The other day a friend mentioned to me that her family, including a newborn granddaughter, might be looking for a church. That’s not how it came up, though — first she mentioned that the family was thinking about getting the granddaughter baptized. I’m always glad to hear about people wanting to raise their children in the church because I think it’s a great environment: The church teaches kids how to interact with other kids and adults, how to sit still for long periods of time, how to sing and read music and, of course, it teaches them about God. The comment about getting the granddaughter baptized wasn’t idle, though. The question that followed was, “Would you baptize her?”
Weddings, baptisms and funerals are major conduits for interaction for many pastors, and I count myself among them. (Unfortunately, I get to know more people through funerals than weddings or baptisms, but that’s the way things go these days.) But, for a variety of reasons, many other pastors won’t perform these services for non-members. I know that one temptation I struggle with is the sense that I’m being “used” without any regard for the community I’m part of or the beliefs that I hold. Your auto mechanic’s faith might not have any impact on their work, but I believe your pastor’s faith does. (And, of course, your mechanic’s views on car repair impact their work, but your pastor’s ability to do an oil change doesn’t make a big difference… I hope.)
I generally think it is worth performing weddings and funerals for community members because even if they don’t end up joining the church, it’s an opportunity for me to live out my Christian calling and learn new things.
Baptisms are a different story.
For me, the most beautiful part of the baptism ceremony (other than the baptism itself) is the time in the service when the minister addresses the congregation. With the candidates, family and sponsors standing before the congregation, the congregation promises to “guide and nurture” the candidate “by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.” Yes, the candidate for baptism is changed, given a new status and welcomed officially into the church. But the local congregation is also changed: They have been given new responsibilities for guidance and nurture. These responsibilities are as valid for adult candidates as for youth and infants, though for children the responsibility brings so many expectations with it. Every time I’m a part of the baptism of an infant, I have visions of that child being given the chance that I had: to grow up in a church that loves and guides them, a church that makes them feel welcome and expects their participation, a church where they can look to anyone – not just their parents, not just the pastor – for mentoring or encouragement.
This vision is why I said no to that friend of mine who was looking to get her granddaughter baptized. I told her that I was glad she wanted to baptize this new baby, but that my hope would be for the baby to be baptized in the faith community where she would grow up. I know that’s not always possible – I think especially of military, mission worker and pastor families, but also many others who move around every few years – but in this case it is. And that led me to a great conversation about the difficulties of finding a church, especially for the baby’s parents who aren’t available on Sunday mornings, because it seems that the only churches in the area that offer services other times are Catholic churches and megachurches. The next step for that child isn’t to get baptized (“with undue haste,” for you polity nerds), but to find a Christian community that can covenant with the family to nurture the child as she grows.
I don’t mean to say that every baby has to be baptized in the congregation that the parents intend to remain members of until the child turns 18. My point is that baptism is an important sacrament that visibly incorporates someone into the church, and it’s a beautiful thing when the church can fully embrace that person. Baptism is a twofold challenge to the baptized: are you allowing yourself to be guided and nurtured by a congregation — people who guide, nurture, and encourage you? And, as a part of a congregation, are you guiding, nurturing and encouraging those who are baptized?
We are meant to be Christian in community. If you use the church for its drive-thru services, you’re missing out on so much! Yes, you miss out on the drama of church, but you also miss opportunities for growth and opportunities to let Christ bring growth to others through you. It is, as they say, a beautiful mess. Don’t turn down the chance to be a part of it.
ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.