing Confirmation experience.
As the Tribe got older, we started to do more “youth fellowship style” experiences with them.
How and Why We Started Tribe 13
Change is hard! And Tribe 13 was new to everyone in our church. Here’s the story of how we pulled it off.
After resurrecting a failing Wednesday Night fellowship program and building attendance, we recognized that 12 of our kids were coming from just two grades, …and really enjoyed each other’s company. One of those 12 was my youngest daughter.
Our traditional fellowship night had dinner, games, music, and lesson time, all led by different people. It was the “LOGOS” model, which tends to have a “revolving door of volunteers” approach to staffing the program. For lesson time, we split into age appropriate groups, and I taught the lesson to the 12-or so kids who happened to come from those two grades, and who would eventually become Tribe 13. My lesson leaders and I began asking to “stay” with that group through lesson, music, and games. And then we asked to be their leaders all the time for each activity, recognizing that our relationship with the kids was the key to success (and leaders who didn’t know our kids weren’t doing a good job of leading them).
I was also looking down the road. My two older daughters had gone through a barely acceptable “Confirmation” experience. In fact, I was upset that my kids had such a poor experience, and I resolved that it would not happen to my third daughter.
That’s when my leaders and I hatched the idea for Tribe 13. We took it to the parents who very supportive, then approached the pastor and church Session. Some had misgivings, but ultimately, we got the permission to form those two grades into their own fellowship group with a unique long-range plan (described in this article) with this simple goal: to not only help those kids and their families grow together in faith, but arrive at Confirmation and their youth group years as “New and Improved“.
The Confirmation Part
One of the reasons we got permission to start Tribe 13 was because we touched “The Confirmation Nerve.” Our pastor dreaded teaching the class, as many secretly do, and few parents and kids looked forward to it. It had become a gauntlet to run, and one that often resulted in young teenagers NOT returning to church very often.
So we asked:
“What could this group’s Confirmation experience be like five years from now, if we changed the kid’s church experience and they entered Confirmation as a family already prepared to join, and already knowing what traditional Confirmation would teach them? ”
The parents loved the “family” emphasis.
The pastor loved the “Confirmation goal.”
Other leaders liked that we were saying, “we will do all this.”
Not everyone was on-board. A few of the youth group leaders, church leaders and parents of kids NOT in the Tribe expressed concerns. “Why didn’t they want to send us their 6th graders? How will we survive if we don’t get a new grade each year to replace the grade we lose?” “Does this mean you’re not going to teach the Apostle’s Creed or Church History?” “Will my child get the same great experience?”
To some, it didn’t matter how we answered those questions, they were uncomfortable with change, and uncomfortable with what our change “said” about past efforts they had supported. And then some folks are just naysayers, because “no” is easier than “yes.” What we promised them was that we would be transparent, address needs, report successes and failures, and turn our experiment into a comprehensive plan once we knew how it was going to turn out! …which was years in the future. And for some reason, “The Tribe 13 Experiment” received unanimous approval.
A Couple of the Big Differences in How Tribe 13 Operated
- We still met mostly on Wednesdays, and ate dinner with the other kids, occasionally playing and participating with them. But we also began to move away from the dinner-game-lesson format.
- We wanted to meet in member homes. Parents loved that, by the way, and hosted us. The Tribe member would show us their room and favorite possession/toys. Parents passed around photos. We all got to know the younger and older siblings who might help us lead a game in the living room.
- We began doing things beyond Wednesday night, more youth-group-like events than children’s groups tend to do.
- A big emphasis became “Friends Go to Friends Life-events.” It wasn’t unusual for Tribe 13 to show up to a member’s recital or soccer game. The impact on the kid who’s life event we were attending was tremendous, and the parents loved seeing the church group in the stands cheering wildly. Do that Saturday, and you could BET that family was in church on Sunday.
- If you were sick, a Tribe leader and couple of Tribe members would bring ice cream (after checking with the parents).
- We celebrated birthdays, decided on some Wednesday nights to split and go get Fro-Yo (parents providing transportation), and
- We got together to work on leading things in worship (how to read, lead a prayer, etc) and took over the Ash Wednesday service.
- We did service projects together, which children’s groups rarely do, and often did them for older church members -so that the kids felt more connections within the congregation as they got older. The older members loved this too.
- And we started to infuse our lesson-times with content that Confirmation kids traditionally tackled. Yes, when they were all in the 4th and 5th grade, we did a Church History retreat! Seeing our pastor arrive in the woods dressed as Martin Luther was a special treat.
We wanted Tribe 13 to become “your circle of friends,” and not just a group you sometimes attended at church. The parents loved this too, because it gave them friends in the church as well, the other kids’ parents. Even youth groups tend to act like teens have no life outside the group. With Tribe 13, we found a way to make the Tribe become part of each child’s life, things outside the church that were important to THEM.
The Problem with Traditional Programming
All the research and stats say that we’re moving kids into new groups PRECISELY at the most important time in their life when they are making their decision about church affiliation and faith. Is it any coincidence, then, that groups tend to lose kids at these transition points?
Tribe 13’s emphasis on building a tight-knit group doesn’t seem innovative, until you realize we started when they were in the 1st and 2nd grade! …and until you get to those “tearing apart” points usually dictated by the way your public school break apart grades. Splitting off the 7th graders each year from their younger friends whom they’ve been in fellowship with for years doesn’t respect or help deepen the natural peer relationships we want to encourage. It also makes it hard on the older groups to have to assimilate new younger kids each year, especially when the age difference among youth starts to get really pronounced. Teens can be hard on younger kids, and younger teens can be really hard on themselves. Let’s face it, even ‘brutal.’ Tribe 13 started young with the goal of providing a safe bridge of friends and caring adults who knew you, and were there for you in the trying years to come.
The term “silos” have been used recently to describe youth groups within the church that look inward, and rarely relate to the rest of the church. Children’s worship and youth sitting by themselves in worship increase this sense of “silos.” We didn’t call them “silos” during the Experiment, but we made sure we weren’t being “exclusive,” and did things with -and for others. The parents and sibling participating, the service projects for older members, the leading of worship, the ownership we fostered in them about “their church” starting from an early age.
Even in our Confirmation experience, we involved parents and elders. One of the things we did was have the Tribe member and a parent read and discuss Confirmation materials together at home, rather than reserve such things for the class and leaders. We also dispensed with the traditional “Elder interview” and had a prepared Elder take two Tribe members for ice cream and discussion, with a focus on the Elder’s faith story.
By spreading the “Confirmation content” over many years, Confirmation didn’t feel like a gauntlet. In fact, we told everyone that the Tribe’s Confirmation was going to be a celebration of what they were already demonstrating: faith, service, fellowship and leadership. Rather than pile a list of requirements into one year, we made it what a group naturally does. No “fellowship” silos. Our kids were regular attenders and leaders in worship, for example. And when it came time for their Confirmation Day, their parents and friends stood behind them as they made their vows. 11 of the 12 kids we started with the six years earlier “made” their Confirmation. Two of them who started out as friends of the church, and who’s parents were thrilled to see their child want to come forward. They were all friends. And the church knew them, and was buoyed by the celebration.
Believe it or not, “change” is often easier in a SMALL church than large. Small churches have program and grade group challenges that larger churches do not. The “Hill” Church was a small 225 member mainline Protestant congregation in a middle class suburb of Columbus Ohio. Over the years, its membership had shrunk significantly, –even while the town around it had grown by leaps and bound… a fact they didn’t want to examine and did little to address beyond allowing some of us to do some inventive children’s ministry. Like many churches, for a variety of reasons the church did a lousy job of attracting more members than it was losing. The only growth spot was our children’s ministry.
Starting with only 8 kids, we grew to an average of 45 kids, a a mighty feat for a 225 member church! That success bred some permission, and that’s when Tribe 13 began its run.
The Experiment Ends
Our Tribe 13 “experiment” ended in 2007 after a very successful seven year run. It happened when several key families, including my own, decided they needed to worship elsewhere. The Hill church began experiencing some dysfunctional leadership, questionable accounting, and a troubled pastor. It came to a head in 2007, sending a number of families (including mine) and eventually two staff people towards the exit doors. None of it had anything to do with Tribe 13 and that’s part of the story here too: innovative ministry is challenging enough without the church’s “other” issues making it harder!
Losing faith in a church’s leadership, pastor, and direction is not only demoralizing, it is spiritually unhealthy. The one enduring bright spot during our nine years there was Tribe13.
More Musings on Tribe 13
I’ve had some big youth groups over the years filled with friends. But I believe our first priority is to do quality youth ministry, not quantity.I’d like to confess that I have limited time and resources and help. It was true when I was on staff, and it was certainly true as a volunteer leader. Where then should we invest our limited resources? I believe we should first nurture the regular attending kids of members. That is where the soil is most richly prepared. These are the families who came to us first, –who gave us the resources, their trust, and their children.
Looking back over 30 years of ministry, I wish I had spent more time discipling those ready and present to be discipled, rather than too much time chasing down and planning for those who didn’t want to come.
We had a “Tribe 13 Friends Policy.” It read, “Bring any friend once or twice a year, after that, they can come only if they want to join the group and attend regularly. And certain events are for regular group members only.”
Our retreats, for example, were REALLY good because we only opened them to regular attenders, whether they be kids from the church or friends who had become regular. And our really FUN events, like the night we took over the ‘bouncey room’ fun center, were “members only.” We didn’t want Tribe13 to be just another recreation option for the friends of friends. It’s amazing how kids respond to having a standard set high. This friends “containment” policy also allowed us to minister to some of the more quiet regular kids, who often feel less comfortable in large groups with peers they don’t know. A Family that Prays together Stays Together.
“The Long Range Effect”
In the middle of our experiment, I came across Mike Yaconelli’s broadside on traditional youth groups. Mike was the founder of Youth Specialties and YouthWorker Journal, and was one of the guys responsible for the resurgence of youth ministry in the 70’s and 80’s.
Why two grades?
That’s what worked for us. I suppose you could do three grades depending on your circumstances, but with three grades, the developmental and emotional age difference between youngest and oldest can be large, -especially at certain ages, such as at the 5th grade boundary. We wanted to build a long term “natural” peer group, …a group of friends who’s bonds would make the group something special, and help them go deeper into faith & living issues. To decide between two or three grades, you really need to look at the kids themselves. Two works great if you can pull it off. We had about 14 kids in that age bracket at our church. And 10-12 of them were regular participants in the Tribe.
Four grades MAY be too much of a developmental spread to build a group in which each person views the other as a peer. And the life experiences of a 2nd grader compared to a 5th or 6th grader, or 7th grader and High School junior are too divergent. You usually end up with two groups within the one you were hoping for, and the older kids often frustrated with the immaturity of “the new kids.” It’s a programming hurdle youth leaders are all too familiar with, and just by the time you begin to work it out, the program year ends and you have to go through it again the next year. To be sure, we did make sure our two grades stayed in touch with older and younger children at the church. But for quality bonding and fellowship programming, the closer in age, the better.
How does this affect the grades above and below the Tribe grades?
First…Creating FIXED NATURAL GROUPS that “age” together is NOTHING NEW. Bible classes and ‘young adult’ groups have done it for years. But it does create some implementation challenges with children and youth….
For example, what if a certain grade or two doesn’t have enough kids to form a group? It happens in small churches. The solution is to either, a) start small and grow the group, or b) expense to three grade groups. Having served and worshiped in churches of many sizes and situations, I know that the answer dependent on many local variables. At the Hill church, the two grade groups we started with were an obvious choice. We only had 2 kids above in the next grade, and 1 below, and none of the 3 was a natural peer to the kids in the two grades we formed into our first Tribe.
And what do you do with the upcoming first graders if they can’t be combined into the 2nd and 3rd grade “Tribe”?
We had plans and ideas to deal with this. One plan for example, was to start a new group every two years. This would mean that new first graders might have to wait until they were second graders to form a new group with the upcoming first graders. It’s variable for sure, –particularly in smaller churches, but the results are worth the change in thinking. It creates organic groups, instead of artificial ones. To put it in another way, it unhooks us from the public school system of “grades” and school divisions. It allows the church to look at its individual kids and ask “what’s possible” and “what’s best.”
I know that sounds radical… to open up fellowship programming only every two years to the younger grades, instead of each year to new upcoming children. But where is it written that we HAVE to add a grade each year? And who’s to say you don’t do some special family ministry with those 1st graders during their “waiting year”? Or…why not work with them when they are 4 & 5 year olds together? One point of the Tribe13 Experiment was to UNSHACKLE ourselves from our conventional thinking about ‘grade groups’. You can’t start young enough to form lasting peer-bonds. And again… it’s those peer bonds that are the foundation to all our programming goals.
What about breaking up natural friendships when you start?
At the start when you put your 2nd-4th graders together in a “Tribe” (for example), in a small church you might be excluding your sole 5th grader who’s friends with the 4th graders. The answer is DON’T. When you start grouping your kids, and at any other year in your Tribe’s life, it is OK to add a kid or grade IF it serves the needs of the kid(s), parents, and group. In other words, don’t be tyrannical about grade groupings.Be sensitive to relationships, because RELATIONSHIPS are the cornerstone of your program. Think in the best interest of who you have.
How does the Tribe concept affect Youth Groups?
The Tribe concept was created SPECIFICALLY to create a future Youth Group of a different kind. We realized that to build a different kind of youth ministry and group experience, we needed to start with the kids were much younger. So much of youth group programming is “community building” –what would happen if they already WERE a community when they became youth? It’s every youth minister’s dream not to have to start from scratch, and to be able to go further with kids because they were ready.
Creating fixed groups of children that “age together” also eventually create a challenge for the existing High School group -if it doesn’t move to the “fixed group” model. High School groups are used to getting a new grade of kids each year to replace those they’ve lost to to graduation. But it’s a problem you have for only a few years, and there are several creative solutions to it.
For example, if you switch to a Tribe concept, the High School group no longer gets a ‘new grade’ added to it each year. So… that group will eventually need to change how it functions and relates to each other as it loses kids to graduation. It can become its own tribe, and as its kids move towards graduation, they can work to stay in touch with Tribe members who have graduated, or invite friends to maintain a functional number (in a small church this is important).
It’s a scary idea for leaders who didn’t sign-on to lead a shrinking group. But smaller is not bad, if you adjust to it and don’t keep programming like you still have 15 kids, rather than 8. The problem is when leaders don’t know what else to do, …when they only know one way of running a youth group. (Frankly, many youth groups need to adjust ANYWAY as their kids “age.” In most churches, attendance drops as the High Schoolers start to drive and get closer to graduation, and yet, every year the group’s program stays the same, and yet we blame the kids for not coming as much? Better to group kids in natural age groups so that you can minister to their changing needs/age. One size does not fit all.
And let’s be honest: traditional youth group thinking has produced poor long-term results for the Church. Most kids coming up through traditional youth programming do not return to the Church as adults. It’s a hard truth many youth leaders don’t want to hear. Tribe13 is an overhaul to conventional thinking.
“What happens when the Tribe gets to the end of High School and one grade graduates?”
We had plans for that too. We were going to redefine how we met as a group that year and how we stayed in touch. Having worked with High School Seniors and College students for many years, it’s not as hard as it sounds. And indeed, most youth group already struggle with how to keep Seniors and grads connected. The Tribe13 Experiment would make it EASIER because the kids themselves would be so bonded by their years together that they would WANT to stay in touch.
The Tribe 13 Name
“Trib 13” has several meanings. First, “tribe” sounded fun. Early in my ministry I used to dismiss the importance of fun youth group names, …and I was a dope. Names give you identity and tell people who you are.
We also chose “tribe” because that was what we had become and wanted to become, –a natural affinity group, –an extended family.
The name also hearkened back to the twelve tribes of Israel, which gave it a little Bible cachet. We also thought it was kind of cool to be “the 13th Tribe of Israel.” And at the time, putting “numbers” in your youth group name was popular. Though ’13’ was considered “unlucky” by some, our group turned it into something of a positive joke. When something odd would happen, or didn’t work right, or somebody tripped, or knocked something over, somebody would quip, “well, we are the 13th tribe of Israel, afterall.” We would also sometimes joke that we were the “Lost Tribe”.
Tribe13 was a promise to my daughter
The Tribe Experiment actually helped our youth group leaders.
They heard us talk about what we were trying to accomplish and employed many of the same ideas and approaches.
By forming this ‘break-out’ group, with it’s own goals and sense of autonomy, we were also going up against the traditional lines of authority in the church. Fortunately for us, this wasn’t much of a problem, but occasionally we’d hear a complaint from someone in charge. Chairpersons, committees, pastors, DCEs… the system is set up to provide support, accountability, and control. But it can also be about “turf” in some churches. Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with that too much at the Hill Church.
How Tribe 13 would eventually affect the Youth Group ‘above it’ as the Tribe kids got older…
After we formed the group, it seems like every year afterwards someone would complain about “what was going to happen when the Tribe13 grades were in High School… how was that going to affect the existing High School youth group!” Frankly, the way the Senior youth group was shrinking it wasn’t going to be that big a deal. But we had a couple of years to worry about it, and I told them “we’ll figure it out.” Some people are comfortable exploring and experimenting. Others let their fears keep them where they are, even if they don’t want to really be there.
A year into the experiment I knew we were on the right track. Tribe13 turned into something special. They were kids like every other church I have ever been in, but they were different because they were buying in to our new group concept, and we were treating them different. The group averaged between 10 and 14 kids every time we got together, and they became fast friends and active members in the congregation.
Note: I don’t think the Hill Church is exceptional in some of its reservations and problems that I encountered there. I am grateful that they allowed us to experiment, and hopeful that they learned a few things from our time together. One person who read this article said it sounded like I still had some issues with that congregation, and I’m not gonna lie, I do. If you’ve ever poured your soul into a group, only to have to later walk away due to circumstances beyond your control, you know how I feel. It’s hard enough for healthy congregations these days, and doubly hard for those with problems. Word to the wise.
“FAMILY-BASED” –Tribe or something else, that’s the core value and vision.
A few years ago, Mark DeVries published “Family Based Youth Ministry” (InterVarsity Press) …which was another shot across the bow of traditional youth ministry -this time coming from a Presbyterian minister. I remember reading his book and thinking, “this guy is reading my mind.” And many of his inclinations and suggestions for change sounded familiar. It’s a book everyone in youth ministry should read. Tribe 13 took his book to heart, and added a strong does of “family” to our programming.
Of all the things the Tribe did, –and of all the youth ministry I’ve ever done, I’m most proud of this.
As a pastor, I had led 11 traditional classes to their Confirmation Day. And every year, I would lament the fact that HALF my class was composed of kids who rarely darkened the church door. I actually had one youth tell me that his father said, “Get confirmed and I’ll never ask you to go to another thing at church.” And you know what? He never did come to another thing.
My old youth groups were well attended back in the day. I related well to kids and was a pretty creative teacher too. And I know our creative-traditional classes did impact some kids lives. But after 11 years of watching many of the confirmands fall off the cliff afterwards, and after watching my OWN two daughters have a horrible Confirmation experience at the hands of the Hill Church, I swore it would never happen to my youngest daughter. So when we started Tribe 13, I told the pastor, “when it comes time to confirm them, I promise to lead that effort.” And he was obviously happy to have that off his plate.
My Tribe13 “Confirmation concept” is disarmingly simple:
Turn their Confirmation into a celebration of what they had already achieved, -of what they had already become, –rather than treating it like a hoop to jump through and a “crash course in Christianity.” Instead, we taught the “content of Confirmation” to them in small doses in the years leading up to their Confirmation. That freed us up to handle the Confirmation year a little bit differently and it changed the ‘quality’ of the kids’ experience tremendously.
In fact, I used to tell the Tribe kids that when it came time for their confirmation it would be a party, not a bunch of classes to pass.
Which isn’t to say we didn’t teach them “content.” What we did was make the traditional topics of confirmation part of their Tribe13 experience in the years LEADING UP TO their confirmation year. For example, we taught a creative unit on the Apostles Creed (basic systematic theology!) when the Tribe kids were in the 5th and 6th grade. We made sure the parents understood that this unit was part of our long-range Confirmation process, and attendance was especially good for those meetings.
And because the Tribe kids and leaders knew each other so well and were great together, the content and discussion went a lot more smoothly and was more well-received than any other Confirmation group I had ever led.
We also told the kids years in advance that they would have to be “invited” by the church to be confirmed, or… make their own request. When their Confirmation Year approached, I gave each of them a personal handwritten letter of invitation, talking about what I saw in their character and faith. To most, I said, “you are already a member of this church in the eyes of God…let’s go a little deeper and make this a party.” In other Confirmation classes in previous churches, the kids approached it with a mixture of dread and disinterest.
Oh, we did cover some dry subjects. At the Fall retreat the year before they were confirmed, we did a fun romp through church history and what it meant to be a Presbyterian. It was such a better setting than sitting in a classroom, and because we enjoyed being together so much and the kids were comfortable with each other, the discussion flowed.
By the time they got to their “Confirmation Year” they had already learned most of the traditional content via the Tribe’s youth group learning environment, and not a stuffy class on Saturday morning in the pastor’s office. We told them they had to “attend a minimum of 10 worship services” in their Confirmation year, and do a service project. Thing is, all of them were already regularly attending, regularly worshipping, and regularly helping with service projects.
In traditional Confirmation classes, the kids are often asked to help lead a worship service. We didn’t have to do that with Tribe13 because they had already been doing that since they were in the 4th grade.
In traditional Confirmation classes there’s a unit about the Sacraments. But we didn’t have to teach them about Passover-Communion because they knew all about it through our bi-annual in-home seder meals -which they loved, and doing a Seder in Sunday School.
In a traditional class, the kids read a book and discuss it. In keeping with the Tribe’s “home” and “parent-important” focus, we had them read a booklet with a parent, or with an older brother and sister. They read it aloud to each other and the chapters had questions to answer (designed to get them sharing, especially asking the parent or sibling to share their experiences and questions). When they were done, they both signed the back page and turned it in. My daughter read the booklet with her older sister. Another confirmand read it with her grandmother. Yet another confirmand asked a Sunday teacher to read it with them.
Traditionally, we invited the church elders to come talk to the confirmands, but we gave it a huge twist. Instead of the elders “examining” the kids, we had the kids “examine” the elders. They asked questions like, “what it was like when you were confirmed,” and “when did you first feel like God was real in your life.” Of course, the kids had to answer the question too, and the elders were really impressed. Our biggest problem with the interviews was having enough time. The kids said it was a neat experience.
We also severely tweaked the Confirmation Day Worship Service…
On Confirmation Day, we had the kids come forward to make their vows individually, …but we asked them to invite family members and significant others to join them up front. These significant others came forward and participated in the liturgy and vows. They laid their hands on them in a prayer –making a powerful visual statement.
Afterwards in the Fellowship Hall, the Tribe was typically standing together, and introducing each other to their grandparents and relatives who had come for the big day. I’ve stood in many post-Confirmation fellowship halls eating cake and greeting family and members. But that Sunday was extra special. The members sensed it and responded. They approached all the kids and their families with encouraging words. It was a party indeed.
[What about the kids who were of similar age to the Tribe and wanted to join? That wasn’t a problem for us. We had two church kids in that age group who didn’t attend the Tribe due to outside commitments. So we programmed them their own set of classes with a teacher on Sunday morning, and had them attend the Tribe’s Confirmation events when possible. One-size does not fit all. There’s a time and place for individual teens to spend time with a teacher and make their confirmation in a different way. We didn’t worry if a kid came “late” in the Confirmation process, because being Confirmed wasn’t a checkbox thing, it was a personal decision to publicly declare your faith.]
In all my years of leading confirmation classes, I’ve never had a better experience than this one. And I’ve never had more parents and members come up to me with such joy in their eyes (and a few tears) thanking me for helping guide their kids to this day. And it all began years before when we turned them into “the Tribe.”
You’ve reached the end of this article.
I hope our experiment and story will help you own.
<>< Neil MacQueen
Copyright 2009, Neil MacQueen, www.sundaysoftware.com
Permission granted to excerpt or reprint for non-commercial purposes.
You should also read: The Failure of Youth Ministry, and A Call to Youth Ministers –copies of two articles that changed my thinking about youth ministry.