Why so few baptisms?

Dec 3, 2018 by

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When I applied for the pastoral position at my current congregation, during one interview, I asked the search committee when they’d last celebrated a baptism. They thought for a moment. “Years,” they answered.

Hillary Watson

Watson

Many Anabaptist congregations are like my current one, celebrating baptisms only rarely. In five years of ministry, I’ve presided at about one baptism per year, which is more than some of my pastoral peers.

Anabaptist churches are defined by their relationship with baptism: a symbol of voluntary participation, where individuals request a ritual of commitment instead of having one thrust upon them at a mandatory age. Baptism must be a choice, made once, for life.

During the Radical Reformation that birthed Anabaptism, many believers made this choice, renouncing the priest’s baptism they’d received at birth and requesting, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 9, to be baptized by another believer.

The declining popularity of baptism is linked to the word “choice,” an almost sacred word in secular Western culture. Everyone wants to choose, to have control.

As choice meets pluralism, baptism becomes a weightier decision. Choice now means accounting for all world religions and selecting one spiritual path with total certainty. For many teenagers nearing the traditional Anabaptist age of baptism, choosing baptism feels like a fraught decision requiring absolute certainty of the nature of divine truth.

Baptism has become just one more consumer decision. Framed as a once-in-a-lifetime decision that binds you to a certain relationship with God, it’s nearly impossible for anyone in our fear-of-missing-out culture to confidently request lifetime membership via baptism.

It’s not only adolescents who are wary of baptism. Many Anabaptist adults were raised with an experience of baptism as choice-but-not-a-choice. Youth of a certain age were required to take a baptismal preparation class, and there was heavy social pressure to “choose” baptism. These adults carry a deep fear of denying choice to their children. Choice has become more important than the ritual itself.

This was the church environment I was raised in. The message of our baptism education was “you should never feel pressure to be baptized.” But this implicitly suggests baptism is not important.

We need a way to talk about baptism that balances the weight of choice with the reality of choice paralysis. A way to emphasize the ritual as a symbol of a spiritual journey and not an exclusive membership in one small denomination. A way to see baptism as integrative to spiritual growth instead of a sign of full maturity.

The church’s language for baptism does not match the spiritual dilemmas of modern lives. The broader conviction that the church’s current vocabulary is out of step with the lived experience of its members is central to my call to ministry. My call is to build bridges between the gospel and the unaddressed challenges of modern life. Periodically I find myself needing to restructure my patterns to stay attuned to this call.

For now, that means ending this column as I pay more attention to building these bridges. I’ll continue to write at gatheringthestones.com and continue to read and support MWR. It’s been an honor and a delight to host this column, and I’m grateful for the ministry of MWR.

Hillary Watson pastors at Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.


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