Review: Faith Inkubators “Head to the Heart”

Pastor Bill and Ed lead First Lutheran’s Confirmation students in prayer during their retreat.

As an intern pastor, one of my assignments has been to help teach the Confirmation classes at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in cooperation with my supervising pastor and the education director. The class numbers roughly 30 kids in any given week. Most of the kids cannot sit still or stop talking unless a teacher is standing directly over them. They cannot focus on anything long enough to have even a small discussion. They “need” something new, fresh and engaging.

Enter Faith Inkubators’ “Head to the Heart” Confirmation curriculum. The Parish Education ministry at First Lutheran looked at many Confirmation curricula and, based on good things they had heard about it, decided to try H2H. It is a program that seeks to engage kids on as many different levels as possible to keep them interested.

As we approach the half-way point of this year, I’ve decided to review my experience teaching with H2H so far. Overall, I have not been impressed.

Context is Everything

Some of my dissatisfaction with the H2H program is not the fault of H2H. For example, H2H relies heavily on parents’ participation and involvement in their child’s theological education. My experience has been that, in my particular context, the parents are not interested in being an active part of their child’s education. With this vital component missing, it may be that H2H simply cannot work in this context.

H2H also implicitly relies on a large staff or corps of volunteers to effectively present the lessons as they are meant to be presented. H2H wants Confirmation classes to be large-scale multimedia “events” (it specifically warns teachers against calling Confirmation a class) which take a great deal of time, money, and people-power to organize. For just the three of us teaching the class, we find that we cannot use much of what H2H suggests because we have neither the time nor the people to do so. I find it ironic that one of Faith Inkubators’ Ten Foundations is “the Bible is the only text book you need for Christian education” since every lesson asks for many more resources to be utilized from across the media spectrum.

But laying these contextual issues aside, H2H suffers from some built-in flaws of its own.

Wait, it says what?

Few things anger me more than teaching materials with factual inaccuracies. H2H contains many of these. Some of them seem relatively minor, such as H2H’s constant referral to the year “0 BC”, a year that does not exist in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (we use the Gregorian calendar, by the way). While not a game-breaker, this lack of attention to accuracy is indicative of the H2H attitude.

Other errors are more serious. One of the chapters on Jesus claims that we have more first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life than any other figure in history.  In fact, we have zero first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life: the four canonical gospels were written well after Jesus’ death and were more than likely not written by anyone who had contact with him. This sort of major error appears in roughly half of the lessons we have used so far.

Some of the lessons are poorly organized. Last week’s lesson, “The Teachings of Jesus,” didn’t actually deal with any of Jesus’ teachings. It briefly mentioned that Jesus was a teacher and asked the students what qualities they thought made a good teacher. The rest of the lesson focused on Jesus’ role as a prophet, using the story of the Samaritan woman at the well as its central story (John 4).

At no point did the lesson spend any time talking about what Jesus taught. It never touched on Jesus’ favorite way of teaching, using parables. In a chapter titled “The Teachings of Jesus”, I expected at least recognition of these elements. Instead, my supervising pastor, the education director and myself had to practically write a new lesson to introduce the teachings of Jesus.

We should not have to rewrite an entire published (and expensive) lesson because it is badly written. We have had to do this more than once, and it is clear that we will have to continue doing it. We simply do not have time.

Final Assessment

I have other opinions about some aspects of H2H, but I recognize that they are, for the most part, personal opinions. For example, I find the idea that we must bombard our kids with stimuli to force them to focus is ultimately harmful, not helpful. Others may disagree. But even apart from these opinions, there are still flaws with H2H that make me ultimately question its usefulness.

H2H is popular in many churches, and maybe for others, it works well. There have been classes where the H2H material has worked well. But my experience with it as a whole has not been good, and ultimately, I would not recommend it to others.

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Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

2 thoughts on “Review: Faith Inkubators “Head to the Heart””

  1. Ken – Some very good critiques here. We’re always interested in making our processes and materials better, so we’ll take your points into serious consideration. Thanks!

    Now that my juices are flowing, I’d like to comment on your “Parents are not interested in being an active part…” line.

    This is a huge challenge for the church… but one that I think can be solved by simply reframing what confirmation is based on our expectations of what we are trying to accomplish.

    I’m doing my doctorate at the moment with Len Sweet and company. My dissertation is on “the meaning of meaning in family ministry in a post-Gutenberg Neo-Google world.” As part of my research, I’ve done about 90 video interviews with philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, neurologists, educators, pastors, parents, teens, children and even a couple of movie producers. My book “the meaning of meaning” won’t be out until spring 2013, but let me give you a glimpse into the section on the future of children, youth and family ministry I envision.

    Meaningful Adolescent (confirmation) Ministry

    I’ve been in youth ministry for 30 years as an ordained ELCA pastor, and the deeper I’ve gotten into this, the more I’m seeing the need for a major paradigm shift.

    To put it simply, we’ve got to stop doing confirmation ministry for parents, and start doing it with parents.

    We’ve got to stop trying to do confirmation ministry one day a week starting it in adolescence, and start doing it every night in every home – starting at baptism.

    How’s that for a paradigm shift?

    If you want to be really radical (ie, Latin for “of the root”) you would start when a family comes in for a baptism and simply tell parents that you want to help them keep the promise they make to God on baptism day. The way you can help them is to give them a few simple faith practices to do nightly with their child, and then call them to incorporate them into the bedtime routine.

    What I see as the core of faith incubation – the FAITH 5 (Faith Acts In The Home) can be found at http://www.faithink.com/Inkubators/f5.asp.

    If this is the beginning of the confirmation process, and it is followed through to the doorstep of adolescence, the “getting the parents on board” will be no problem at all. That’s the long-view. Now let’s talk about the short term. What to do with a parent who drops their kid off at confirmation and expects you to give them some magical “religious fix” in an hour a week that will miraculously transform them into a confirmed mature Christian… without their participation.

    PARENTUS ABSCOUNDICUS

    Put as simply as possible, I would turn into a real bear and start telling people if they want their kid there, they will be there with them.

    Sounds harsh? Let me explain. Better yet, let me reframe.

    How can the church expect to take a kid full of adolescent hormones who gets off a bus with a Mountain Dew and a Twinkie in hand at the end of a long school day and expect to teach them ANYTHING in 52 minutes that won’t be undone by hormones, schedules, media and God knows what during the other 10, 028 minutes that week.

    We’re idiots to think we can get much of anything substantial done.

    A systems thinker would NEVER attempt to fix a broken system by ignoring the most important component of the system. Parents have been, are and always will be the most important part of the faith incubation/formation system.

    If I were back in the parish, I would simply refuse to play the afterschool babysitting game we call confirmation ever again. Putting one poor pastor or teacher in a room filled with hormonal adolescents is neither good nor salutatory. Neither is it kind nor smart.

    Jesus already paid for your sins. You shouldn’t have to.

    THE QUESTION

    The number one question that one must ask about Lutheran confirmation is: “What are we trying to accomplish here?” (Begin with the end in sight.) If the answer is to do information instead of faith formation, we might as well cancel the show. If you insist on sitting them down on a hard chair, giving them a cold lecture, and watching them walk out the door on confirmation day singing “Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye” for the closing hymn on confirmation day, you are guilty of a tremendous malfeasance and waste of two of God’s most precious assets – youth and time.

    If the answer to the “what are we trying to accomplish” question is to create passionate and grounded disciples of Jesus Christ who know the faith, practice the faith, and live in the love and grace of God as God touches the world through them, then that’s something worth investing in. It’s also a goal worth considering building a team around, and taking a long, hard look at finding the most effective means, the most dedicated people, and the most effective times to apply the most effective means and dedicated people.

    The most effective way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in the culture of that language. A class one hour a week is just not going to do it. The most effective way to learn the language of faith is to immerse the child in a culture of faith. And the best place to do that? The home. The best time? Neurology would tell you it’s not Sunday morning at 9 am or Wednesday night at 7. It’s bedtime.

    If discipleship is to be the result, then discipleship must be modeled by the primary caregivers every night. They say “you can’t be what you can’t see.” The most important thing a systems thinker can do is to bring the parents on board as early as possible and call them to do and be what they first promised God they’d do and be when they brought that child to the font.

    GETTING THE KID DONE vs GETTING THE DISCIPLE STARTED

    If parents just want their kid to go to a class and get some catechism, I’d invite them to consider finding another church where they can get the kid “done” in six weeks.

    Harsh? Keep reading.

    If, however, the parents’ deep desire and dream is to keep their family together in a world that could tear them apart, and they’re open to partnering with the church as allies in that process, I’d tell them you’d be honored.

    Tell them that you will make their dream your personal goal, prayer and priority. You will do everything in your power to keep the arteries of caring, open, prayerful communication open every night of their teen’s life at the core of your program.

    I’d then tell them that your system starts with parents committing to take the faith journey WITH their teens. I would create a blessing service where parents and kids covenant to going through the confirmation years together by…

    1. Committing to being with you weekly (or bi-weekly) as you unveil key themes that can help them in their family life. (Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, Creed, Sacraments, Life of Jesus, etc.)
    2. Committing to being in worship together whenever they are in town, and to setting aside Sabbath time together when they are our of town
    3. (And here’s the clincher paradigm shifter) Committing to a short nightly check-in where they share their highs and lows, review the key scripture or catechism theme, try to relate/apply the verse of Bible story to their highs and lows, pray a short prayer for one another and bless one another before turning the lights out on the day. (There five steps are outlined at http://www.faithink.com/Inkubators/f5.asp)

    Finally, I’d let them know that you will PERSONALLY commit to helping them keep their relationship strong, but any parent who didn’t want to do this with their kid would need to tell you WHICH adult (sponsor, godparent, friend) they want checking in with their teen each night for the next two or three years. NOT having a mentor will NOT be an option in your program.

    SETTING THE BAR

    My favorite church doing this really well is First Lutheran in West Fargo, ND. There is no drop off Sunday School or Confirmation program at this church any longer. Parents expect to attend with their kids. Amy Kippen, director of Family Faith Formation, has 71% of her dads there every week.

    “Wherever you set the bar, that’s where the bulk of your people will be three years from now,” says Amy. “If you say, ‘just drop off the kids and we’ll teach them for you,’ most of the parents will be happy to do just that. We tend to settle for the least common denominator, so if the expectations are low, we’ll be happy to meet them.”

    If you say, “Please come for the opening each week, because that’s where we unveil the theme for your nightly check-in and we want you to all be on the same page,” three years from now, every parent will be coming in for the opening.

    If you say “Please come in for the opening AND the closing, because we’ll be ending with a special prayer and blessing that you can use each week,” most of your parents will be there for both three years from today.

    If you say, “As long as you’re here for the opening and closing, you might as well stay for the teaching time so you know what your kid is learning,” that’s where most people will be three years from today. Set the bar high and stick to it, and you’ll get what you stick to.

    So here’s the vision:

    MEM + MDP + MET = MFM

    Most effective means (teaching with multiple intelligences in mind at church and worship) + Most Dedicated People (parents would take a bullet for their kids…. Who are you going to find more dedicated than that?) + Most Effective Time (the neurology of sleep suggests that the last five minutes of the day are the most effective time for the human brain to learn something… something that their brains will go over and over during a good night’s sleep as the brain searches to make meaning of new material by connecting it with old knowledge) = Maximum Faith Meaning.

    Or Maximum Family Ministry.

    Or a confirmation program that is more process than program, more parental than professional, and more powerful than any 52 minute religious “quick fix” you could apply to any hormonally challenged adolescent who gets off the bus with a Mountain Dew and a Twinkie in their hand expecting you to teach them something.

    FINALLY KEN…

    All the points you made in your critique are open to discussion, reflection and debate. Thanks for bringing them to our attention.

    This point however – of getting the parents on board at the core of confirmation ministry and shifting the mindset from the church doing something FOR parents to the parents and kids doing ministry together – this would solve most every problem we currently face with confirmation ministry.

    In “Almost Christian” Kendra Creasy Dean tells us we’re losing 90% of our kids.

    If implementing such a problem caused 80% of the families to leave the church but plugged the remaining 20% to grow into incubators of faith and midwives of true disciples, you’d still be a tremendous success.

    From keeping 10% to keeping 20% is 100% improvement.

    Blessings and courage to you as you think and dream, conspire and gather co-conspirators, try and fail, and try again WITH the parents this time.

    Rich Melheim
    Founder, Faith Inkubators
    rich@faithink.com
    http://www.faithink.com

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Rich. I think you are spot on when you say that we need a paradigm shift in Confirmation thinking throughout the church. And it is quite frustrating to try and get parents involved and not getting much support. Hopefully soon we can begin to work on both.

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