In my most recent column, I shared a personal reflection from a 2013 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly workshop which sought to revisit the place and nature of the Baptist tradition of believer’s baptism in the 21st century. I wrote that it was my conviction that before we ask what baptism means and how it functions in current church climates, we must first revisit the various moments and processes which lead to experiences of conversion.
Contemplating how we might rethink the nature of conversion, it was my final conclusion to suggest that we can no longer view conversion as a one-time and exclusively private moment in which a new believer is suddenly grafted into God’s community and thus distinguished from those who are not. Instead, I argued that conversion is a lifetime journey and process during which members of the faith community rarely arrive at the same conclusions at the same time.
Conversion should be embraced as natural organic growth and room should be given for a wide range of unexpected growth. It is not about who is “in” or who is “out,” but rather, a continual recognition of the presence of Jesus among those we meet on our own journey, trusting that eventually God’s kingdom will be realized by all.
With this new understanding of conversion as that which comes to all people at different times and through various avenues, our liturgical ordinances of communion and baptism can now be revisited. If, as Baptists, we extend grace and fellowship to all people, trusting that God, through a life-long process of conversion, is reconciling them, we can confidently open our communion tables to anyone, regardless of where they are on their journey. If we believe God has welcomed all to the banquet, our communion tables can be sacred spaces where we act on this conviction, trusting that for some, the table might be a moment of conversion where one first experiences the mysterious presence of Jesus.
Communion then is not a feast that is limited only to those inside our own fellowship but for all people who we may already maintain an invisible fellowship with. We have to make space at the table for anyone who wishes to come and be filled, regardless of what may draw them in the first place.
Embracing such an open communion, we can also reclaim baptism as a prerequisite for membership in the church but also as a public symbol of one who has decided to follow Jesus in the proclaiming of the Kingdom come to all people. As I said in my last article, embracing a process of conversion does not reduce our spiritual experience to that of syncretism and the same can be said for the practice of open communion. These are still moments for a distinctly Christian and Baptist expression of the mysteries of God. Baptism continues these expressions.
Viewing conversion as a process has allowed me to boldly proclaim an open table every time our congregation shares in the Lord’s Supper. In doing this, I have sought to clearly communicate the importance of one who has taken the next step and has decided to follow Christ into the waters of baptism. Printed on our bulletins and proclaimed in the water and over the congregation are these words: “Baptism is the public witness of one who has, is and will continue to be converted to God through the person of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is a declaration of a life following and modeled on the ways of Jesus, and it will therefore proclaim alongside Jesus the radical inclusion and invitation to all people to approach God’s table while also embracing the fluid nature of the conversion which led to such a decision. The baptized has been converted, is still converting and will continue to convert more and more to God in pursuit of the logos.
If we truly reflect on the act of baptism, in it we see what is perhaps the most postmodern act. Baptism is the outward expression of an inward story and it takes place in a community of many different and at times conflicting stories. Water is involved. People get wet. When one goes through the ordinance of baptism it is a major moment on their conversion journey and perhaps the starting point for another.
The Baptist tradition, as hinged on these notions of conversion, communion and baptism, is unbelievably relevant in our age of pluralism, allows for diversity of theological thought, and ensures a bright future of distinctly Christian and Baptist witness in the ever growing religious marketplace.
Furthermore, understanding conversion as a process allows churches and individuals the ability to work and partner with those in their community who might not be in theological agreement or even members of the community at all. When these friends enter our sanctuaries, we can, in a proleptic act, open our tables to them as those whom God has prepared an everlasting seat. Trusting again that God is the judge of conscience, we can stand as a witness of their own particular Christocentric theology while also working to create common space for others to breathe.
Alex Gallimore ([email protected]) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.