A sermon I gave on Confirmation Sunday a few years ago.
“I Love to Tell the Story,” is a good hymn for Confirmation Sunday. At baptism, parents promise to bring their children up in the faith, vowing to make sure their children will hear that ‘old, old story of Jesus and his love.’ And that is what we have been doing for these confirmands the past several years– at home, in Sunday School, in Vacation Bible School, and in confirmation instruction– parents, teachers, and pastors have been telling them that old story. Listen again to some of the phrases from the hymn:
I love to tell the story…the old, old story, of Jesus and his love…
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard… the message of salvation, from God’s own Holy Word…
I love to tell the story, because I know it’s true, It’s satisfies my longings as nothing else would do…
That is a great hymn and one of my favorites; but I will be honest with you. Even though I am a pastor, and telling the story is my job and my life’s calling– I don’t always love to tell the story. And sometimes, when I’m telling it, it is not at all like the song says, “How pleasant to repeat.” Rather, it is sometimes quite unpleasant and worse yet, it seems hardly worth it. Sometimes I even wonder, What’s the use?
I’m not talking about preaching. I love preaching. Preaching is easy. You give me fifteen minutes of your time, and for those fifteen minutes you all behave yourselves pretty well. You sit there nice and still, and I appreciate that. I occasionally catch one or two of you dozing off, but that doesn’t bother me. At least you are quiet and not interrupting. You are all on your best behavior.
But pastors and teachers don’t always get that in confirmation class. There, we face a less attentive, sometimes even hostile, audience. A lot of them, (this may surprise you) don’t want to be there at all. And believe it or not, most of them do not come because they ‘want’ to hear the Bible stories or learn the catechism. They come because their parents make them come, or so they can see their friends, or so they can walk down to the bowling alley after class. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great kids, but they did not come to confirmation primarily because they love to hear the old, old story.
Individually, I think I could have a good conversation with any of them. But in a group, none of them want to let on that they are showing any interest; so they act bored, they interrupt, they whisper to each other and pass notes, and they look at the clock every 30 seconds as they count down the minutes to dismissal time. Therefore, I do not always ‘love to tell the story.’
But when I think back to when I was in confirmation and Sunday School, I can remember acting the same way– being rude, obnoxious, inattentive, mischievous, and bored– and I was one of the better students. I also was primarily interested in seeing my friends, and then playing softball after class. And just last week I was talking about confirmation with one of our elderly, most respected members. He went to Saturday School for instruction back in the 1930’s. He said that what he looked forward to most in confirmation was recess time, when he and some of the other boys would go out behind the old school-house and smoke cigarettes, taking turns watching for the minister.
So how can the church reach such kids? How do we pass on the faith to young people who are more interested in softball, showing off, or cigarettes? What can the church and parents give kids at this age that can help them keep the faith?
Well, some of the most important things we can give to our children are the HABITS of the faith. We can, by consistent, weekly repetition, build into their hearts and minds the habit of being in church every Sunday, the habit of saying prayers at mealtime, and the habit of being at church and supporting it in its other activities and service. We cannot force faith into anyone, and it is not likely that we are going to make Bible scholars out of any of them in junior high school. But we can instill in them the habits of paying attention to God. And habits are best instilled and maintained and strengthened by consistent repetition: being in church every week, saying your prayers at every mealtime and bedtime, and so on.
These habits will be met with resistance, just like confirmation lessons are met with resistance. When the child is old enough and on their own, they might even rebel and disregard the habit completely. But though we rebel against our parents and distance ourselves from them for a while, we do, most of us, find ourselves returning to many of their ways when we are older. And then those old habits, years earlier instilled by consistent repetition, can begin to re-surface.
The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is older, he will not depart from it.” It does not say he will never depart from it, but that when he is older he will not depart. Habits, once rejected, are oftentimes, later in life, picked up again and continued.
Faith is an individual matter and there are no guarantees in any of this. But study after study, along with my own experiences with a couple thousand people in five different congregations, have convinced me of the importance of the habit of going to church. This is especially true for young people, now more interested in social life and looking good, than in sermons and Bible lessons. The best we can do is instill in them the habits of paying attention to God and keeping in touch with God. This is, after all, one of the ten commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy.” The best youth program any church of any size can have is parents who bring their children to church.
All of our habits become like chains in our life, chaining us to things good and bad. Work to instill in yourself and your children the good habit of being in church each week. This is where faith is given the opportunity to take root and grow. (continued…)
Proverbs 22:6 — Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Psalm 71:17-18 — Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.
Bless our children, O Lord, with healthy bodies, with good understandings, with the graces and gifts of your spirit, with cheerful dispositions and holy habits, and keep them in the faith until the coming of the Lord Jesus. Amen.
–Jeremy Taylor, English writer and Anglican bishop (1613-1667)