by Erik Hall planter of Barnegat Anew inBarnegat, New Jersey
At our new church we meet a lot of folks who are, for all practical considerations, ‘unchurched’. They know very little about God, Jesus, and the church and even less about liturgy, sacraments, Christian community, and the Bible. Usually these folks, if they claim to know anything at all, claim, “I’ve lived such a bad life that the church will fall down if I come inside.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this exact phrase!Somewhere along the way they picked up enough clues to piece together that church is somehow different (Holy, Sacred), somehow connected with God (and connecting people with God), and somehow prescriptive (holding to a higher standard of behavior and morality). Unfortunately, without guidance, what they come away with is the incomplete picture that they simply aren’t good enough for God or the church.
At the SAME time, however, many of these folks when they have young children, as well as many other families, feel compelled to get their children baptized. Once again, they have picked up enough clues to piece together that being baptized means having an “in” with God, and therefore, is important for spiritual well-being. Often, however, they do not have a clue as to WHY baptism is important or what it means in terms of a holy, connected, and prescriptive Christian life. So, they come away with the incomplete picture that the simple ritual of baptism done in the church itself, confers upon the child all that is needed for spiritual well-being.
So, on the one hand we have a whole bunch of people who are under the impression that they aren’t good enough for God and don’t belong in the church. And, on the other hand, we have a whole bunch of people who feel compelled to have their children baptized, but they really don’t know what it means. In new church planting we are always on the look-out for authentic and relevant ways to convey God’s truth, and THIS situation, we have found, is tailor-made for expressing God’s grace and transformative power. In expressing and experiencing the sacrament of baptism (through our United Methodist Baptismal liturgy) with these folks and their families, our new church has found a powerful way to communicate a fuller perspective on God, Jesus, and the church. First, that no matter where we came from or what we’ve done, God has extended the grace of cleansing forgiveness and a new God-given identity with which to begin a new life. Second, that we become promise-makers and promise-keepers with God: always striving for a better self and world by doing God’s will for our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit given to us. Third, that God counts us as a family member together with all the other people in the community of faith, and together as a family, we support and encourage one another in living out our new life.
When we are reassured that no matter how bad someone’s life had been, the church will NOT fall down when they enter, people are liberated. When we experience baptism, not as a ritual, but as a starting-point in a lifelong, grace-filled process, people get excited. When we are called to strive together in the power of the Holy Spirit (as a family) to fulfill God’s will in the world, people are transformed. Isn’t this God’s specialty, after all? Isn’t this what we make space for in our new and existing churches? God makes liberated, excited, and transformed people where bad choices and misinformation once held sway.
How do help members and the unchurched see baptism as a celebration rather than simply a ritual?