This week I want to address once again the issue, “Where have all the baptisms gone?” as articulated in a blog post by Thom Rainer. I want to offer an additional line of thinking.
Even in a denomination that carries the very idea of baptism in its name, I would contend Southern Baptists have made too little of baptism. Too often, there is a void in our emphasis on baptism and its fundamental importance in the Christian life. Fewer and fewer sermons emphasize the importance of baptism. Too few of our churches have requirements for new members where doctrinal truth is taught, thus baptism is not given its rightful high place in the teaching of the church.
We, as Baptists, believe the Scripture teaches that baptism is an outward expression of an inward commitment to Christ. We believe that baptism is not essential to salvation or that baptism has saving qualities. It is not a sacrament that dispenses grace. Baptism is an act subsequent to salvation and gives public acknowledgment of our faith.
Unfortunately, in our attempt to make clear that baptism does not save, we have de-emphasized the act of baptism and its importance in our walk with Christ. We call for people to make public professions of faith and then we baptize them at a different time. In the New Testament, there were no aisles to walk down to the front of the church. Baptism was the time of open, clear and decisive commitment to Christ. It was the time of public confession of faith.
Does this make the tradition of calling people to make public professions of faith followed by baptism wrong? Some would answer yes; I disagree. People are not saved by baptism, thus declaring faith before baptism is a right practice. People did the same in the early church. They just did not walk down an aisle, but they were saved before baptism.
For example, I am thankful for the many youth ministries in our churches. Many use Wednesday evening as worship events, and youth are saved in these services. The challenge is to teach these young people that they, in obedience to Christ, should now be baptized. For New Testament believers, confession of faith without baptism would have been foreign and unacceptable. It ought to be foreign and unacceptable to us, no matter what age a person is when converted.
I would suggest our churches should make a greater effort to emphasize baptism. It should be given priority and prominence in worship. A pastor’s preaching and a church’s teaching ministry needs to give clear declaration of the meaning of baptism. I love that many churches call on those who are baptized to express their faith in Jesus as Lord before they are immersed. Public confession joined to baptism is right and powerful.
A new convert should invite friends and family to join them for their baptism experience, which is a very significant event in their life. It would be a great time for the new convert to host a baptism reception and take time to make a public confession in front of their family and friends.
Baptism is a powerful testimony that unites our words and actions. The testimony of our faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and our own death to sin and resurrection to a new way of life is made plain through baptism. Baptists, of all people, should never let baptism slip to the mundane or become unimportant. Baptism is central to our faith walk and an important step in our growth as disciples and followers of Christ.