Creating Rites of Passage for Youth in Your Church
This article was copied from the Sticky Faith web site. Read the entire article at http://stickyfaith.org/articles/through-the-zone
Emily is part of a good church. By typical standards, the church’s youth ministry is well-run and Christ-focused, the worship proves engaging and even transformational for the congregation, and the pastoral leadership understands that kids need extra support, so the church budget reflects an investment in student ministry. When Emily graduated from high school this year, the church recognized Emily and other seniors in a worship service as they do every spring. The students walked up front to say their names and disclose their post-high-school plans, after which a youth ministry leader handed out Bibles and a pastor prayed a brief prayer for the group. The next day, life went on as usual for Emily, and she began to prepare for the move to college.
A few blocks down the street is Maria’s church. On the Sunday before her graduation, Maria took part in a ceremony as well. Like the other seniors, she stood in front of the congregation with her family and peers. The pastor handed her mother a plate containing a loaf of bread, from which she took a piece and held it to Maria’s mouth. Maria bit into the bread and her mother spoke these words:
“Maria, it is I, your mother, feeding you today. I represent the generations of your family and of the extended human family … When you were a child, we fed you. We clothed you. We took care of you. We brought you to Jesus. Now you are a woman. You will feed yourself, clothe yourself, take care of yourself, and grow in your own relationship to Jesus. This does not mean that we have abandoned you. We will support and nourish you in time of need… We feed you today, entrusting you to the grace of God who will supply your every need. In the name of Jesus we feed you. In the power of the Holy Spirit of God we feed you.”
After the people responded, “In the name of Jesus, Amen,” Maria then tied a knot in a length of cord, repeating a litany before God and the community of faith committing to “follow in the way of Jesus” and asking God to guide her. Other family members tied a knot on top of her knot, voicing their commitment to continue supporting her and helping her discern her calling. After several other affirmations, commitments, and prayers, the service ended. 1
Everything changes for Maria after this. The expectations within that church now shift. She is considered an adult, and the older generations within the church treat her as such. Her own sense of identity has been transformed in ways that not even she fully comprehends. Though still very much a late adolescent by our culture’s standards, this ritual has given this young woman a new place and calling: the place of adulthood. 2
While these ceremonies may or may not sound familiar to you, their implications give us cause for reflection as youth workers and parents of teenagers. What constitutes a rite of passage, and what doesn’t? What is the place of rites of passage within our culture, within the church, and within the family?
What Rites of Passage Can Churches and Families Provide for Adolescents?
The social sciences employ the term “Emerging Ritual” to refer to the reality that families and communities often look for their own ways across life’s thresholds. Rites of passage need not be ancient to be effective in transmitting identity, though we can leverage wisdom from historic practices. The truth is that improvisation is part of every ritual. Even rituals that endure across time are reinvented to some extent each time they are used. 19
Perhaps your tradition practices a vital confirmation process, or one that can be revitalized with new purpose. Or perhaps you are part of a church absent of any significant rites that kids can participate in. In light of the importance of these practices for translating and transferring meaning to students, maybe your pastoral staff, youth ministry team, or a group of parents and church leaders could get together to discuss the potential for creating new rites of passage for your students. You can craft emerging rituals and experiment with how they work to create meaning authentic to your worshiping community. Or as a parent, perhaps there are a few other parents you could partner with to help craft family-based rituals for your kids. A few categories to consider addressing include:
- Entering adolescence – Retreats, parent-child experiences, or worship services recognizing that a child is entering adolescence. Name together as a community that kids are beginning an in-between phase. The words “middle school” or “junior high” don’t really communicate the significance of this life change, and kids need more than the trial-by-fire of walking down the halls of their new school to serve as an initiation into this journey.
- Milestones – Pray over students when they receive their driver’s license, perhaps with a formal ceremony of blessing offering prayers for protection and wise decisions behind the wheel. Maybe entering the senior year of high school should include the embrace of the church with spoken prayers and physical reassurance: “We are with you. We know this year is going to bring a mixture of emotions and tensions. We celebrate that you have come to this point of transition, and we will continue to walk with you as you face the challenges of this journey.” Spiritual milestones, though not connected with the life cycle, are certainly rites of passage to consider. Look carefully at how your church celebrates baptisms and/or confessions of faith in Christ. Without exploiting kids’ spiritual journeys or putting them on display, what meaningful role does a community’s blessing and show of support play in the conferring of a new identity “in Christ”? Similarly, what role does the family play?
- Ritual meals – Across nearly all cultures, eating and drinking together serves as a rite of incorporation and of union. It is a sacred act. 20 In the Church we share communion as the ritual meal of greatest significance. What other meals might be included to celebrate rites of passage? Jesus always seemed eager to share a meal with just about anyone – so much so that he was considered by some to be a glutton and a heavy drinker! (Luke 7:34.) Do the people of your church welcome adolescents to their tables? Does the community find reasons to celebrate kids with grand banquets or even small ceremonies of table fellowship? Could you incorporate a tradition of gathering the senior citizens of your church with the seniors in high school at the same table, to learn from and bless each other? Similarly, what ritual meals (and rituals around meals) can become part of family traditions throughout childhood and adolescence?
- What are the rituals or tools of worship in your church that effectively communicate truths about God and about personhood into the adolescent reality? What about in your family?
- What specific rituals could your ministry and/or family create around table fellowship, incorporating youth into the life of the community?
- Do baptism and/or confirmation rites in your church include significant opportunities for others to confer a new identity in Christ? Why or why not? In what ways?
This article was originally published at fulleryouthinstitute.org in June 2006.