How can churches offer more meaningful rites of passage?

The New York Times posted a column asking students age 13 and older to share their experiences of rites of passage. A few things leapt out at me as I read their responses:

  • Many commenters seemed unclear on what was meant by a rite of passage, or at least had a very different sense of a rite of passage than I do. Some seemed to understand a rite of passage to mean any ritual, such a Christmas or Thanksgiving, not a movement from one state to another marked by a ritual, which is how I would define it.
  • There was no one type of rite of passage that everyone held in common. It surprised me that there seemed to be no generally held rite of passage – not graduation, not turning 18, not being confirmed or baptized. There seems to be very little demarcation in the lives of teenagers as one year oozes into another. In fact…
  • Many commenters reported never experiencing a rite of passage. Some of those who responded sounded very wistful about this, saying they wished there were some kind of rite of passage in their lives.
  • The most commonly suggested rite of passage was a Sweet Sixteen party or Quincenera. A number of people who responded wanted something that would mark their entry into young adulthood.
  • The most commonly noted religious rite of passage was baptism, which had varying degrees of importance. What seemed to make it significant was the degree to which the student had some say in her or his participation in the rite.
  • Some of the commenters who had the most significant experiences of rites of passage talked about how their parents “made a big deal” out of it. One spoke of getting a driver’s license; she wrote that “It was very meaningful to me and my parents because I am growing up and handling more business now which makes them proud and me more determined to show them how dedicated I am.” Another wrote that “For my thirteenth birthday, my father took me to New York City to hang out for a weekend…My dad told me that if I were in another country I’d be considered a man and that I should really be trying to grow up. That conversation spoke to me and it gave me motivation to mature and become a man.”

There’s a lot we as churches can learn from these students’ comments. Here are some things we might want to consider, both for our young people and for all the people in our congregation.

  • We may need to start by defining what we mean by rites of passage. I suspect many of us assume our congregations have a common understanding about rites of passage – and believe them to be a good thing. But have we ever talked about rites of passage and their significances? And the different kinds of rites of passage we may experience?
  • There’s a longing for meaningful rites of passage. That was patently clear from the comments. Which led to my next insight:
  • Rites of passage must be actively established. If we want youth to have meaningful rites of passage, we cannot passively wait for them to happen. Significant events may happen in the lives of young people, but without some ritual to mark them, they are not rites of passage; they’re just things that happen.
  • Parents are important. Parents having an active role in a rite of passage, again, takes the event beyond “something that happens” and into “something of significance.” Reading between the lines, what is important about parental participation is that they notice and celebrate the before and after in a way that marks the event as a change in the parent/child relationship.
  • Rites of passage are not always clear-cut. One young woman noted that rites of passage are complicated by the fact that they involve the desires of older generations, which can confuse the reasons for going through them: Am I ready? Or am I doing this to please others whom I love? She ends her comment with this wonderful insight: “Rites of passage are about letting you know that life does not stop for anyone, and that the future is not a fictional place.”

Rites of Passage quoteObviously, confirmation is one place where we can mark a rite of passage as those who were baptized as children take responsibility for owning their own faith. But what are some other times and occasions that we can mark with a rite of passage, something that is more than “something that happens”? And how can we help families create rituals to make significant milestones in their lives more meaningful?