Since water baptism is so important to the churches, I want to put forward a few ideas that may help churches make more of this important symbolic act. What I’m suggesting is in the way of pastoral advice, not doctrine. You can take or leave these ideas, but in my own experience and through information received from many pastors over the years, these suggestions could make this experience much more memorable and effective. Most of these suggestions will apply to those who meet in typical church buildings, but some will apply, or can be adapted, for churches that meet in homes.
- Consider bringing the congregation forward and as near as reasonable to the baptistery when you baptize. Having the congregation gathered around the water makes the experience that much warmer and less formal. In this way you are getting as close as possible in a building to the original experience of the early church. By turning the lights down you can focus all the attention on the act taking place. This will not work in every situation, but I have practiced it in one form or another like this for many years, even where several hundred people were involved.
- Print nice invitations for the baptism with the name of the one to be immersed. This can be done with nice card stock even on your own computer. Give several of these to those being baptized so that they can invite their friends and family to the evening. Include a map to the place of baptism. Invite them also to a reception prior to the service during which the meaning of baptism is explained (another way to preach the gospel). You may wish to give an evangelistic book or CD1 to each person who is a guest. Then, during the evening meeting, have the one being baptized read his or her testimony. Preach evangelistically before the baptism. Make the baptism itself the final part of the meeting. Relatives and friends are used to the idea of attending baby sprinklings, so will likely find it appropriate to attend such an event. Many invitations should be passed out. Some churches have seen large numbers of unconverted people attend such a meeting. If your people are warmhearted and accepting (prepare them for this), as well as being sincere and involved in the evening, it will make quite an impression on lost friends and family. With a few being baptized on one night, you might have 20-50 new people attending who will get to hear the gospel.
- Always include the testimony of the one being baptized. We find it actually better if the convert writes out and reads his/her story of coming to Christ. We tell them to do as good a job writing as possible, and we may even help them work on it. Then, following the baptism and after the testimony has been read, everyone should receive a copy of the testimony on their way out of the building. The new convert should freely distribute these written testimonies to relatives who could not attend and use it generally as an evangelistic tool. We find it helpful to include a printed testimony in evangelistic books that are handed out. Many people are inclined to read someone’s story of conversion. It should be no more than one sheet, front and back.
- If a son or daughter of godly parent(s) is being baptized, allow them to speak about their child’s conversion also. It is perfectly alright for them to read their comments if necessary. For instance, it would be very instructive for a godly man to explain some of the concerns of a parent in the years of waiting for a teenage daughter’s conversion. Other parents will identify and be challenged.
- If a father wishes to be in baptismal pool with a son or daughter, this is possible. I do not prefer having fathers baptize their own children, however. It is permissible, of course, if a local church recognizes such a practice, but in my view it is not advisable. It will put a pressure on less godly individuals to do the same, and this could create embarrassment when pastors feel compelled to draw the line somewhere. It is better to have a pastor (meaning any of the elders) do the baptizing. But it could be a loving and supporting thing for a husband or wife, a father or mother, etc., to stand in (or next to) the baptistry and pray for their family member.
- If your church is smaller (or even larger, if you can work it out), it is certainly possible to baptize in a location other than the church building. Two of my children were baptized in a swimming pool, and one in a hot tub. I have even baptized in a horse trough! There was nothing unholy or profane about such a practice. In our case, we did not have an alternative anyway. In the early church, pools called miqvehs, often found beside Jewish homes, were sometimes used. And don’t forget about ponds or rivers.
- During the baptism, ask for the church’s faithful commitment to the new believer. Perhaps you can have several people pray publicly for the new convert, or the church can verbalize their commitment at that time in some other way. This is all done more easily if the people are gathered at the front.
- Baptize as often as possible. In my experience it is far better and more biblical to baptize as soon as the leaders know they have a valid convert, that is, at the next possible Sunday evening. Or, if not the very next Sunday evening, as soon as is reasonable. The key is to know that you actually have a convert. In some cases time will need to elapse before this can be known with a reasonable degree of certainty. However, the point is, don’t wait forever. In some churches I have been privileged to lead, we would baptize almost every Sunday evening. The more often we baptized, the more often others were inclined to repent of their sins and to be baptized also. Remember that baptism preaches a message! With children, be cautious to make sure you have a true convert. Knowing this is difficult, so waiting in order to ascertain the certainty of a child’s conversion is not unwise. In most cases this is best known when they are teenagers and are making clear choices between their peers and Christ. But these are matters for another discussion.2 But once you know for sure, baptize as soon as possible.
- Since taking the Lord’s Supper should be a weekly event (not by command, but NT precedent), consider having both symbols on Sunday evenings. After the exposition of Scripture, dedicate the last period of your meeting to these important matters. We’ve never had a time problem in our churches when significant things are being done. For us, we don’t pass the elements around for the supper, but ask people to come to the table themselves to pick them up. To make things work easier, you might put the elements on more than one table. There are various ways to take the Lord’s supper that will have to be addressed in another article sometime. In our practice, for instance, we consider the Lord’s Supper to be a true meal. In a typical Lord’s Supper approach, baptism can immediately follow. In this way you are celebrating the death and the life we find in Christ. That, to me, is a powerful way to preach without words. As an alternative, you may wish to have the Lord’s supper follow the baptism so that the new convert can take his or her first communion with you. This may prove logistically difficult in some settings, however.
- Finally, let me add that it is important to teach on baptism. This last piece of advice is not necessarily about the evening of the baptism itself, but perhaps some other time in the life of the church. In any case, it will enhance this experience. I’ve never preached on baptism without some people expressing their need to be baptized-not once! Many people are confused about baptism, though you might assume they understand everything. I once met a lady who was very intelligent and whose husband was the principal of a college. Yet she had some crazy idea that in churches like ours people were lowered into the water on ropes! Others understand the mode, but have no idea of its meaning. Still others were baptized prior to their conversion, which is really no baptism at all. These people will be challenged to do the right thing. Teach on baptism and help your people and guests understand what this symbol is all about.3
Well, this will have to suffice. The point is, don’t let baptisms become routine and lifeless. That is totally unnecessary and deadening to the church. Baptism is an exciting and meaningful event, both for the church and the individual. It should be done thoughtfully, worked on carefully, and prayed for diligently.
1 You may find our Pursuing God, A Seeker’s Guide a useful choice.
2You may wish to listen to the FamilyLife Today seven part series called “How Children Come to Faith in Christ.” This is a series of interviews of me by Dennis Rainey and Bob LePine. In this series I explain some of my rationale for such a statement.
3Read my book, Going Under: Discussions on Baptism for more information that may be used for teaching on the subject, or for giving to new converts.