Why no baptisms?

Mar 13, 2019 by

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Despite serving a growing congregation, I have a concern: I have not performed a single baptism for a middle school, high school, or college-aged person in over five years.

Granted, my current congregation has a limited number of youth. Nevertheless, the last two baptism and membership preparation classes I taught resulted in no one expressing any interest in joining the church or being baptized. Is this simply a fluke, or is there a bigger problem going on? From what I’ve heard from other Mennonite pastors, my experience is in no way unique. Youth, by and large, are not joining the church.

What’s going on? Why are so few young people getting baptized? I have conducted no surveys, so I can only speculate. But here a few possible factors that come to my mind:

— The current zeitgeist is that institutions cannot be trusted. This is true of all institutions: government, political parties, schools, the medical establishment, the media establishment and churches.

— Religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, is under attack as anti-science, anti-reason and anti-tolerance.

— Faith in Jesus as the “only way” to a right relationship with God is viewed as unfair and preposterous.

Is there anything we can or should do to enhance the faith formation of our youth, making baptism a more meaningful and desired outcome? I think so:

— Produce an appropriate baptism curriculum for youth. I have pastored in the Mennonite Church for decades, and I’m still waiting for our publishing house to come out with a decent youth baptism curriculum. Our Mennonite Church USA denomination has either relied on woefully out-of-date material, or had no material at all, or relied on material that was not truly geared for youth. As a result, I have had to create and rework my own curriculum throughout all the years of my ministry. (There is now a youth curriculum for studying the “Confession of Faith” which I have not yet reviewed, though I cannot imagine my youth class wading through that document.)

— Develop an appropriate Mennonite-style “Christian apologetic.” Rather than relying on merely explaining (or enacting) the Christian faith, we also need to proactively argue for it in a convincing way. Conservative evangelical Christian colleges frequently offer courses in Christian apologetics. Mennonite colleges (of which I am familiar) do not. This is likely because we have an aversion to arguing for our own faith (we’d rather let our actions speak for themselves), and we reject a rationalist (and often fundamentalist) approach to faith presupposed by much of evangelical apologetics. But just because others are doing it badly doesn’t mean it ought not to be done. In particular, we need to make a convincing case that the philosophy of materialism (only what is empirically observable is real) is inadequate and myopic. Until we can win — or at least come to a draw — in this philosophical battle, the Christian faith will continue to decline in Western culture. And this debate must begin in the teen years before philosophical presuppositions get fixed. I would suggest a conviction in the equal value of all humans as a basis for theism and a beginning point in undermining materialism.

— Create a new confession of faith that is much shorter and simpler than the one we use now. Centered on following Jesus rather than affirming propositions about Jesus as the basis of faith, it could thus fold faith and love together completely, resolving the contentious issue of salvation being only for those who make a particular Christian confession. Such a confession of faith does not need to replace the one we have but may serve as an updated supplement that is more accessible and attractive to youth and newcomers.

Even if we do all of these things, I would guess we will still see few youth baptisms in the years ahead. We are caught in a cultural current and we will need to wait for it to play itself out. But in the meantime, we need to keep the candle burning, and we can be laying the groundwork for a redefining and resurgence of the Christian faith.

It could also be argued that baptism doesn’t really matter — it’s only a ritual. What really matters is what God’s Spirit is doing inside our youth and the kinds of lives they will live as a result. That is partly true. The Quakers, for instance, make no use of baptism or communion rituals at all. But a rejection of ritual is an embrace of rationalism, and the Christian faith is ultimately much deeper than rationalism. These are not “only” rituals. These are embodiments that root faith. I’m convinced that more emphasis on ritual will be our future. But it may be that baptism will be more suited to those in their 20s, or even thirties, than those in their teens.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.


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