An Appeal for Better Baptisms (“Say My Name, Say My Name…”)

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but Jeremy Smith’s recent couple posts on baptism fails, helped give me the push I needed to actually add my 2 cents to the blog.

The “standard practice” within the United Methodist Church for infant baptisms (as I have seen and done myself), is to invite the family to come forward at some point during the service, and then instruct the congregation to, “Please turn to page 39 in the hymnal.”

The congregation can then read along as the pastor offers the words of introduction, “Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty act of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All of this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” The congregation continues to read as the pastor follows the rest of the written liturgy, asking the parents the questions about their commitment to live a Christ-like life, and to raise their child in the same manner.

What follows is the problematic piece of the baptismal service, for me. The attention is then turned to the congregation and the pastor asks, as is written:

“Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?”

The congregation responds:

“With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

The problem is that the congregation always reads that response as it is written, but not as it is intended. What is meant to be this beautiful statement of a congregation covenant, that I believe is an essential element of the sacrament, becomes this generic, awkward congregation response.

So here’s my appeal to my clergy friends – DON’T have the congregation “Turn to page 39” – they don’t need to read along with what you are saying – their eyes shouldn’t be on the book, they should be on the actions of this beautiful event taking place. They should be experiencing the moment, not reading along with it. In place of the “generic” congregation pledge, offer a specific, printed version – either in the bulletin, or on a projection screen that names the child. No longer will we “surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness” from now on we need to name names:

“With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround Emma with a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in her service to others. We will pray for Emma that she may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.”

If you need to make it plural, make it plural; but let’s have the congregation say the names. Theologically, the whole point of baptism is about each person being uniquely named and claimed by God, and being held in covenant by the congregation. The “generic” congregational response doesn’t let that happen; while it is nice to expect the congregation to simply make the necessary changes to the printed italics, in a group setting, it just doesn’t happen, so we need to do the work for them – make the pledge personal.

One other note – this isn’t part of my “appeal” just a great idea I got from Rev. Greg Dell when I was in seminary (and regardless of what you may know or think of Greg, this is a great idea): Incorporate the act of baptism into the children’s message. What this means is that I always schedule the baptism right after the children’s message, but as part of the time with children, I bring out the pitcher of water and a cup, and have the children take turns to help fill the baptismal font. As I do, I remind them that this baptism is a sign of God’s love of the person being baptized, but we are also promising to help teach them, pray for them, and show them God’s love; assuming it is an infant (or young child) baptism, I tell the kids, “pretty soon (name) is going to be running around, going to Sunday School and VBS with you, and they’ll need your help – to be their friend and teach them about Jesus; and you’ll be able to say that you helped on the day they were baptized.” It also works great because often there will be siblings or cousins of the baptized child there, so they have a part to play in this special day.