I’ve just written an article for the New Wine Magazine that included something about the baptisms that took place last weekend at The Belfrey. It got me thinking that we probably have some things to share with other churches and their leaders about baptism. In fact last year a visiting Baptist minister was present at one of our congregations when we had a number of baptisms and he said to me, with a big smile on his face, that he thought he and other Baptists had a few things to learn from us about baptism! I was touched by his humility.
So, what have we learned – and are still learning – about baptisms? Here are 10 things:
1. Baptise Early On
As soon as someone at The Belfrey makes a commitment to Christ, we encourage them to be baptised at the earliest opportunity. We’ve found some are hesitant, as they think it’s for mature believers. It’s not. It’s for new believers. If someone knows they want to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives, then that is enough. They should be baptised. They don’t need to know a lot. That will come later. They need to know enough to make a public decision: that they’re saying goodbye to their old life lived without Jesus, and hello to their new life with Jesus. It’s rather like getting married. You don’t need to know everything about your spouse before you marry them; just enough to know you want to live in relationship with them for the rest of your life. So in the New Testament people were baptised very early after deciding to follow Christ – many on the same day. We should encourage this New Testament pattern.
2. Celebrate at Baptisms
People make vows when they’re baptised and rather like the life-changing vows said at a wedding, these are serious things. But that’s no excuse for baptism services to be boring! Like weddings they should be happy, joyful occasions! The service leader should make sure the feel is warm, welcoming, happy and celebratory. We have found that the time immediately after the baptisms is important. There’s excitement and anticipation in the air. So we normally go into a period of strong worship where we praise our great God who changes lives. People often meet with Him powerfully during these worship times. This also sets up things brilliantly for a preacher to speak God’s word. (Practically, having a good stretch of singing also gives the candidates good time to dry off too, so they don’t miss out on the message!)
3. Video the Stories
Those present at baptism services want to know why the candidates are being baptised. They want to know something of their story. So tell it. And there’s no-one better to tell it than the person being baptised! Sometimes we give them a few minutes to tell their story, and if they speak clearly and well that can be very powerful. However too often we’ve found that people get very nervous about this and often clam up and don’t say very much. And then sometimes quite the opposite happens: someone takes the mic and gets on a roll and can’t stop! So we now normally pre-record the testimonies on video. I would highly recommend this. It involves them being recorded a few days before answering some simple questions (like: ‘tell us your story’ and ‘why do you want to be baptised?) They can speak to the camera for as long as they like and if it doesn’t come out well, they can retake. Once we have all the candidates recorded, there’s some editing to do and then we put it all together in a 5 minute video hearing the stories of all those being baptised. We show this before they come forward to make their baptismal promises. And people love it! The candidates like it (because virtually everyone likes seeing themselves on the big screen) and it takes the pressure off them having to say anything live on the day. And the congregation appreciate it, as it’s informative, short and to the point.
Afterwards we put the video online, allowing candidates to let family and friends not present know about it, so they too can hear their story. This can be a very powerful means of witness to their circle of friends. We also re-use them. We show these videos on our Foundations course for newcomers when we teach about commitment and baptism. When I spoke a couple of weekends ago on Vision Sunday I used a recent baptism video to give examples of how God has been changing lives in our community. So if you have the means, video the stories and show them in the service.
4. Fully Immerse People
If you can, put the candidates right under the water. This is the New Testament way (Matthew 3:16; Acts 2:38). If you’re an Anglican (like we are at The Belfrey) it is also the Anglican way. (If in doubt, read The Book of Common Prayer). However we make it very clear that it’s not the amount of water that counts, so if there is good reason why someone should be sprinkled, or lean over the baptism pool and have water poured on their head, that’s fine. But baptism means immersion. Immersion into God. And the act of baptism is supposed to dramatically represent this. It’s quite an experience! People get wet. It’s messy. People are dripping with water. And that’s the very point. Following Jesus is often messy, and we’re supposed to drip his presence wherever we go. So that’s why we encourage full immersion. We even do babies that way. Not all parents want that. But increasingly they do. All my 5 children were baptised that way and the more infants we fully immerse, the more we’re finding that believing parents want that for their children. After all, those who baptise children hopefully believe it’s proper baptism – not some half-hearted version – and so it should be done properly!
5. Let People See
If you’re not careful a baptism service can be a passive experience for those sitting in the pews. So service leaders must work hard at including the wider congregation. It’s good that in the Church of England’s baptism liturgy the very first vow made is by the people of the church, not the candidates as they promise to welcome and support those being baptised. So the congregation is included from the start. But there are all sorts of other things that can be done to help the wider congregation to engage. One of the most simple – and important – is to allow people to see. So encourage people to gather round if you can (but not in such a way that it blocks the view of others!) In the summer months we baptise outside on the church forecourt. Not only is this a great witness to the thousands passing by in the centre of York who stop to watch, but it’s also much easier for everyone to see when you’re outside. At Easter we baptise outdoors with the Archbishop on the steps of York Minster and people have a great view.
Now that we’re improving our video technology, when we baptise inside we normally have a mobile roving video camera giving a live HD feed to our video screen. This means that people at the back can see exactly what’s going on at the front. It’s also recorded, so you can, if you wish, add this to the video of their testimony so the candidate can have a DVD of their special day.
6. Preach about Transformation
We find it’s easy to preach after baptisms. People have heard the testimonies of God changing lives and so faith levels are high. People are attentive. So normally we’d preach a message about the God who changes lives. We make it Christ-focussed and very simple. Those being baptised will have brought family and friends with them and so you can be pretty sure there will be people present who do not know Christ. So this is a great opportunity to show people how amazing Jesus is, and to talk of his transforming power.
7. Preach for Response
If you can’t preach for a response at a baptism service, then you can’t do it at all! This is a great opportunity for people not just to hear about Jesus, but to be challenged to follow him for themselves. There are all sorts of ways that can be done. At times we have offered baptism for those who are ready to make a life-commitment. After all, the pool is already there! But most of the time we ask people simply to take the next step. That could be finding out more, through reading or talking to someone. For many it will involve going on an Alpha course or something similar. We would often ask people to pray a prayer of commitment, and for those who do we’d then get alongside them and encourage them to consider Alpha (if they’ve not already done so) and then we’d try to get them linked in with someone as soon as possible to talk through the commitment they’ve made. That person would then encourage them to get baptised soon.
8. Affirm Baptismal Faith
If you’re an Anglican, Affirmation of Baptismal Faith is a wonderful resource you should be using. It is one of the liturgical texts that have been introduced in the Church of England as part of Common Worship. Many don’t know it exists. It allows you to publically mark the faith commitment of someone who was baptised as a baby, went away from the faith and then has subsequently returned. Water may be used and the vows said are the baptismal promises. If the tradition of the church is full immersion, it allows the candidate to go under the water. However reference to, and respect for, their infant baptism must be made. Whilst I suspect some might not want the Services of Baptism and Affirmation of Baptismal Faith to be mixed up, we have been doing the two together quite successfully for a number of years, because the promises are the same and the act of going under the water is the same. We do tell people at the beginning that x is being baptised, and y is Affirming Baptismal Faith, and the words used before going under are different. So we make a clear distinction but by doing them together we are showing the common link that all these people are committing their lives to Christ.
We find that new believers, whether they were baptised as infants or not, want to publically mark what has happened. Most want to be baptised. In the past we had to say ‘no’ to anyone who’d been baptised as a baby – even if their parents did it out of tradition and they were never brought up to know Christ or be part of church. Such people would often go off to the local Baptist church to get ‘done’ (and a few wouldn’t return!) but now we can respect their child baptism, and allow them – as a one-off – to publically bury their old life and mark the start of their new life in Christ. So if you’ve never used Affirmation of Baptismal Faith, you should!
9. Teach about Baptism
As I read the New Testament I’m more and more convinced that baptism is the main mark of following Jesus. Just read the book of Acts. It’s not saying a prayer, raising a hand, filling out a card or even coming to the front of a church meeting – important as those things may be. No, it’s baptism that’s the biblical way of showing that you are a committed follower. So we need to teach people that and communicate clearly what it means to be part of God’s baptised people.
Also, if we want to measure new followers, I can’t think of a better standard than baptism. So an increase in baptisms would be a real sign that the spiritual health of your community, town and region is changing for the better.
10. Pray for More
All this means we should pray more. Pray for more baptisms. We should be calling out to the Lord in our own devotions and at our church prayer meetings for more baptisms. And then we should be working and looking for ways to increase them, as we encourage God’s people to be sharing their faith with others. We are beginning to do this more at The Belfrey. We have a long way to go to seeing baptisms happening every week. That’s my long-term prayer. As it is, we’re presently baptising every month, which is good, but there are so many more the Lord is calling. Psalm 40:3 promises that ‘many will see and respect and put their trust in the Lord’. That’s what we’re praying for, and for people to mark it in public baptism.