Baptism FAILS: Doing Baptisms after Church [1of3]

This is a three-part series on Baptism. Two this week, the third next week.

In the Book of Worship, Baptism has three primary interactions:

  1. Pledges of fidelity by the baptizee (or the parents/representatives of the one being baptized)
  2. The congregation responds that they will participate in offering a loving community for the one being baptized.
  3. The participant is baptized by the minister.

It’s the SECOND point that I want to discuss. “The congregation responds.” They say they will assist in the raising of this child/community for this adult.

But if that is the case, then why in some churches are baptisms are held after church in smaller gatherings?

A very large United Methodist church that does this has a newsletter that recently said this (edited to anonymize it)

Mary Smith, daughter of Dwayne and Rosie Smith, received the Sacrament of Christian Baptism on September 2, 2012 in the Chapel at 12:15 pm. The ceremony, officiated by Rev. Mega Pastor Jr., was attended by family and friends.

And these notices are in every single newsletter that I could scroll through, so it is clearly a regular event at this United Methodist large-size congregation. There are 3-4 services every Sunday. Clearly enough time for a baptism to be had during one of them, right?

But no. The baptism was held AFTER church, attended only by a small number of people, mostly family and friends.

If this is a regular practice, how can congregations say that they will participate in the life of the baptized? As the background reads in the Book of Worship:

The congregation corporately sponsors each candidate and takes vows at each baptism that are to be taken just as seriously as the vows of parents or individual sponsors. When someone is baptized, it is a crucial event in the life both of that person and of the Church.

and in the liturgy of the Sacrament of Baptism:

Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church, reaffirm both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ?
We do.

Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life. 

Further, the removal of the congregation from participating in the Baptism does not give them the offer to renew their own baptisms. As By Water and the Spirit states:

Like God’s people through the ages, all Christians need to participate in acts of renewal within the covenant community. Such an opportunity is offered in every occasion of baptism when the congregation remembers and affirms the gracious work of God which baptism celebrates…Reaffirmation of faith is a human response to God’s grace and therefore may be repeated at many points in our faith journey.

I recognize that there are extraordinary circumstances when baptism is not possible in front of a congregation. People in the hospital, babies born with hours to live, missionary situations, etc. Heck, if someone was hit by a truck, any layperson can baptize the person there on the street (look it up!). ZERO problems with those sort of situations.

My problem is that these are clearly not extra-ordinary situations. They are regular services held outside of the gathered congregation hour…for convenience? So that the services don’t go over the hour broadcast mark? Why?

I would call “after-church Baptisms” to be #baptismfails in that they offer shallow versions of the sacrament that, while they are not any less effective to the baptized, they do not offer the grace-filled moment to the gathered congregation so that they can pledge their connection as the Body of Christ and also have their faith renewed. And it’s a shame that convenience trumps our sacramental theology as United Methodists.

Thoughts? If your church practices after-church or small-family-only baptisms, why?


Print Friendly and PDF


  1. says

    I am not sure there is much to discuss. From my perspective, you are so right. Yet, I did an adult baptism in a local creek. The entire congregation was invited. It was right after worship. We framed it in terms of the second part of the worship service. Communion was served. Not everyone attended though. Before I start throwing stones, I wonder if what I did was much better?

  2. says

    Since the ratification of As By Water and the Spirit by General Conference, intentionally scheduling baptisms outside of a public service of worship is probably a chargeable offense for United Methodists. For some other Christians, baptism outside of regular worship is still the norm, but that’s no excuse for us to act like Episcopalians or Roman Catholics when it comes to baptism. Now, a “public service” could consist of inviting the entire congregation to a special service, I suppose, but historically that would only make sense for, say, an Easter vigil or some similar event.

    As the congregation welcomes the newly baptized into a community of Christian love (a community that is designed “to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love”) this only works if the congregation can re-affirm their sin, their need for grace, and their commitment to Christ along with the newly baptized and the sponsors of the newly baptized. Without that, the sacrament is diminished (either during or outside of worship).

    • says

      Unfortunately “By Water and the Spirit” was adopted into the Book of Resolutions so violating it does not qualify as a chargeable offense. I sure wish it did though!!

      Great post, Jeremy! We need to talk about our sacramental theology more. So much of our time is spent on management, growth/decline, and money (all worthy things) that I feel like we forget to address the lax practices of the sacraments — aka a major thing that makes us different from every other organization.

    • says

      Since Vatican II, incorporating baptism into the ordinary liturgical life of a congregation/parish has been the ideal in the RCC. So has using real bread, not wafers. Some habits die hard.

      Likewise, since the ratification of the new prayer book, for the ECUSA, baptisms as part of the Sunday liturgy has been normative. In fact, the entire Book of Common Prayer is oriented around that theological worldview of the primacy of Baptism; a Baptismal Ecclesiology is central to the current BCP.

      Easter Vigil, Eastern Sunday, Epiphany (Sunday), and Pentecost Sunday are all very appropriate days for baptisms (and reaffirmation of Baptism).

  3. says

    Jeremy, I guess I should be surprised because I’ve never seen this done. But I’m not because I see so many #communionfails where the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving is trunkated and, even in one instance at a gathering that shall remain nameless, I saw a UMC pastor serve communion without the epiclesis, no prayer of consecration at all! Like Ben, I wish “This Holy Mystery” was in the Discipline and not the Book of Resolutions.

    • says

      I think I’m 75% with you. When I’m in a context that does weeekly communion, then I do truncate or rewrite the communion liturgy. But I always leave in the epiclesis and words of institution and keep the creator-christ-spirit model.

      • says

        There’s a difference between “shortening” and “trunkating.” The entire Great Thanksgiving shouldn’t take more than 3-5 minutes, so time shouldn’t be an issue in a well organized worship service (even in one where it’s celebrated weekly). The entire liturgy is there for a reason — you wouldn’t pray half of The Lord’s Prayer or 1/3 of The Apostles’ Creed, would you? The crime at the Table is assuming the liturgy is only a technicality when it’s supposed to be the formative meaning that grounds the practice.

        • says

          I understand liturgy to be the “work of the people” not the Church’s formative meaning that is unchangeable. The RCC allowed for bibles in english and then masses in english so that the people could find more meaning in the liturgies. By reframing the same message in different words (while keeping the areas that have the most historical and sacramental importance), how is that not being faithful to the meaning of “liturgy?”

        • says

          This is why I absolutely LOVE the Open Source Liturgy Project ( GBOD brought together liturgical scholars and pastors to develop “cores” for various liturgies. From these cores, you can build a wide variety of contextually and thematically appropriate liturgies that still maintain the ancient and traditional patterns.

          For example, part of the Great Thanksgiving in the BoW includes a recollection of Salvation History. Retelling Salvation History is critically important to why we gather at the Table. But, the narrative of Salvation History is vast, and can include a wide variety of things. It doesn’t need to be the same story each week. The important thing is that it connects us in the hear and now with that unfolding story that has not yet been finished.

          You can see some of what can be built from these cores at the above site, as well as here:

          Enjoy +)

  4. Kyle Kiner says

    Yes, it would be great to have all baptisms in worship. But also I have experienced some persons asking for baptism do not want to be up in front of everyone for what they consider to be a very personal moment in their lives. So yes baptism outside of the main worship to me would be acceptable granted there were representatives from the congregation. As Methodists we live with tension and the both-and dillemma. I think we struggle greatly with discipleship. So how we define and operate the “surrounding persons with love and care” is essential when so many people fall away and do not connect into a small group. To me this surrounding is just as big as when and where baptism happens. We lose too many people when no body cares and keeps up with them and they do not connect and grow. Connecting people needs to be just as important as the baptismal action. If people fall away and no one remembers them or even knew they were missing that is just as tragic. We are called by baptism to be disciples and help others to grow in their discipleship. We will continue to decline unless we find ways to make the connection stronger for people in all churches regardless of size.
    Thanks for the post, Funk Soul Brother! :)

    • says

      Kyle, I completely agree with special circumstances and with having alternative sites and services if the participant desires and the circumstances merit it. My primary beef is with larger churches (and it is larger churches with broadcast ministries, etc) that schedule them outside the primary worship hours. If it happens monthly, then I would suspect it is a convenience thing rather than a circumstantial thing. IMO.

      • Kyle Kiner says

        Yes, it is not convenient. And it is sad that such a witness cannot fit in the convenient time frame. But maybe it is a blessing that baptism cannot be scripted and God’s work cannot fit into our “box”! Not defending but just stating the blessing that might be there!

    • says

      Maybe this is just me being a sacramental curmudgeon, but I wonder about people who are not comfortable being baptized in front of the congregation. I wonder if the sacrament has been explained to them well enough. It isn’t really supposed to be a personal moment, it is a communal moment.

      Then again, I grew up in an Assemblies of God church where our altar area opened up into a giant pool for full immersion.

  5. David Gray says

    Baptism by immersion — most Methodist churches do not have a pool in the sanctuary. Ours does have a baptismal pool, but it is outside by the main entrance. During a regular service someone wishing to be baptized by immersion, still comes down front, and the pledges are exchanged with the congregation. Then after the service, a small(er) group will join the candidate and the officiating pastor at the pool to complete the ceremony.

    As a side note: it appears that the younger associate pastors always seem to get the February baptisms.

    Other nearby churches have done similar procedures utilizing our pool.

  6. Sue Kimmet says

    I totally agree with you that baptism should be in the regular service and with the entire congregation. Somehow we’ve forgotten our corporate responsibilities to support each other.

  7. says

    I have had several occasions to baptize someone outside of the scheduled worship service of the church. Once, a faithful church choir member asked me to visit a woman in the hospital who was dying of AIDS. This thirty year old prostitute had been active in our church as a youth, become involved in prostitution, and had become ill with AIDS. Initially, my plan was to visit her in the hospital to become acquainted with her and to plan her baptism. When I arrived, however, I realized that the end was very near. There was literally no time to waste by calling in a few church members as witnesses. Told her I was visiting because Ethel had told me she wanted to be baptized. She weekly nodded her head. I asked her if she accepted Jesus as her savior, and she softly, but clearly whispered, “yes.” So, I took the pitcher of ice water, poured some into my hand in order to warm it a bit, and I baptized her there on the spot. Two days later, I announced the baptism publicly in our worship service. Then, on Monday morning, I received a telephone call from the newly baptized woman’s sister. She told me that her sister had died at 11:10 am on Sunday morning–just about the time I was announcing her baptism in our worship service. The sister tearfully expressed her gratitude to me, saying “I have been praying for a sign, that my sister would be all right—that she was going to heaven.” I have never regretted my decision to baptize that young woman in that setting.

    In the later years of my active ministry, the Holy Spirit was very active in drawing people to the church and to Christ. In cases when adults or youth had conversion experiences, I began to suggest that we might plan a service of baptism by immersion. In these settings, we really partied! Often we would hold a church picnic near a body of water. The baptism candidate would be surrounded by the church youth group (if he or she was a youth), family members, and anyone else who wanted to attend. We would take photographs for the church newsletter, and we would make a bulletin board of the pictures. I STILL officiated at many infant baptisms and other baptisms in our sanctuary using sprinkling as a method; but we also offered baptism by immersion.

    I am very glad that I had options for celebrating baptism by immersion, or by sprinkling; and my heart is still deeply moved as I remember how God moved in my church community to draw unbaptized, unchurched people to Christ. Those baptisms are no more valid than the baptisms of infants; but I do rejoice over the sinners who repent. I pray that we will see more such occasions in the ministry of the United Methodist Church.

  8. says

    Thank you, Jeremy, for taking this on. I could no agree more.

    Others have already noted that baptism in the context of the principle Sunday service and WITH communion is the ecumenical norm, including the norm stipulated by both our ritual and our official teaching document on baptism, By Water and the Spirit.

    I would no be quite so quick to say offenses against the ritual and official teaching of our church are not chargeable. It may be more accurate to say Judicial Council has not been given a test case. If it were, I think they would have little option but to find against the defendant were it proven the ritual or our teaching were being violated on purpose in this way. I have written about this here:

    Further, in Decision 1109, the Judicial Council placed the status of our teaching about the sacraments on the same level as our doctrinal standards in terms of what it would take to change them– the same standards as apply for amending anything protected by the General Rules.

    Now hear me– I am not proposing that people go filing charges against pastors who commit liturgical irregularities. Not at all. Rather, I am suggesting that our standards for worship actually are that– standards, not options. It would be good for us to remember that and help each other become accountable to that, watching over one another in love.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *