United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 3: Closing the Last Mile

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

As we have seen in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, the findings of the 2013 United Methodist Baptism study show the majority of our US congregations use our established ritual as provided (58.1%) and teach something about our baptismal vows in connection with preparing them or the congregation to celebrate services of the baptismal covenant (71.2%).

However, a substantial minority (16.7%) reports materially altering our ritual in ways that may misrepresent our understandings of the sacrament and the roles of laity, deacon, elder and pastor in the sacrament. 28.8% apparently do not teach the vows even in connection with confirmation or membership processes. And it appears few of our congregations or clergy intentionally teach the vows of the baptismal covenant as norms for ongoing, accountable Christian discipleship in any setting other than baptismal or membership preparation.

Given that we do not typically "police" the use of our ritual, that our ritual is only 25 years, that our official teaching document on baptism is only 18 years on, and that the majority of our active clergy were trained at a time prior to our current ritual and teaching, I'd like to think these statistics may point to more of a "last mile problem" than any more basic failure of communication of our doctrine and practice, on the one hand, or any willful attempt to avoid or reject our doctrine and practice on the other.

Still, when we have so tightly identified our mission as a denomination with discipleship, and when baptismal vows (including the basic affirmations of the creed) are understood to be the basis for growing in discipleship as well as professing membership, we cannot dismiss these rates of variance nor the need to "close the last mile."

So how might we do that?

Teaching Interventions

Clergy and Leadership Formation
All of our United Methodist seminaries already include the meaning and practice of our baptismal ritual and "By Water and the Spirit" as part of the required curriculum for United Methodist students taking required worship courses. These are also included in the standards document for United Methodist worship courses created and approved by worship professors at UM and University Senate approved seminaries and housed with the Office of Clergy Formation and Theological Education at GBHEM.

Greater attention to these matters in a more uniform way is also needed for those preparing to function as clergy in licensing schools and Course of Study. And since these persons are often tapped as supply pastors as well, attention should also be given to Lay Servant Ministry training programs, particularly on the Certified Lay Speaker track, Certified Lay Ministry programs, and the training provided as part of the Lay Church Planting Network. For each of these a required course linking baptismal vows and discipleship may be designed and implemented.

Lay Formation
Based on the findings above, the primary place where laity encounter the baptismal vows is in the context of preparation for baptism or professing membership and in the services of the baptismal covenant themselves. Curriculum supporting membership and confirmation classes would thus be a significant leverage point for teaching and encouraging baptismal living. New materials could be created, or such curriculum currently in use could be revised to call much greater attention to the fundamental relationship between the baptismal vows and our own discipleship.

However, simply "front-loading" the relationship between baptism and discipleship (and thus the mission of our Church) into baptism or membership preparation classes does not ensure ongoing growth in living as disciples of Jesus Christ. The relationship between the vows of the baptismal covenant and discipleship needs to be woven into the fabric of the worship, mission and education/formation ministries of every congregation.

It appears the worship life of our congregations does generally include such teaching and modeling, at least around occasions of baptism and reception of new members. Some UMW curriculum has effectively drawn attention to the relationship between mission, outreach and the baptismal vows, but more could be done in this regard to ensure the baptismal vows and mission education and activities are directly linked to each other and to basic Christian discipleship. Other education and formation ministries may need substantially more attention. Perhaps the Curriculum Resources Committee may be asked to include in its Scope and Sequence an identification of age- appropriate processes for guiding teaching and modeling of living the baptismal covenant. Perhaps the CRC may also be asked to evaluate proposed new curriculum items in part on the basis of how well they support helping persons grow in faithfulness to the baptismal vows.

Leadership/Communications Interventions
How has the mission statement of The United Methodist Church become so well known by so many United Methodists? It is because leaders at every level of denominational life have communicated it consistently and repeatedly since its adoption in 1996. Bishops have built sermons around it. Annual Conferences repeat it together. DSes remind congregations of it at charge conference. DCMs and other annual conference leaders make constant reference to it. United Methodist Women promote it as actively as they do their own mission statement. Lay leaders and pastors in local congregations teach it to their congregations and use it as a tool for both determining and talking about the ministries the congregation undertakes and often as part of annual stewardship campaigns. The words "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" have thus gone viral and become ingrained in many United Methodists.

But the content of those words, what "make disciples" points to, what disciples look like, and how this is intimately related to the baptismal vows has not yet been communicated in nearly so pervasive a way.

So perhaps its time for leaders at every level to take up an active communication campaign linking discipleship to the vows of the baptismal covenant, as the Discipline (Para's 122, 216, 217 and 221.1) and "By Water and the Spirit" already do. Adding a few words to the way we communicate the mission statement may be one effective way to do that. After all, that was how "for the transformation of the world" was actually added to the mission statement in 2008.

So let me take a stab at what those words might be. "To make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

Any other ideas? Please add them in the comments.

If enough leaders in enough places start adding these four words or something like them to the mission statement we now have every time they said it, or even a lot of times they said it, we will have created the basic link between discipleship, baptism and mission that we already have "on the books"-- but not yet in our lips or in our hearts.

And once we get it in our lips and in our hearts, I think we'll find lots of ways to get our "heads around" how to get living the baptismal covenant more into our systems for worship, mission, education, formation and leadership at every level.

So say it with me: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

Again: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

One more time: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

And now-- ask your pastor (or if you're the pastor, ask yourself!), your lay leader, your worship leader, your church music leaders, your Christian Education director, your deacon (if you have one), your SPRC chair, your Church Council Chair, your DS, your DCM and your bishop to start saying this is worship, in meetings, in strategy sessions, at Annual Conference, in newsletters, newspapers, in print and online, whenever they cite the mission of the church. Let's make this thing go viral! Then maybe by 2020, if not by 2016, we can get it into the Discipline as well.

Organizational Interventions

Truly centering the life of a community on living out the vows of the baptismal covenant would be fairly disruptive for the life of most congregations. As I've written many times and in a variety of ways over the years on the emergingumc blog, congregations really haven't been set up for the level of discipling and discipleship these vows actually demand of us, for over 1600 years. But discipling groups, such as the early Methodist Societies with their class meetings and bands, actually were.

So if we're going to look at changing the overall culture of the Church to be more focused on actual discipling and discipleship, congregations may not be the first place to start. Experimental small groups that are Accountable, Connected, Missional and Embodied (ACME) about living out the vows with each other might be a better place to start. These groups might be like Covenant Discipleship groups, 5-7 people whose covenant is to ask and help each other grow in positively answering the questions of the baptismal covenant: Will you:

  1. Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedess,
  2. Reject the evil powers of this world
  3. Repent of your sin
  4. Accept the freedom and power Christ gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in every form they present themselves
  5. Confess Jesus as your Savior
  6. Put your whole trust in his grace
  7. Serve him as Lord
  8. All of the above in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races
  9. According to the grace given you, remain faithful members of Christ's holy church, and
  10. Serve as Christ's representatives in the world;
  11. As you join together with the whole church in professing the Christian faith in
    1. God, the Father Almighty
    2. Jesus Christ, his only Son, or Lord, and
    3. The Holy Spirit;

  12. Be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and
  13. Participate in the ministries of the local congregation with your prayers, presence gifts, service and witness.

Such a small group or set of small groups could be one way by which a congregation or a group of congregations in an area could pro-actively "nurture one another in the Christian faith and life, and include these persons now before you in your care." It would certainly be an intense form of "surround{ing] them with a community of love and forgiveness" in which persons "pray for them that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life."

There needn't be any "program" for such groups. They could meet informally, once per week for an hour or so, and simply ask themselves the questions of the baptismal covenant, report progress made and support needed, then pray for each other's continued growth in sanctifying grace. Given the number and scope of the questions, they might be divided up, three or four per week, so that in the course of the month all 13 would be covered.

Since these already are our baptismal vows and the ground of our discipleship, no special permission would be needed simply to start such groups with a few others who are willing to give this process a try for a few months, and see what happens. It would also be good to have the support of the pastor, and nice (but not mandatory) for the pastor to attend if not lead one such group and help in organizing others so such a growth group is not perceived by the pastor or other church leaders as a threat, but as a "voluntary society" of folks who are committing to help each other grow in holiness of heart and life, using the baptismal covenant as their guide.

Where Can You Start?

These are three discreet but inter-related paths you, the congregation, and the larger systems of The United Methodist Church could pursue to help solidify not only the understanding and practice of the sacrament of baptism, but its intimate connection with lifelong discipleship and so the mission of our Church.

You don't have to pursue all of them at the same time. You don't even have to pursue all of them yourself at all. Indeed, you may have a path I haven't mentioned that would better suit your context and the gifts and calling the Spirit has given or will give you.

But I'd like for you to consider which one (or ones) of these (or others) you could begin to pursue now, starting today.

We don't get to any larger goal, nor does any organization successfully close its "last mile gaps" without starting where it is and taking the next step, and then the next, and then the next until the gaps are closed.

So where can you start?

And what step on this journey will you take, starting today... so more and more of us will be part of the fulfillment of our mission:

To make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world.