Baptism FAILS: Drive-Thru Infant Baptisms [3of3]

This is a three-part series on Baptism.

I declined to perform a baptism.

That sounds like an incredible statement from a Christian pastor. Baptism is the key word in the Great Commission, to baptize all the nations. Baptism is the entry point into the kingdom of God. Baptism, according to some understandings, wipes clean original sin and offers anyone a fresh start. Baptized members show up on our metrics and dashboards and make us clergy look effective! Why, oh why, would I deny baptism to someone? [somewhere, the batphone to the Board of Ordained Ministry is ringing]

It’s not what it sounds like. Rather, it is a continuation (and conclusion) to our three-part series on Baptism fails, or flawed understandings/practices of baptism in United Methodist Churches. We first talked about having baptisms after church. Then we talked about churches that “prefer” adult baptisms and put infant baptisms as a second-rate event. Today, we look beyond the institution to the individual’s flawed understanding of baptism. Read on…

In my first year of ministry, the first baptism I was asked to do came in. I got a phone call from a woman who had not attended church since she was 18 (15 years prior) and she wanted her newborn daughter to be baptized. She had set the end of September as the date for her child’s baptism, and then started calling churches in the area to find one to perform the baptism on that day.

She called my church, the local United Methodist Church.  After the pleasantries and purpose of the call were discussed, here’s roughly the conversation that took place (I wrote it a long time ago for another blog at the time, so I can’t fill in the details anymore):

So Pastor, can I get my child baptized?

I’m very glad you want to get your child baptized. However, there is one area that has not been addressed. Baptism is not just a promise to your daughter.

What do you mean?

I mean that baptism is not just an individual action, where your daughter is blessed into entry into the Church. Along with that, and affirmed in our baptism liturgy, is a promise from the congregation to care and nurture for the child, or even the older convert. Baptism is not just an individual action, but a reception into the community. So it is very important that baptisms are offered to members of the church and to member’s children.

So you only offer baptisms to members of your church?

Yes, that’s correct. We strongly believe, not only as Methodists, but also this pastor’s conviction, that baptism is a community promise, and it is difficult to keep up the promise if you are not part of the community.

I see.

So, from my perspective, you have two choices if you want this church to become involved. I will happily offer a Naming ceremony for your daughter, where we recognize her name, speak of her name, and the importance of naming in Christian faith. That’s not christening or baptism, but it is a meaningful event.

The second option is that you can join as a member at the same time as your daughter’s baptism. I would take it on faith that you would support the church with your prayers, presence, gifts, and service.

Thank you.

Would you like to come in and talk about it?

Yes, I think I will.

I would ask that you pray about the options before you, and also check out other churches in the area that offer baptims. It is possible given the great diversity of Christian beliefs that you will find one with a different perspective, but I think you may be surprised how many churches consider baptism to be their concern also, not just the family’s.

She never came in and I found out later that another church held the ceremony for her family, they made an offering, and then never came back.

While there are certainly denominational and theological differences in the Christian perspective regarding baptism, I (and this may be a shocker) agree with my denomination’s stance on this. We already talked last week about how baptism is reception into the community of the church, the church pledges to raise the child, and they were being denied that by churches that held baptisms after church. We also talked about the importance of infant baptisms being done in the presence of the full congregation. And today we examine why infant baptisms are typically done for children of members of the church.

By Water and the Spirit is the accepted and well-written explanation of Baptism (it’s a resolution, not church law), and in it is this section on why baptisms are best for those who pledge to raise their child in the church:

The baptism of infants is properly understood and valued if the child is loved and nurtured by the faithful worshiping church and by the child’s own family. If a parent or sponsor (godparent) cannot or will not nurture the child in the faith, then baptism is to be postponed until Christian nurture is available. A child who dies without being baptized is received into the love and presence of God because the Spirit has worked in that child to bestow saving grace. If a child has been baptized but her or his family or sponsors do not faithfully nurture the child in the faith, the congregation has a particular responsibility for incorporating the child into its life.

Understanding the practice as an authentic expression of how God works in our lives, The United Methodist Church strongly advocates the baptism of infants within the faith community: “Because the redeeming love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, extends to all persons and because Jesus explicitly included the children in his kingdom, the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at an early age” (1992 Book of Discipline, par. 221). We affirm that while thanksgiving to God and dedication of parents to the task of Christian child-raising are aspects of infant baptism, the sacrament is primarily a gift of divine grace. Neither parents nor infants are the chief actors; baptism is an act of God in and through the Church.

So, there ya go.  My first time to be offered a baptism and I decline it.  I felt bad, a bit, and I got into “intense conversation” with my Board of Ordained Ministry for my more by-the-book understanding of baptism into a faith community. But it is an important belief to me, and coincidentally (thankfully!) my Church.

Many people – especially occasional churchgoers – understand baptism to be a “ticket” that must be punched if their child is to go to heaven.  That is a very misinformed understanding of baptism.  Baptism is a sign of God’s parental love and a means of God’s grace.  It is a cleansing and a rebirth, burial with Christ and a sign of the hope of resurrection.  It is a visible sign of initiation into the Church.

In reality, I didn’t deny the baptism. I gave the family the chance to join the church, to become open to the spirit flowing through our congregation, and would take it on faith that the woman would raise the child in the faith. That would have been fine. They chose not to take that option and chose the path that their consumeristic approach to baptism allowed for, which was a drive-thru baptism to receive the sacrament and then go on. In my opinion.

Now, six years later (almost to the day!), I might have a bit of a different stance. If they were a professed and active member of another Christian community, and were asking for a baptism in another church for some reason (divorced parents, gay parents, etc), then I would likely have had a different decision. Even our most hardline of Wesleyanists out there, they still allow the Sacrament of Communion to be given to “any baptized Believer.” So I would likely have given the Sacrament of Baptism to any committed Christian’s child, even of another denomination. Trusting the work of God to work through another community? Maybe.

In this series, we’ve brought forth an ideal: Baptism, infant and adult, is best celebrated in the community of the church. It is not an add-on to the service, infant baptisms are not done outside of Sunday worship, and baptisms are done to members (with some exceptions) of the church. Baptism involves the community in ways that allow the grace present at the Sacrament to multiply and pervade longer than the moment. I hope you found some level of inspiration from it.

Your turn. Do you allow drive-thru baptisms in your congregation? How has your track record been with them? And what are the reasons that families want these baptisms in the first place? Cultural? Spiritual? Family pressure? Genuine seeking?

Discuss. Thanks for your comments!

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  1. Allen Snider says

    I really like your approach as gatekeeper of the church’s ritual. As a pastor, I find myself in that role often. Intellectually, I can justify it. I am a pastor, educated in seminary, having taken classes in worship and theology, and I have practiced worship planning for well over twenty years. looking back at some poor decisions I may have made.
    The book is important, but then the question that keeps challenging me, one that has too often become a trite cliche and yet is still important, is this one, “What would Jesus do?” Our general rules also challenge my thinking. And finally (or perhaps, firstly), I must ask myself, “How shall I love this neighbor that God has given me to love as I love myself?”
    It is appropriate that you “felt bad,” because we must make decisions, accept the consequences of those decisions, and then trust that God will continue where we cannot and sometimes dare not. That “bad” feeling leads us to humility and deeper reflection, and sometimes, confession and change, but always, hopefully to prayer.
    If you are looking for justification, you can only get that from God, but I believe you did a thoughtfully faithful and loving thing. Baptism is one of the most important educational moments in our church life, but even an education in Christian theology, doctrine, and a practice is no guarantee that those thoughtfully and properly baptized will stay the course. I am reminded of the three pastors trying to get rid of the bats in their churches. The third pastor says he baptized and confirmed them and hasn’t seen them since.
    I share some advice that was shared with me years ago: “Love people enough to teach them gently with loving patience, humility, and a lot of prayer.” And “not every issue is a battle to be fought and won.”
    God bless.
    I appreciate your posts.

  2. jodancingtree says

    I’d like to respond to this with a story. Back in 1967, my young husband and I had a baby boy. We came from different backgrounds (Lutheran & Catholic) and neither of us had been to church since our teens. We’d both had hurtful experiences there, and when the baby was born, believed in God, liked Jesus but didn’t know what to believe about him, and were afraid NOT to have the baby baptized, in case our churches were right about unbaptized children not going to heaven.
    My husband’s childhood Lutheran church agreed to the baptism. It was performed in the context of the Sunday worship service, but no one met with us or had any discussion with us. During the following year, we found our way back to God, though it was several years before a return to church. Our son was raised in the church (Baptist, as it turned out).
    Definitely it would have been better if the pastor had sat down with us and explored where we were at spiritually! But it would have been disastrous if he’d insisted that we promise to join the church before he would baptize our son: it would have been one more religion-inflicted hurt, added to what we were already carrying, and it might have driven us away permanently.
    In my opinion, when a parent requests baptism for a child, it probably represents some degree of reaching out for God, and it’s a mistake to push the hand away.
    Pastor, with all respect, it’s not ABOUT your church, your tradition, your view of community. It’s about someone wanting to somehow put their child in touch with God – maybe for the wrong reasons, maybe in the wrong way, but still –
    It’s a matter of “suffer the little children to come unto Me.” The answer you make to that parent, in their eyes, may well represent the response they get from Christ.

  3. Walt says

    Baptism is a public profession and symbolic message that is done to convey that you have “died” to your old ways and have been reborn and made anew and dedicated your life as a Christian (following Christ). Baptism by no means “washes away” your sins or refreshes your spirit. It is merely a public profession and symbolic message. Only God can wash away your sins and refresh your spirit and make someone “born again”. When you say only members can be baptized. Who are you to say who is a member and who is not a member? Only God knows the heart of a man/woman. God will make this judgment. You may ask if they are fully aware of what this means and such, but turning down someone who wants to be baptized is not really your call. This is where the church is most important. The church is the community of believers. When 2 or more believers are gathered together that is considered “church”. The church is a support group and a network of believers with the same goal in mind which is to do God’s will and not their own. As believers we are also called to carry each other burdens and to hold each other accountable for actions that have been done. Don’t confuse accountability with judgment, they have separate meanings. Baby baptism, that is not the baby’s choice and nor does the baby understand what is going on, so how does one who lacks understanding of such commitment actually get baptized in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit? What should be done is a dedication of the community and or church to help raise the child as a Christian so that he/she will know the ways of the Lord so when he becomes fully aware of what it means to be a Christian and weighs the cost of such commitment then he or she can then be baptized to profess publically of their commitment to follow Christ and that they have died to their past and is now looking forward.(This also alludes to turning someone down, but go back to what I said earlier.) Being baptized does not make one perfect or insusceptible to sin or the things of this world. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that things will become easy and life will be like walking on a bed of roses. Or that when one gets baptized they will automatically know the Will of God. Quite the opposite will happen. Once you way the cost of being a Christian and fully commit your life over to God and die to yourself daily and pick up your cross and follow Christ. You are turning away your own philosophy and world view and taking on Jesus’s philosophy and world view. In order to understand the God and know the will of the Father we look to the Son and when we know the Son we will also know the Father. This is only brought about by reading the bible and commune with others. As a Christian we know the end result of this world. We may not know the details of such or the path of which things will happen, but the end result is already known. The life of a Christian if you think about it and see that you are being called to do God’s will. Even if it means risking your life or offending John Doe, because John wants the public to recognize that he is a Christian, but doesn’t want to fully walk in Christ’s footsteps and is offended when you hold him accountable for their actions. It is a life of trusting and having faith in Christ that he knows best and his philosophy and world view is correct. The only thing we have of value is our being (our body/mind/soul…etc) and that is what we are entrusting Jesus with and that is what faith is.

  4. says

    Here I fear UM Jeremy failed the child in question, although ultimately his failure was corrected by another pastor in a different church. Honey, and not vinegar, is of vital importance in pastoral care, especially of marginal Christians such as this mother. One must exercise every possible degree of oikonomia in ministering to these wandering sheep, to bring them back into the fold.

    Baptism is not a purely symbolic act, but represents a genuine spiritual rebirth, that is effective on the recipient even if they are unaware of it. This is why we reject the doctrine of Believer’s Baptism; if one must understand one’s belief in order to be baptized, this either means that baptism is not necessary for salvation, or alternately, and more horrifically, that all who die as children, and the mentally impaired, are damned. Even Augustine did not venture such an appalling sacramental theology of baptism. The Eastern Orthodox believe that baptism works on the Noetic faculty of the soul, connecting our innermost personal identity, functioning at a level that is almost infinitely below the level of conscious thought, with the saving grace of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the infant would be blessed, and have a connection with his Savior, even if he later in life never set foot in a church again. UMJeremy squandered a marvelous opportunity to convey the greatest blessing it is possible to give, for reasons of church participation that are ultimately rather petty.

    He also missed a great opportunity to minister to the mother. After the Baptism, the opportunity would present itself to follow up with the mother on other occasions; to encourage her to attend again, for her child to be blessed, and for subsequent baptisms, if she chose to have more children. As her child aged, he could have encouraged her to bring the youngster to Christmas services, and to Easter services, and eventually, to allow the child to participate in the youth programs. In like manner, he could have ministered to the mother, bringing her gradually and fully into the fold.

    Many businesses operate like this. You start when a customer comes to you needing something small, something specific. You sell them that, but the relationship doesn’t end there. You build the relationship, and continue providing them with progressively more important services, until they become one of your major accounts. While the Church isn’t a business, here, the entrepreneurial discipline does have some wisdom to impart. We should as a rule not turn away people who genuinely are seeking Christ, nor frustrate their approach to the baptismal font or the altar with needless bureaucracy. I abhor the rigidity of the Roman Catholic “Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults,” as it forces all prospective converts to Catholicism to attend a lengthy and formalized initiation program, including classes and special sessions. It is one thing to require adults to spend time as catechumens before baptizing them, and in that time to deny them communion, for their own safety, but it is another thing entirely to single them out and force them through a “process”, that destroys the joy of Christian conversion.

    In the case of this poor mother however, you have a woman whose heart was clearly in the right place. The fact that she felt the need for her child to be Christened shows the work of the Holy Spirit within her. She is clearly a marginal Christian, but a Christian nonetheless, and one whose faith could have been gradually cultivated. Even had UMJeremy failed, it would have been worth the effort. Instead, however, he chose to threaten the very safety of her mortal soul, by outright rejecting her. Her feelings may have been hurt; we are lucky indeed she didn’t simply say “Screw it, Christianity is out of date, who needs baptism”, and thus her child would not have baptized, and she would have completed her journey into apostasy.

    I should like to close with a trio of Bible verses (quoted from three different Bible editions, as is my custom; the Peshitto, the KJV, and the Douay Rheims), that illustrate how I feel Christ intended his Bride to receive all those who approach:

    “But Jesus called them, and said to them: Suffer little children to come to me, and forbid them not; for of those that are like them, of such is the kingdom of heaven. ”

    “And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

    “Again therefore, Jesus spoke to them, saying: I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

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