Making baptism a celebration to remember
Baptism should be a momentous experience not only for the family (when a baby is baptized) and for the person (when an adult or older child is baptized), but also for the congregation, who are not just witnesses but participants in this sacrament. How can we make this rite more meaningful through the customs and ceremonies that surround it? The following suggestions were adapted from Commentary on Select Liturgical Forms in the 1987 Psalter Hymnal by Bert Polman. (Copies are available for $5.00 from Bert Polman, Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario L9G 3N6.)
Role of Family and Friends
Baptism, a sacrament of the Christian church, should be enacted during the corporate worship service. All baptisms stress the covenantal context of faith and are "family" ceremonies. New Testament Christians find the family of faith in the church.
In baptism, the local congregation represents (and often is) that family. But it also is good to include in this special ceremony Christian friends and Christian members of the biological family of the person being baptized.
When infants are baptized, for example, it is helpful to involve not only parents but also grandparents and other family members.
Sometimes when adults or older children are baptized, however, such family support is lacking. In such cases, Christian friends should be involved in the baptismal service; such friends or mentors must be willing to commit themselves to assist in the further nurturing of the candidate's faith.
Planning for Baptism
Planning for infant baptism is best done in prenatal baptism classes. Ideally every church council will appoint a "baptism team," one or two competent persons who are willing to meet with expectant couples. The team will review with them the meaning of baptism and work with them and their families and friends to plan a baptismal service.
Although the minister might initiate this prenatal education and planning program, I think it best that after a few months he hand over these responsibilities to an elder or another member of the church. This member or team of members may want to schedule group meetings with prospective parents several times during the year; then follow up by working individually with each parent or couple in their homes.
Similar planning should be conducted with adults or older children who are candidates for baptism. Their catechetical instruction should lead at some point directly into a planning session for their specific profession of faith and baptism, preferably with the help of the baptism team.
Participation in the Service
The following parts of the baptismal service may be led by Christian family members and friends of those who are to be baptized:
- Confession and assurance
- Scripture readings
- The instruction part of a formulary
- The specific baptism prayer
- Other prayer(s)
It is most appropriate that believing grandparents are present at the baptism and lead one or several parts of the service. Through such participation we see God's covenant in action over several generations of Christians—a sort of merging of Old and New Testament understandings of covenant and a fulfillment in Christ of God's promise: "I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for generations to come."
Adult and teenage baptismal candidates will, of course, confess their own faith. But parents or guardians should take over this responsibility in the case of infants, younger children, or persons with severe mental impairments. Such baptismal confession of faith should always be followed by communal confession of faith, especially through the use of the Apostles' Creed (which was originally a baptismal creed).
It is proper in all baptismal services to include a general pledge of support by the congregation. Some Christian traditions also incorporate a more specific pledge of support from one or more persons—often referred to as godparents. However, in the Reformed community, with its covenant theology, the entire church body takes on the role of godparents for infants.
Many baptism forms cast the confession of faith/vows into a question-answer format in the manner of a catechism. That format may still be pastorally wise in a few instances, but I suggest that for many congregations this question-answer format should be recast into a personal testimony, spoken by the baptismal candidate(s) or the parents. Here is one example of a vow by parents for infant baptism:
As we come to present [names] for holy baptism, we want to make a testimony of our faith and responsibility before God and you, his people. We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and we denounce the Devil and all his works. We accept the promises of God and affirm the truth of the Christian faith which is proclaimed in the Bible and confessed in this church of Christ.
The congregation can pledge as follows:
As people of the Lord we promise to receive [names] in love. We promise to pray for them, to help care for the nurture of their faith, and to encourage and sustain them in the fellowship of all believers. God is our witness and our help!
Only Christian family members should make baptismal vows and take an active part in the ceremony. This does not mean, however, that nonbelieving family members and friends should be excluded from the circle of witnesses around the baptism font. We do not exclude them from our worship service nor, unlike the early church, from attendance at the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
The Baptism Itself
Baptism is a sacrament that involves water. Biblical imagery about baptism suggests both sprinkling and immersion, but not dry cleaning! Use enough water to be convincing. Most baptisms in the Reformed tradition are done with sprinkling (three times in accord with the trinitarian formula), though it would be helpful for most of us to witness immersion as well. The image of going down into the water and coming up as a new creature in Christ (Col. 2:12) is captured powerfully in immersion. (Churches should recognize, however, that immersion of infants or adults would require more planning and the use of either larger baptism fonts and tanks or outside streams and lakes.)
Every congregation should have available one or several baptism banners, designed and crafted by artists or other members of the church. I know of several churches who have prepared a new baptism banner each year for several years and who now hang baptism banners around the church on each occasion of baptism. I also know of some couples who have made a baptism banner during the prenatal period. Well-made banners contribute much to the visual festivity of baptism services. (See page 5.)
In addition to the suggestions in the article, worship committees may wish to consider the following traditions that some congregations have found meaningful.
- Sing the same hymn after every baptism so that the congregation knows it well and even the children can sing it from memory.
- During the hymn after infant baptism, have the district elder walk the child down the aisles, "introducing" him or her to the whole congregation. Children especially will appreciate the opportunity to see the child up close.
- At the end of the service, have young people and adults who have been baptized "recess" with the pastor or elder so that congregational members can offer personal words of support and encouragement.
- Present a small, personal baptism banner to each child or adult who is baptized. The banner can be preprinted with room for adding the name and date. Or perhaps those skilled in cross-stitch or needlepoint can create a pattern and prepare individualized banners for each person baptized.
- Instead of a banner some churches present the "Dutch cradle cross," a wooden cross with an engraved text reference. Other congregations present a recording or book.