October 31, 2007

Baptismal Renewal

This article was submitted to our denomination's Office of Theology and Worship after a request for stories from local congregations about attempts to bring renewal to our sacramental practice. Read other examples of submissions here.

I serve a kirk of 140 active members, with 80-100 in worship every week. Over the years we've made a lot of small and subtle changes to bring baptism to the forefront of the congregation's worship. I was touched to have one of my older members say last year, "You know, I never knew there was so much to know about our baptism until these recent years. Who knew?!" 

One easy change we have made has to do with involving the congregation immediately after the baptism. I've never been a big fan of pastors "parading" a child up and down the aisle, as if it were a beauty pageant with the pastor as Master of Ceremonies. Among other issues, this seems only to reinforce the common idea that what we are really celebrating is the sweetness and light of infants.  Besides, would a pastor hike a newly baptized adult in his arms and carry him/her up and down the aisle?  Of course not. Yet this dichotomy illustrates how we tend to view infant and adult baptism as two separate and different acts. 

I thought for a long time about how to flip the show-and-tell-moment over, preserving the intended act of celebration but shedding the pageantry and solo role of the pastor. So, instead of the pastor taking the initiative and parading the child back and forth (plus the problem of having no corresponding action for baptized adults), immediately following the prayer and laying on of hands I invite the congregation to come forward, row by row, to greet the newly baptized child (or adult.) I place our large and generous wooden font in the aisle just before the family and child, such that each member must come forward, come into contact with the font (I usually invite them to dip their hand in the water and "remember" their own baptism), then move to greet the child.

I begin this whole effort by saying to the child: "____, this is the body of Christ."  Then to the congregation I say, "Body of Christ, this is ____.  Let us welcome ___ in the name of our Lord Jesus." 

The first few times, I helped the congregation understand my expectation of them by describing it as being similar to sharing in communion by Intinction:  Come forward to the font (table), greet (partake), and return to your pew. This makes for a simple yet deliberate action. As people are coming forward to greet, we usually sing Baptized in Water or some other appropriate hymn. And rather than returning to their pews, I normally have them leave the font and take a place around the perimeter of the inside walls forming a large circle for more singing, further prayer, and/or the charge and benediction.

What the congregation has come to love is that they now get to take the initiative to come and greet. Instead of the pastor being the star, they get to be the stars, so to speak.  That is to say, they are able to enact what they have just promised instead of just sitting and watching.  Best of all, this practice works just as well with adults, who are greeted with handshakes, hugs, and warm well wishes.

This practice goes a long way towards preserving the unity of infant and adult baptism, not to mention getting us away from the more passive role of a traditional Reformed congregation: holy onlookers. Our congregation has come to love this part of baptism, looking forward to it and getting pretend-angry with me if I tinker with the logistics of it too much!