Through the Zone
Creating Rites of Passage in Your Church
Photo by Isaac Viglione
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 for Maria. 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 and family workers. What constitutes a rite of passage, and what doesn’t? What is the place of rites of passage within our culture, and specifically within the Christian church? How can the celebration of such rites empower adolescents to transition more effectively into adulthood? Finally, do our youth ministries have a responsibility to help kids and families cross these life-passage thresholds together? We think these questions deserve our careful attention, drawing on research insights from the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and theology.
Anthropology: Revisiting Rites of Passage as Necessary Transitions
The pioneer researcher in this area was Arnold Van Gennep, a French anthropologist in the early 20th century who coined the term “rites of passage.” Van Gennep described the journey as a threefold movement: rites of separation, rites of transition (or liminal rites), and rites of incorporation/re-entry. 3 Using the historical imagery of an era when physical territories contained neutral space between them, Van Gennep noted the significance of a sacred “zone” of transition between the two worlds. He used this zone to describe what happens when people cross from one life stage to another. Navigating that change is much like negotiating the way across the in-between space from a familiar land to a foreign land. In a very real way, a person emerges as someone “new” once they cross the boundary out of the transitional territory and into a newly-defined space.
The liminal phase plays the key role in this process. The person in “limbo” (yes, this is where we get the term. Both are from limen, a Latin root that means “threshold, or doorway” 4 ) moves across a boundary. That threshold experience can be as simple as walking through a door 5 or as complex as taking a journey of several months or years. Often the person is considered “dead” during this time – no longer part of the old world/identity, not yet part of the next. 6
Youth ministry has a lot to learn from this idea of going through liminal phases. In many ways, adolescence is one big liminal mess. One of my college professors used the word “limination” to talk about this process. 7 Limination is living between two worlds, knowing that you are no longer a child, but you’re not yet an adult, either. This flux tosses kids into an identity crisis for which our society offers no resolution. They are ambiguous, passing through a stage in which nothing is familiar. 8
Somehow, the limination of adolescence – waiting, learning, training, preparing, and experimenting with responsibility without claiming privileges of adulthood – must resolve into an adult identity. While many cultural variables are at play here, one hope for this resolution can come through practicing rites of reincorporation. Ritually celebrated within a community, a new adult status can be granted to late adolescents who have no idea how to cross that border into the new land. This status must be conferred by adults who have gone before, who can help them negotiate the passage.
Psychology: Rites of Passage as Key to Identity Commitments
Identity is both individual and communal, both shared and unique. While some psychological researchers consider identity as something to be created, others see it as something to be discovered or revealed. Some blend these aspects of identity formation together. 9 Following the mid-1900s work of Erik Erikson on identity formation based on life stages, James Marcia developed an identity development theory based on commitments. Crises force adolescents to work through their identity commitments or lack of commitments and choose whether to progress to a level of “achievement” or return to a state of “diffusion”. 10 These self-chosen commitments take place across the spectrum of life decisions: vocation, sexuality, religion, and political ideology, for instance. Marcia believed that an individual could fall into any one of these categories in a particular identity-commitment area:
- The Identity-Diffused hold no strong commitments, and are not seeking any. This is the 14-year-old girl who wanders in and out of your youth ministry as predictably as she wanders from relationship to relationship with guys. She’s fine with being known as a youth group member, but mostly wants to be known as someone’s girlfriend. She hasn’t yet experienced a crisis that might cause her to wrestle with or make decisions about who she is.
- The Identity-Foreclosed individuals have clear commitments, but they are internalized from parents or culture, not self-chosen. No alternatives have been considered. We see this often in students who adopt Christian subculture paraphernalia and lingo without evidence of having thought any of it through. It’s the eighth-grade boy who wants to be just like his youth pastor hero and assumes that identity. It may even be the youth pastor who followed this identity all the way into the actual role with little self-evaluation.
- It is possible for an individual in either of these states to move into an identity crisis, or Moratorium. Moratorium is a radically unstable state, seeking resolution. Here we find most of the kids in your youth group (more on this below). This crisis might happen to the 14-year-old girl described above, if a boyfriend lasts several months or years and then suddenly dumps her, stripping her of her identity. Often, moratorium means putting identity “on hold” well into college and beyond, as emerging adults continue to sample and struggle through identity options.
- Those who resolve moratorium by making clear commitments become Identity-Achieved. This is a genuine identity, self-chosen and thought through. It’s not a finished identity, but some firm commitments have been made. Perhaps you know some college students who have faced this search and reclaimed as their own a genuine Christian identity – created in God’s image, transformed by Christ’s image.
Though identity-achievement can be relatively stable, it is of course possible to re-enter moratorium through identity crises across the life span. Research continues to affirm, however, that the period of adolescence through early adulthood consists of the most active period for identity formation, across all the domains of identity. 11 By default, adolescence is fundamentally about moratorium – putting decisions on hold. The three key tasks of moratorium are exploring, experimenting, and then making commitments. Achieving a sense of identity requires doing all three without skipping to the end right away. If an adolescent never explores or experiments, simply adopting the identities of their parents or youth pastor, they get stuck in foreclosure. On the other end of the spectrum, we see many kids who explore and experiment but never make any commitment, getting stuck in moratorium.
For adolescents to move past moratorium, they need adults to give them guideposts on the way. A rite of passage can begin to affirm and name for someone who has never asked the questions, or one who has been lodged in the middle of the questions about life and faith. Even with the importance of significant one-time events like “graduations,” kids continue to need more than these cultural ceremonies to learn what adulthood might mean or to feel like they belong to that classification. While our more realistic goal might be to guide their entry into emerging adulthood instead of full adulthood, it is still a move through the doorway of adolescence and into a new realm of responsibility and roles.
Theology: The Church as Crucible
Churches remain one of our culture’s few bodies capable of creating and sustaining such meaningful transitions. Because of this, congregations have been called “unique crucibles” for exploring many of the processes of identity and faith development. 12 How does this work?
1. Ritual teaches us.
Will Willimon helps us reorient our understanding of the necessity of ritual in worship:
“Ritual – patterned, purposeful, predictable behavior – is a component of all Christian worship… Ritual is not only patterned and predictable behavior; it is also purposeful. Ritual does things for us that cannot be done any other way.” 13
Fundamentally, ritual teaches us. It does so whether our personal rituals involve brushing our teeth before bedtime or after every meal, whether raising our hands during worship or kneeling on little benches under a pew. Ritual has a teaching function that parenting and educational experts have capitalized on, while it has been vastly underestimated in the church. Because of some of the abuses of religious ritual, and what in many cases have become stale rituals, youth ministries habitually avoid thinking critically about the ways appropriate ritual can transmit faith. Yet rituals teach, and in them “we are given a safe place to explore the promises of God.” 14
Youth pastors, we need to hear this one clearly. We are often the first to abandon the “liturgies” of the church, including very important rituals that help youth and adults make sense of reality. For most of us, when we think “liturgy,” we think “old fashioned” or “old school prayers.” The reality is that we all follow liturgy, even when we don’t realize it. Liturgy means “the service/work of the people,” usually taken to imply, “the way we worship together,” [[For more on worship and identity formation, especially in light of our regular practices and “liturgies” within our youth ministries, see “Singing ourselves nowhere: the like-it-or-not impact of worship on identity formation,” and is something that inevitably becomes part of our collective identity. Most of us serve in churches where there is some natural form for worship, even if that form is marked by times for spontaneity. What are our liturgies teaching students about their identities?
2. Faith rituals revise our personal narratives.
Our primary “crucible” for exploring the truths of God in relation to our identity is often corporate worship. John Witvliet points out that it is this “common worship” that provides the context for the church’s narrative and vocabulary:
“Liturgy, as much as any other dimension of the church’s life, writes the “lived theology” of the Christian community – that is, the theological vision that most believers live by, whether or not that vision matches that of official creeds, confessions and classic texts.” 15
Along with writing the communal narrative, ritual has the power to rewrite our personal narratives. Liturgist Nathan Mitchell points out, “In liturgy, ritual ‘rewires’ familiar experience, enabling it to create new patterns and definitions. In this way, ritual also ‘rewrites’ those who participate in it.” 16 This rewiring and rewriting is the liminal function of worship.
The Lord’s Supper provides a powerful example of this process. Sharing in communion rewires Jesus’ history – making him a living and active presence in our midst – and rewrites our history in connection with the Living Word of God. In this sense, we experience a threshold-event when we take communion, especially for the first time. Similarly, think about a 12-year-old boy entering adolescence. A coming-of-age ritual placed in the context of a wilderness adventure can rewire a familiar experience like backpacking with a new meaning of crossing over into a new phase of life. This rewiring then rewrites the narrative of that 12-year-old such that he begins to see himself leaving the land of childhood and entering the zone of adolescent exploration.
3. The Church stands uniquely positioned to celebrate life cycle events.
The typical rites of passage most church traditions are familiar with include weddings, funerals, baptisms, and confirmation ceremonies. Baptism stands as the enduring and primary identity-conferring rite in the universal Church. But as we all know, baptism takes place at different times and ages across the traditions of the church. Your church may practice infant baptism, or may encourage “believer’s baptism” at any age – including a three-year-old who wants to “confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.” Others may require kids to reach an “age of accountability” before going through rites of baptism with others in their age group. So while baptism constitutes a legitimate rite of passage into the Christian identity, it does not by definition have anything to do with becoming an adult. So what happens in the church when we have no way to call out or celebrate that a child has become an adolescent, or an adolescent has become an adult? For most of us, this is the crisis of our communities.
The Jewish faith, in contrast, has not abandoned the life cycle events that transmit meaning and purpose to kids. We can learn from the intentionality of the bar and bat mitzvah practices that address the entrance of the transitional phase of adolescence. These ceremonies welcome youth into a new layer of responsibility to God and to the community. Some congregations require mitzvah candidates to participate in tikkun olam, “repairing the earth” community service projects as part of the process. Engaging youth in a new level of social responsibility and moral consciousness towards the community aids the spiritual journey into a new way of being part of the community as a person of Jewish faith. 17
The closest Christian practice to the bar and bat mitzvah is the confirmation process, whereby some traditions spend anywhere from several months up to a year or two (as in many Lutheran and Evangelical Covenant churches) preparing young adolescents for a ceremony that “confirms” their faith and enters them into official church membership. While these processes and accompanying ceremonies can sometimes be stale and formal, they have great potential to be life-giving in the ways adolescents are guided into the threshold of adolescence by the adults in their church. Some churches pair students with adult mentors who commit to praying for and encouraging adolescents all the way through their teenage years, beginning with their confirmation training.
What Rites of Passage Can the Church 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. 18
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. 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 a phase of limination. 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 – Praying 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”?
- Ritual meals – Across nearly all cultures, eating and drinking together serves as a rite of incorporation and of union. It is a sacred act. 19 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! 20 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?
Emily’s church really is a good church. Yet by failing to give Emily these road markers towards an adult identity, her church fails to give her what she most needs at this moment in life. We’re left to wonder, what will our students experience through the rituals – or lack of rituals – in our churches? And more importantly, who will they become as a result?
- How does this research on rites of passage resonate with your understanding of spiritual formation and/or identity development?
- How do these ideas about identity development mesh with the biblical designation of our primary identity as being created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26)?
- 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 specific rituals could your ministry 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?