Join our mailing list

Baptism and Church Architecture: What message are you sending?

No matter what age your church baptizes people, ask yourself this: How consciously are you living your baptism as a way of life, not just an event? A feature story exploring what messages churches send with their Baptism practices and church architecture.

Think back to when one of your loved ones was baptized. If your strongest memories are the christening gown, whether the baptized person cried, and what you ate at the baptismal brunch—then you may be interested to hear that there’s a lot more to baptism.

Many of us have learned to think of baptism as a very special, essential, one-time event. However, congregations from several traditions are exploring ways to help members understand baptism as a lifelong identity reaffirmed in weekly worship.

Revisiting the theology and meaning of baptism is especially important for congregations that are building new worship spaces or renovating existing sanctuaries. Even if your church is architecturally content, you may find ideas from other congregations to enrich how your local church practices and remembers baptism.

Come to the water

Christians are baptized with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Traditions vary as to how much water you need to baptize. Some churches accept only one type, while others allow more choices among:

  • Aspersion—The priest or pastor sprinkles water over someone as a sign of God’s grace.
  • Affusion—Water is poured over the head of the person being baptized.
  • Immersion—In Baptist and other churches, older children or adults stand or kneel and either have a lot of water poured over them or are pushed completely under the water. Catholics and Orthodox Christians also often immerse the candidate in a pool or deep font, with Catholic baptisms by immersion increasing quite a bit in the past several years.
  • Submersion—The baptized person kneels and is taken completely under water three times, either head forward or leaned face back. “Submersion has a dramatic and powerful impact. You see and hear the person struggling for breath,” says Peter Krajnak, who specializes in worship architecture at Rogers Krajnak Architects in Columbus, Ohio.

Soon after becoming rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Ashburn, Virginia, Kevin A. Phillips began to realize “that the baptismal pool is a symbol very much alive among the people.”

When they built a worship space in 1999, St. David’s wanted to recognize the centrality of baptism in the Christian life. You can’t miss the combination font/immersion pool in the center of the sanctuary.

“The baptismal pool runs until after the processional hymn and again after the blessing. People hear the water coming in and going out. It receives a lot of attention from children, which often generates a ‘teachable moment,’ ” Phillips says.

Let the design speak

Before Immanuel Lutheran Church built a new church in Big Rapids, Michigan, they hired a liturgical consultant, Bryan Schneider-Thomas.

Immanuel member Bruce C. Dilg recalls a seminar on baptism where the consultant explained how the practice has moved from Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan…to separate baptismal rooms…to baptismal pools…to baptismal fonts. Schneider-Thomas facetiously suggested that wetting a finger on a tongue to baptize would be the easiest, least expensive solution.

Dilg, who teaches architectural technology at Ferris State University, also works as a sole practitioner in architecture. After Immanuel chose his bid from among more than a dozen architectural proposals, Dilg kept thinking about “the importance of water to the whole Christian experience.”  

The congregation had an antique font, restored by a deceased member, in the front of their original sanctuary. They decided—after much controversy, study, and discussion—to go with Dilg’s baptismal design, which included putting the new font in the new narthex.

Immanuel Lutheran’s octagonal font is made of the same brick used on the church exterior. “The octagonalshape symbolizes the eighth day, which is the first day after creation, the first day of [resurrection] life,” Dilg explains.

A boulder fills enough of the font so that children can’t fall in. Water piped up through a boulder flows back into the font.

“The font is a visible and constant reminder of the importance of water, its looks, its sounds, and its smell, as you enter and leave the church. The water is constantly changing, like life, but the natural rock, upon which it flows, does not change,” Dilg explains.

Decide where to place the baptistry

Trinity Episcopal Church in Toledo, Ohio, had an even older font than Immanuel Lutheran had. Trinity’s marble font, inscribed with one faith, one Lord, one baptism (from Ephesians 4:5), dates back to 1876.

“It was in a corner of the nave, off to the right of the altar, with a brass rail protecting it. The font was like a relic in a museum. Maybe the first three pews could see a baptism,” says Peter Krajnak, who guided the congregation through its fifth renovation.

In 2003, Trinity expanded options for baptism by integrating the antique font with a new immersion pool. Its hexagonal shape symbolizes Good Friday (the sixth day of Holy Week). Its three steps in and down and three steps out and up testify to dying and rising with Christ.

“The blue tile inside the pool enhances the water within, while the gold mosaic tile around the exterior rim relates to the gold mosaic tiles on the historic altar. The longitudinal axis of the church connects the font with the altar, while the cross axis of the church connects the font with the columbarium,” Krajnak explains. (A columbarium is a niche in an outside wall for people’s ashes.)

Having built or renovated churches of several denominations, Krajnak says Trinity was “unusual in pushing the practice of baptism as far as they did. Bringing the pool and font to a significant position truly said something theologically.”

For Susan Lowery, Trinity’s associate for spiritual development, placing the baptistry near the columbarium “embraces birth and death in the same area.”

Lowery says its new place, near the church entrance, reminds people that “baptism is the basis by which we are called to ministry. It’s a beginning. Most often we gather the whole congregation around the font to begin worship, just as baptism is the beginning of Christian life.”

Learn More

Invite a church architect to give an adult education seminar on baptism, as Peter Krajnak and Bruce Dilghave done in their own congregations. Liturgical consultant Bryan Schneider-Thomas also does seminars on baptism.

Consider reviewing one of these resources for your church newsletter and donating the book (or magazine subscription) to your church library:

Download a free pattern for making a baptism banner. Review these musical and written resources for baptism and renewing baptism vows. Get sermon ideas from Touch the Water: 30 Children’s Sermons on Baptism.

Order this book on infant baptism to use in a youth or adult education class. Listen to Joyce Zimmerman speak about Paschal mystery in baptism (scroll down to Afternoon: Theological Insights). Listen to an Inner Compass episode (about 25 minutes long) on whether to do baptism at infancy or later.

Plan to hear Mark Torgerson speak on visual arts and architecture at the 2007 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Torgerson is professor of worship arts at Judson College, Elgin, Illinois, and author of the forthcoming An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today (Eerdmans).

Read William H. Brackney’s helpful summary of what Baptists believe about baptism. For an adult education class, you might compare it to AnabaptistCatholicLutheran (Missouri Synod), MethodistReformedUnited Church of Christ, or other denominational statements about baptism. Discuss which aspect of baptism each tradition emphasizes.

Browse related stories on art that preacheschurch renovationscreeds, developing a faith vocabulary, and the Lord’s Supper.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get members talking about baptism:

  • Does using the term Christian initiation as a synonym for baptism limit or expand your understanding of this practice?
  • What messages does your church send in the way baptisms are done and in your baptistry’s design, placement, and accessibility?
  • If you’d like to make water a bigger part of your church’s worship, explain how and why.
  • What would you like worshipers to know and remember about baptism? How does your weekly worship reinforce this reality?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to help people enrich their understanding of baptism?

  • Did you organize a tour of local churches to learn about their architectural, worship, and theological decisions regarding baptism?
  • If you added something to your baptism services, will you explain what you added…and why?
  • Did you create new resources—perhaps visual, musical, dramatic, or liturgical responses—so that baptism is seen as a way of life instead of a one-time event?