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Use Baptismal Imagery in Worship and Life

Reading Robin M. Jensen's book "Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions" will give you many ideas for deepening baptismal identity in your congregation

Reading Robin M. Jensen’s book Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions will give you many ideas for deepening baptismal identity in your congregation, according to three experts at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Jensen's holistic approach to baptism in the early church can stimulate the imagination of pastors as they teach people the meaning of their baptism in memorable ways,” says David Rylaarsdam, who teaches historical theology. He suggests that pastors use Jensen's book to preach on baptismal themes for a Lenten sermon series or at a service for baptism, baptism reaffirmation, or profession of faith.

“An adult education series on the five themes would be edifying. Jensen's emphasis on visual imagery and the sensory, symbolic experience of baptism could help a worship planning committee think about worship space design and decoration. Jensen's inclusion of poetic language in relation to baptism could be used to develop prayers, responsive readings for confession and renewal, and so on,” he adds.

Betsy Steele Halstead manages the seminary’s continuing education events and its chapel visual arts. “I love this book. I love the blend of historical encounter with visual detail, organized around the theological themes of baptism.  I think it is an ideal book for small group study with the worship team or as a foundational source for an adult Sunday school series on baptism.

“Spend a week on each theme. The book could be a springboard for discussing the congregation’s current practice of baptism. Explain the ideas of each chapter but focus on how this relates to the congregation’s practices and beliefs. Ask what your written and visual elements portray about baptism. Discuss what you can learn from the past for your church’s present and future baptisms,” she advises.

Betsy Steele Halstead offers tips for finding visuals of baptismal themes:

  • Request catacomb images from the International Catacomb Society.
  • Search online for images of baptismal fonts, including contemporary examples.
  • Visit nearby churches and ask to take photos of their baptismal fonts.
  • “If you wish to project imagery of baptism in worship, think beyond the font. Connect to the stories of scripture (such as Jonah as a symbol of rebirth), flowing water, the Holy Spirit, and communal images. Be more conscious of the theological theme you are capturing in the accompanying text and music choices.” Look for public domain art or artwork from artists you know that broadly expresses baptismal themes.

She suggests creating visual ways to stimulate baptism memories for years to come. “If you project artwork such as Jan Richardson’s ‘Born of Water, Born of Spirit’ during the baptism, then also give a framed copy of the piece to the family,” she says. Early Christian art displays John the Baptist using a scallop shell to pour water over Jesus. If you use a shell in baptism, you can give the shell to the family to use in other baptisms. You can also ask a pottery artist in your church to create baptismal bowls to pass down.

John D. Witvliet teaches worship at the seminary. He recommends finding ways every Sunday to remind worshipers of God’s gracious promises and actions in baptism.  This works well during the confession and assurance portion of worship.

In a published conversation about baptism with other seminary professors, Witvliet says, “The sacraments are God-ordained actions. When we do what God has charged us to do, we can be assured that God will be at work. We need to think of baptism as this occasion when God is at work, when God is active, when God is there nourishing the congregation, feeding the congregation, calling the congregation. If we were to really think through the implications of that in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we’d experience quite a conversion of the imagination. That’s a conversion I am eager to emphasize.”