Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More on baptism and membership

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


Jonathan said...

I think my main problem with 60-90 weeks preperation is that it is entirely counter-scriptural.

In Acts 8 we seen Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian official. At the end of their conversation, the official has made some kind of faith response to Jesus and asks "Look, here is some water. Why can't I be baptized" (Acts 8:37 CEV) And Philip immediately baptises him. Preparation time = one conversation.

In Acts 10 we have the wonderful account of Peter's interaction swith the household of Cornelius, who respond in faith to his teaching about Jesus. They are filled with the Holy Spirit, and Peter proclaims, "These gentiles have been given the Holy Spirit, just as we have! I am certain that no-one would dare stop us from baptizing them" (Acts 10:47 CEV) So Peter orders they be baptised. Preparation time = one sermon.

I struggle to find an example in the New Testament of people prolonging preparation for baptism. I wonder if the current norm to do that is part of the reason it is seen as a finishing line rather than a start line?

Anonymous said...

The catechesis needs to be both prior and post getting wet or being confirmed - even though I am a Pastor I am still becoming with regards my discipleship and have not arrived yet - it will be an ongoing, God willing, long life process!

I had an interesting conversation with some members of our church last week concerning baptism and membership and they had bever even made the link that candidates who are about to be baptised have already been accepted by God but as far as our church fellowship the jury was out until we had sent roud a couple of leaders to have a chat...almost sounds like a mafia thing!

Iam currently thinking along the lines of - if these people meet the criteria for God, ie have had an encounter with God and have expressed that encounter in faith through some form of baptism, sprinkling or dunking, then why should our membership policy be more stringent? After all ca we offer more than God!

graham old said...


I have no trouble with people delaying baptism, as long as this is connected with faith-repentance. The problem, I think, is when we encourage people to get 'saved' and then delay baptism a year or more. It seems to me that the more scriptural approach would be to delay the whole thing.

I'm challenged by the example of Jesus turning people away and telling them that they weren't ready to follow him. He would have made a crap evangelist!

Churches that have traditionally emphasised an official time of catechesis, e.g. The Eastern Orthodox, have most definitely seen it as the first step and see baptism as an essential doorway to the Church.

I think that our divorcing of baptism from salvation-discipleship means that we very often don't know what to do with it, making it difficult to appreciate what Alan is saying.

graham old said...

Simon, what's wrong with raising the bar?

I've not yet read Alan's chapter in this particular book, but it's a shame if he comes across as dismissive of some of the things that you mention. It's also misrepresentative as he's involved in some of them!

Anonymous said...

Simon, I don't think Alan is being dismissive of all we do in church. I take it as a challenge to whether we are doing those 12 things as a church. I'm not sure we do. I often wonder what is being taken in. I think partly its about the church saying quite clearly and loudly everything we do is to 'renew our minds' and bodies and spirits, because the world tries to accomodate us to its ways. What I take from Alan is a desire (which I'm sure is shared) to take baptism and discipleship seriously and a claim that we have set the bar to low (that we've cheapened baptism and reduced discipleship to something that does not create disciples). we must ask ourselves how do we prepare people for baptism? and what do we post-baptism? My view is often its 'hurrah, your baptised, well done, you're in'. I wonder whether its post-baptism that the intensive catechesis has a role to play.