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What Is the Appropriate Age for Baptism and for Confirmation?

What is the appropriate age for baptism?

Baptism is part of a lifelong process of salvation, so any age is an appropriate age for baptism. Families seeking baptism for an infant or child, or youth or adults seeking baptism should contact the pastor for consideration of and preparation for baptism. Baptism happens only once, so those baptized as children may "renew and reaffirm" their baptism in rituals of "confirmation" and "reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant."

An expansion on the answer:

According to United Methodist teaching, any age is appropriate for baptism since all persons stand in need of God's grace. Our official paper, By Water and the Spirit, puts it this way:

There is one baptism as there is one source of salvation — the gracious love of God. The baptizing of a person, whether as an infant or an adult, is a sign of God's saving grace. That grace — experienced by us as initiating, enabling, and empowering — is the same for all persons. All stand in need of it and none can be saved without it.

Parents who are preparing to welcome a child into their lives and family by birth or adoption should contact the church pastor to discuss their faith and the pathway to baptism. Youth or adults who have not been baptized and are sensing that they are drawn to a life of faith and sharing in the Christian community should likewise contact the pastor to discuss these concerns. Since all of us, of whatever age, are on a journey and are beginners, baptism is the ritual beginning of life in Christ and is entry into the church.

Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save ourselves, dependent upon the grace of our loving God.

United Methodists baptize both infants and children, and adults. Does this mean there is no difference? By Water and the Spirit responds this way:

The difference between the baptism of adults and that of infants is that the Christian faith is consciously being professed by an adult who is baptized. A baptized infant comes to profess her or his faith later in life, after having been nurtured and taught by parent(s) or other responsible adults and the community of faith.

Infant baptism and the baptism of adults are both appropriate, depending on the circumstances. By Water and the Spirit recognizes these distinctions:

Infant baptism is the prevailing practice in situations where children are born to believing parents and brought up in Christian homes and communities of faith. Adult baptism is the norm when the Church is in a missionary situation, reaching out to persons in a culture which is indifferent or hostile to the faith. While the baptism of infants is appropriate for Christian families, the increasingly minority status of the Church in contemporary society demands more attention to evangelizing, nurturing, and baptizing adult converts.

So, the question of what age to baptize is related to the circumstances of the individual. If a child is born to believing parents, then baptism is clearly indicated. If the family is not practicing the Christian life with the church, then it is not likely to ask for baptism. Or the family may ask for baptism out of some sense that they "should" do so, in which case the church and the pastor will want to explore the family's desire and work with the family to discern the appropriate path to follow.

In a culture that is increasingly unfamiliar with Christian experience and practice, the church needs to be ready to befriend, counsel, and encourage adults to become disciples and to be baptized. To find out more about this dimension of congregational life, click here.

We strongly urge you to become familiar with the official paper, By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism, available in The United Methodist Book of Resolutions. There is a study edition of the paper by Gayle C. Felton entitled By Water and the Spirit: Making Connections for Identity and Ministry.

What is the appropriate age for confirmation?

"Confirmation" is a moment of recognition of the work of God's grace in the life of a person previously baptized as well as a full embrace of being a disciple of Jesus in one own's right. In many United Methodist congregations, preparation for confirmation begins when youth enter their junior high school years (seventh or eight grade). A time of preparation may continue through junior high and into the high school years. Most United Methodist churches offer a formal process with a class or group leading to the ritual of confirmation for those who choose to receive it and are deemed ready to do so by their pastor (See Judicial Council Decision #1032.) Because the timing of confirmation has often historically corresponded to an age when candidates begin to assume adult responsibilities in the wider culture, more congregations in a number of denominations are considering middle or late high school as a more appropriate time for confirmation. Contact your pastor or other church staff for more information about the preparation and timing for confirmation in your congregation.

An expansion on the answer:

In the early church, baptism, the laying on of hands, and Holy Communion were unified into a single ritual moment. Over time the three actions were separated from each other. In Christendom (from the fourth century to the modern period when the church occupied a central place in Western culture), baptism of infants was assumed. Laying on of hands as a confirming sign was left for later, partially because only the bishop could confirm and he might not be available until sometime later. Gradually, first communion happened at a different time.

In the current ritual in our hymnal and book of worship, these separated actions have been reunified in "Services of the Baptismal Covenant." Confirmation is both a strengthening sign enacted by the church and a profession of faith by the person. It is a response of faith to the gracious covenant into which God baptizes us.

Sometimes United Methodists use the word confirmation as reference to the class or preparatory time before the ritual of confirmation. This time or group experience should more accurately be called "confirmation preparation." What is the person preparing for? By Water and the Spirit describes it this way:

When persons who were baptized as infants are ready to profess their Christian faith, they participate in the service, which United Methodism now calls Confirmation. This occasion is not an entrance into Church membership, for this was accomplished through baptism. It is the first public affirmation of the grace of God in one's baptism and the acknowledgment of one's acceptance of that grace by faith. This moment includes all the elements of conversion — repentance of sin, surrender and death of self, trust in the saving grace of God, new life in Christ, and becoming an instrument of God's purpose in the world. The profession of Christian faith, to be celebrated in the midst of the worshiping congregation, should include the voicing of baptismal vows as a witness to faith and the opportunity to give testimony to personal Christian experience.
(Emphasis added.)

Two things should be noted here: One, confirmation is not becoming a member of the church. Baptism already celebrated that! Two, confirmation is a person's first public affirmation of the faith of the church as being his or her own faith. In other words, the confirmand is taking responsibility for living as a member of the body of Christ and for fulfilling God's purposes. By Water and the Spirit illuminates this further:

An infant who is baptized cannot make a personal profession of faith as a part of the sacrament. Therefore, as the young person is nurtured and matures so as to be able to respond to God's grace, conscious faith and intentional commitment are necessary. Such a person must come to claim the faith of the Church proclaimed in baptism as her or his own faith. Deliberate preparation for this event focuses on the young person's self-understanding and appropriation of Christian doctrines, spiritual disciplines, and life of discipleship. It is a special time for experiencing divine grace and for consciously embracing one's Christian vocation as a part of the priesthood of all believers.
(Emphasis added.)

So, confirmation preparation aims at leading youth and others to embrace their vocation — the calling of God to live and witness to the reign of God announced in Jesus Christ.

What if a youth or adult has not been baptized? Can he or she be part of the "confirmation preparation"? Yes, the unbaptized can share in the same experiences. By Water and the Spirit puts it this way:

Youth who were not baptized as infants share in the same period of preparation for profession of Christian faith. For them, it is nurture for baptism, for becoming members of the Church, and for confirmation.

Those who are baptized are also confirmed, remembering that our ritual reflects the ancient unity of baptism, confirmation (laying on of hands with prayer), and Eucharist. "The ritual of the baptismal covenant included in The United Methodist Hymnal makes clear that the first and primary confirming act of the Holy Spirit is in connection with and immediately follows baptism." (By Water and the Spirit)

So how does confirmation relate to the question of age? By Water and the Spirit uses the imagery of the roles persons of differing ages play in a family:

When a baptized person has professed her or his Christian faith and has been confirmed, that person enters more fully into the responsibilities and privileges of membership in the Church. Just as infants are members of their human families, but are unable to participate in all aspects of family life, so baptized infants are members of the Church — the family of faith — but are not yet capable of sharing everything involved in membership. For this reason, statistics of church membership are counts of professed/confirmed members rather than of all baptized members.

And so, congregations and families should consider the maturity of young people in light of the longer journey into adulthood as they plan for the ritual of confirmation. Are youth ready to signify their lifelong discipleship in the sixth grade? Or in the ninth grade? Or at twenty-one? Or thirty-five? Perhaps there is no single, perfect age for confirmation and profession of faith. Can any person ever fully grasp and commit to all that it means to follow Jesus? Perhaps the important thing is recognition on everyone's part that salvation and baptismal living is a lifelong process. If parents, church, pastor, and the confirmands live in expectancy that God's grace will always be inviting us to more faith, deeper discipleship, and newer experiences of our calling, then we will not be tempted to think of confirmation as some kind of "graduation" from church or Christian living.

 


Daniel Benedict is retired from the staff of Discipleship Ministries.

By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Discipleship copyright © 1996 Discipleship Ministries. Used with permission.

Categories: Baptism, General Planning Articles