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Baptism: A story we all share

Discover how the multiple meanings of baptism can enrich baptism as a source of Christian identity, faith formation, and baptismal living. A feature story exploring Baptism, a story we all share.

The same Christians who proclaim “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” often fail to recognize each other as united by baptism into one body of Christ.

Baptism for infants or believers? Immersion or sprinkling? In what order as related to instruction, communion, confessing faith, or church membership? What about oil, laying on hands, or Spirit baptism? If you’ve been baptized in one Christian tradition, must you be re-baptized to join another?

Liturgical theologian Martha Moore-Keish has probed such questions for years as part of international ecumenical discussions on baptism. It’s worth working toward mutual recognition of baptism because “unity in the sacraments helps the world to see the church as a more credible witness,” Moore-Keish explained in a recent interview.

She said that Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, and Baptist theologians experienced a breakthrough when they “thought about baptism not as an isolated moment where water is on the body, but as a larger process of formation through a lifetime.” They realized that underneath their different practices, they share a common pattern of baptismal life that includes the baptism event, faith formation, and participation in community. This insight is opening congregations to learn from each other how to deepen their baptismal lives.

Multisensory baptism

The desire to make baptism memorable can result in families hiring a photographer, choosing schmaltzy music, and catering a brunch.

“We want to affirm a family’s desire to make it special but keep baptism communal and liturgical,” says pastor Marc Nelesen, who introduced several ideas that Third Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Zeeland, Michigan, continued after he accepted a call elsewhere.

Like churches in many times and places, Third CRC focuses in baptisms on created elements that express God’s saving power.

“Family members carry in the water and pour it in the font. There’s lots of water and lots of sound. We give each family a baptismal candle that they can light at home on baptism anniversaries,” says Valerie Snoeyink, Third CRC worship coordinator.

The congregation has used homemade baptismal bulletin covers, baptism liturgies, banners, a dove on the sanctuary cross, and liturgical dance to mark baptism. “On baptismal Sundays, I wore a dove necklace and baptismal stole. At the end of the service, I’d stand at the font, put my hands in the water, and raise them dripping to give the blessing,” Nelesen recalls.

At Fellowship CRC  in Edmonton, Alberta, families receive a pottery bowl at their first child’s baptism. They use the same bowl for subsequent baptisms. Other congregations give bibs, prints, or a copy of baptismal vows suitable for framing. Some churches sew white robes for baptism candidates of all ages.

Many congregations sing songs about the multiple meanings of baptism, such as “Come to the Water,” “Sing! A New Creation,” or “I Know the Lord Laid His Hands on Me.” The Hymnary links to dozens of baptism songs.

Create space for the Spirit

Baptism is more about God’s action and our response than about an individual’s decision. In baptism Christ claims us for his own and gradually forms us into communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Taking enough time for the liturgical moment of baptism helps worshipers grasp that faith formation—living into our baptisms—goes on till we die. “How can we call our worship biblically based when we haphazardly and halfheartedly…rush through baptism as an unimportant intrusion into our worship?” Methodist bishop Will Willimon asks in A Guide to Preaching and Leading Worship.

Marc Nelesen suspects that worshipers weary of hearing him say it, but he often explains, “Baptism is an opportunity for us to be ’impressioned.’ ” He says he learned the importance of seeing and doing, embedding words and actions, and taking time to wonder, when he helped his wife introduce the Children in Worship program.

“Bringing liturgy and sacraments into upstairs worship made God’s grace more tangible. Our congregation grew closer and warmer as they started to see baptism, communion, and the Word as three landmarks that orient us in Christian life,” he says.

Learn from each other

In the early church, the people about to be baptized understood they were entering a community on a lifelong journey of Trinitarian faith. Baptism candidates went through three years of instruction, made a decisive break with past sins, got baptized on Easter morning, received the community’s confession of faith as their own, and celebrated communion. They understood themselves as being baptized into God’s story, God’s people, and new life in Christ.

As they rediscover baptism’s biblical and historical centrality, congregations today are sensing where they are weak and learning from practices in which others are strong. Churches that baptize infants see in churches that baptize believers how important it is to grow in faith so you can witness through words as well as actions. Churches that baptize on the basis of a personal testimony see why baptized people need a community of believers to nurture them in faithful living.

People baptized at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky share their testimony of how God has brought them to baptism. Then, before being laid backward in the water, they say, “Jesus is Lord.” All the worshipers hold their hands palm forward and together speak a blessing to each newly baptized member.

Churches that baptize according to the liturgical calendar—such as at Easter, Pentecost, All Saints Day, or the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord—model how to frame baptism within the story of what God has done and is doing in the church. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed in baptism services does the same thing.

Baptism Means So Much More

The art painted on baptistry walls reminded early Christians of biblical baptismal images. Seeing Moses striking the rock for water in the wilderness made them remember how Paul compared that rock to Christ, the source of living water. A picture of a dove triggered stories of the flood, Noah, and being held safe in the ark; of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism; and of peace from God meant to be shared with the world.

By the Middle Ages, however, the meaning of baptism in the Western Church had narrowed to cleansing from human sin.

You don’t have to be a theology geek or worship wonk to get excited that churches today are rediscovering baptism’s multiple meanings. Even children can grasp how being baptized gives us a story to live by, a story defined by the gifts of God’s Word, baptism, and communion.

“Everything water means”

Children’s sermons and youth ministers sometimes refer to baptism as a bath. Churches that use white baptismal gowns or robes help worshipers of all ages experience that “bath” as “putting on Christ” and becoming part of the one universal church. At home, we can learn to link these baptismal metaphors with everyday actions of taking a bath and putting on clean clothes.

Water, of course, is good for more than washing us clean. Worship leaders use Bible stories, songs, visuals, and liturgical actions to celebrate how water in baptism reflects multiple layers of meaning.

“Baptism means everything that water means: cleansing, birth, power, refreshment, life, death…. Everybody knows what it means to be thirsty, to be born again, to drown, or to be dirty,” Methodist bishop Will Willimon writes in A Guide to Preaching and Leading Worship.

Baptism joins us to the whole history of salvation, and connecting Old and New Testament stories is a wonderful way to imprint that joy.

When Marc Nelesen was pastor at Third Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Zeeland, Michigan, he sometimes explained that before Jesus came, circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant. A Jewish baby boy would be laid across his grandfather’s knees, and those knees were regarded as an altar. To help congregations make the link between circumcision and baptism, Nelesen sometimes had the grandfather stand at the font, holding the child who would be baptized.

“Sing! A New Creation” is a baptismal song that sinks into our muscle memory words worth pondering. Its final verse is:

Sing a new creation growing life-trees by the Father’s stream.
Go and teach, send justice flowing, quench dry souls…. 
Baptize peoples, parched and fragile, in the Name that makes us strong.

God’s action

The international group of liturgical theologians working toward mutual recognition of baptism say that using only one scriptural image for baptism “risks presenting an unbalanced or monochromatic view of baptism.”

They explain that some baptism images and interpretations are more “expressive of divine realities, representing that which is already true”—such as that someone is already a Christian so gets baptized. Other images and interpretations reflect baptism’s instrumental role in God’s work to transform a person’s life and bring him or her into the Christian community.

You need both approaches for a full understanding of how baptism and faith interrelate. All biblical baptismal images have two things in common. They are more about God’s actions than ours and more about Christians living in community than a person’s one-time decision.

Willimon writes, “We have often made the sacraments into individualized, privatized acts of personal piety, rather than the communal, familial, ecclesial acts they were meant to be…. Baptism is a sign that Christianity is not a home correspondence course in salvation.”

Baptismal living

The World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission compares baptism to birth and communion to “the nutrition which sustains life.” Liturgically speaking, baptism, like natural birth, is a one-time event. Once you’re born, you need regular food and drink to foster growth. Similarly, baptized people need to commune together in the Eucharist so they grow in Christ.

That’s why, in Orthodox churches, the priest administering infant baptism uses holy oil to mark the sign of the cross (to confirm the Holy Spirit’s role) and “communes” the baby,  often using a fingertip or spoon to give a drop of wine.

Celebrating baptism between the services of word (Bible readings and sermon) and table (communion) is another way to help worshipers experience how the Word, baptism, and Lord’s Supper work together in faith formation.

In baptism God graces us with membership in that family of families called the church. Living into our baptism continues as we’re sent out from worship. Linking our baptismal vocation with our daily lives can take many forms, including sharing the Water of Life to make disciples of all nations.

Seeing, hearing, drinking, washing in, or otherwise enjoying water may cue us to act with or for others as God directs. They may be low-income kids with no access to public swimming…drought stricken farmers…flood victims…or Palestinians and others (one in six of our fellow human beings) who lack access to safe water and sanitation.

Learn More

Stand on the shoulders of ecumenical liturgical scholars who’ve plunged into the deep pool of baptism understandings and practices.

Browse online baptism in worship resources from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Use ideas from Reformed Worship baptism articles and liturgies, including Marc Nelesen’s “Wash First, Ask Questions Later.”

Listen to sermons on baptism by Thea Leunk (Galatians 3 and Genesis 17), Laura Smit (Matthew 3), and John Witvliet (Genesis 4). Read the results of Christian Reformed Church in North America conversations on affirming baptism and forming faith.

Learn about baptism and water symbolism in Korea, Catholic baptismal candle customs, and movie clips related to baptism. Consider using cardboard testimonies so worshipers can share how baptism changes lives.

Water is life not only symbolically in baptism but literally for every human being. As a baptized person, read how you can help the one in six people worldwide have no access to clean water. Ecumenical Water Network provides worship resources related to water, including a Lenten series on water and justice.

Browse related stories on ancient future worshipbaptism and church architectureconfirmation and profession of faith, and faith formation.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get people talking about enriching baptism services.

  • Which aspect of baptism—biblical image, mode, meaning, family or congregational role, relationship to rest of life—is most treasured or emphasized in your church?
  • Which secondary signs—anointings, candles, new clothing, or other local expressions of new life in Christ—might help people more fully experience baptism in your church?
  • How would you describe the relationship of baptism, faith, and faith formation? How might you strengthen these relationships in baptismal services?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about the importance of baptism in Christian life?

  • Did you visit other local churches during their baptisms and invite them to yours? In what way, if any, did this lead your congregations to renew your experience of being baptized into one body of Christ?
  • Which Bible stories, worship themes, visuals, music, drama, bodily actions, or other worship elements have worked best to help worshipers connect Old and New Testament stories with baptism and real life practice?