Recently, a frustrated Baptist (aren’t we all?) friend of mine exclaimed: “Doesn’t anyone want to be baptized anymore? Our church’s baptistery stays bone dry most of the time!” It was a local observation on a national phenomenon.
With certain congregational exceptions, Christian baptismal statistics in the United States have long been on the downturn, including that of infants, children or adults. In recent years, as fewer families attended or brought their children to church, infant baptisms have waned. As fewer persons participate in conversionist churches, or respond to their evangelistic pleas, those numbers too have caved. (The Southern Baptist Convention’s continuing baptismal decreases are but one case study in much broader ecclesiastical realities.)
“Faith keeps baptism from becoming simply a magic ritual for fulfilling a salvific requirement, while baptism keeps faith from becoming simply an individual experience.”
Amid such arid fonts and baptisteries, the promise of baptism remains, sung out in the yearning appeal of the spiritual, “Take me to the water, take me to the water, take me to the water, to be baptized;” or in the abiding imagery of the hymn, “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. She is his new creation by water and the Word.”
What to do?
Rather than blaming “secularism,” the religiously unaffiliated “Nones,” MSNBC, Fox or Sunday soccer for burgeoning baptismal decreases, contemporary congregations might reexamine their baptismal beliefs and practices, renewing a tangible spiritual experience that, with Jesus, still takes sinners “to the water.” As in earlier times of ecclesiastical uncertainty, we return to the sacramental resources that form and inform Christianity identity: faith in Jesus and baptism into Christ’s body, the Church.
Baptism remains a transforming outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, a timeless spiritual resource in a civilization desperate for rituals of transformation.
In an April 23 New York Times op-ed, columnist David Brooks writes: “Rituals often mark doorway moments, when we pass from one stage of life to another. They acknowledge that these passages are not just external changes but involve internal transformation.” He laments the fact that we live in a culture “where rituals are thin on the ground” and insists that “collective rituals” are among our society’s most pressing needs.
If Brooks is correct, then Christians in general, and (forgive me) Baptists in particular, should be well prepared to respond to such needs. The1611 confession of faith composed by the founding Baptist communion in Amsterdam declared: “That the church of Christ is a company of faithful people separated from the world by the word & spirit of God, being knit unto the Lord, & one another, by Baptism upon their own confession of the faith and sins.” After years of studying the people called Baptists, I remain captivated and terrified by those words and the identity they so profoundly declare. For those 17th-century dissenters, baptism tangibilified grace, to use Albert Cleage’s wonderful word; an outward sign of an inward transformation, a doorway to a community “knit together” to God and one another.
“Fiddes . . . suggests that baptism is an entry point to a lifelong pilgrimage of the Spirit.”
Faith and baptism are intricately related. Faith keeps baptism from becoming simply a magic ritual for fulfilling a salvific requirement, while baptism keeps faith from becoming simply an individual experience. It unites us with God’s new community, the Church.
In the book Tracks and Traces, British theologian Paul Fiddes offers a renewed emphasis on the importance of baptism in Baptist life and tradition. He writes “that many Baptists have failed to give due place to the grace of God received at baptism.” Rather, they emphasized “the faith of the person coming for baptism, and for the act to be a ‘sign’ of dying and rising with Christ only in the sense of a visual aid or illustration.” Thus, baptism was “reduced to an act of obedience and witness alone.”
Fiddes instead calls attention to another “long Baptist tradition” that links the grace of God with the experience of baptism itself. He suggests that baptism is an entry point to a lifelong pilgrimage of the Spirit, noting:
There is room for the saving grace of God in conversion and in believers’ baptism if conversion is but one moment in a larger process, in a long story of the saving grace of God that begins with the prevenient work of the Spirit deep in the mysteries of the human heart and ends with the glorifying of the person in the new creation. This is, after all, the New Testament understanding of salvation which is past, present and future. We have arrived once more at the idea of Christian initiation as a journey, but this time from the starting point of the sovereignty of grace, as a power that enables all human response.”
These days, Christian congregations, whatever their baptismal mode and theology, might renew their baptismal legacy in several ways.
Churches should offer clear, consistent instruction on the nature of faith and baptism within their specific Christian tradition, never taking such knowledge for granted in their congregation. (I once participated in a Baptist Heritage Day celebration in a South Carolina church where the person delivering the children’s sermon held up a picture of the pastor in a white robe, standing in a pool of water. “What’s our pastor doing?” the minister asked with Edenic innocence. “He’s hypnotizing somebody,” a little boy replied.) I rest my case.
Pastor/preachers should focus on baptism as a regular and important part of the church’s liturgical, homiletical calendar. Baptism is the enacted word of God, articulated by the preached word.
Baptismal services should be central, not tacked on, to the worship occasions in which they are celebrated. On certain (summer?) occasions consider taking baptism outside to lakes or rivers with the congregation gathered round. (Preferably no swimming pools!)
Since baptism tangibilifies a journey, not a mere transaction, churches should shape occasions whereby the entire congregation is challenged to renew baptismal vows.
I had such an experience several years ago when attending worship at First Baptist Church, Asheville, North Carolina, on the day that their beloved pastor Guy Sayles retired as senior minister. During the service Dr. Sayles administered baptism to numerous persons who joyously professed faith. He then came down from the baptistery with a pitcher of the baptismal water which he poured into small bowls carried by members of the church’s staff. They then moved throughout the church, as Dr. Sayles invited us to receive the baptismal water on our foreheads or hands as a sign of spiritual renewal.
It was a powerful outward and visible sign of our sacramental journey – the water and the Word, shared tangibly, together. Amen and amen.