This has been a fascinating conversation so far - long may it continue cause I'm learning loads!
It seems clear to me that there are two broad groups of people who are in mind as we think about baptism and membership - and sometimes we get them confused. The first group are Christians who are looking to join our churches because they've moved into the area or have decided to move on from the church they've been attending for a while for a variety of reasons.
I feel it's obvious that we take seriously their journey with God over how ever long it's taken. This must include acknowledging the validity of whatever initiation they have undergone assuming that that initiation was accompanied along the way by faith on the part of the person. This an area that Baptists seem divided over. I'll return to it.
The second group are those who are finding faith through the activities of our churches. Regarding this group, I have long been influenced by the simple thought that belonging precedes believing. For me this has always meant that people need to be welcomed and feel accepted before they are likely to be able to sort out what they believe. This in itself raises all kinds of questions about membership (which I'll also return to - though probably not in this post)
For these folk, it seems to me, baptism is a crucial part of that journey and a creative approach to preparing them for that moment is essential.
This leads me to reflect on one point in Alan Kreider's stimulating essay in Remembering Our Future. He lays great emphasis on baptismal preparation - what he calls catechesis. Taking his cue from the patristic period - while eschewing charges of patristic fundamentalism (p177) - he argues strongly that 60 or even 90 weeks of baptismal preparation is essential.
His reason for this is that it has to undo a lot of the learning that our culture has forced on us; the billions of dollars spent on advertising, the hours spent in front of the TV - all this has to be undone and Christian learning put in its place.
I have two problems with this. The first is entirely practical - while it might say to people how seriously we take baptism and discipleship, it raises the bar so high that few people are likely to stick around to jump it. The second is that he seems casually dismissive of all the teaching efforts of churches: Sunday school, youth groups, camps, home groups, Sunday adult teaching, midweek Bible studies - all these are apparently dismissed as incapable of countering the impact of the world. And yet, surely, this is precisely what such programmes are geared to do. Our church's teaching programme aims to make disciples, aims to help those disciples navigate their way through a difficult world.
I've not had time to reflect on his twelve steps - I will and will blog about it - but my immediate reaction is that these steps describe what good churches teach week-in, week-out and to suggest that it all needs to be reiterated in detail as part of baptismal preparation seems redundant.
And would he argue that folk joining us from other traditions would need to go through a similar catechetical process? What would this say about our acceptance of their journey of faith? I can't help but think that it would send out negative and exclusivist vibes of the most unhelpful kind.
I'll reply to a couple of comments left earlier in the discussion in the next post