The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Standards (1648) asks and answers a very important question in Q&A 167:
Q. How is our baptism to be improved by us?
A. The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others...
How do we "improve our baptism"? In other words, how can we better claim and celebrate our baptism? How can the public celebration of the sacrament of baptism on Sunday inspire and form our faith during the week? Are there ways to observe baptism more faithfully so that its message might linger and transform our lives?
One way to improve our baptism is by receiving it more completely. This sacrament of God's grace seeks to awaken us to God's prior initiative and call. Baptism initiates rather than ends our journey with Christ Therefore, it is never complete until we claim the fullness of our faith when we stand before our triune God in heaven.
The celebration of baptism should reflect such an understanding. Unfortunately, depending on the pastor's theology and church customs, the sacrament is sometimes thoughtlessly placed at inappropriate places in the order of worship.
Where does it belong? One fitting place is near the beginning of worship, recognizing that by baptism we enter God's covenant household. However, I believe a stronger case can be made for placing baptism within the proclamation segment of the service. As a sacrament of God's grace, baptism reveals and seals to us the good news of God's promise that he is our God and we are his children. It must be seen primarily as God's action, and only secondarily as our response.
Another way of improving the reception of baptism is to celebrate the sacrament with integrity. In most Reformed congregations, ninety percent of those baptized are infants. Even the most adorable baby may begin screaming when startled from sleep by a handful of water. But that is no reason to abbreviate the celebration, as some pastors do. This is too wonderful an opportunity to communicate the biblical meaning and challenge of baptism.
Integrity also requires that we capture the vivid imagery of baptism. Water is central to the celebration. Yet in many services, one is uncertain whether any water is even present in the font. If, during the instruction portion of the liturgy a pitcher is used to fill the font, the congregation will be able to see and hear the water as it splashes down. During the prayer the pastor's hands can stir up the water, again reminding everyone that water is central to this celebration.
Ample amounts of water should also be used in the act of baptizing. It is difficult to express the biblical meaning of washing and cleansing if a mere drop is gently placed on the top of the person's head. Allow the water to run down the face and neck of the person being baptized.
There are other ways to enhance the celebration and help people receive the sacrament. Banners can display symbols of baptism (e.g., drops of water, a shell, etc.). Biblical texts on such banners can remind us of our dying and rising in Christ or of the call to follow Jesus by faith.
Appropriate hymns before, during, or immediately following baptism can effectively etch the message into the lives of the worshipers. Have the children's choir sing a song of welcome to the baptized child: Irvin R. Dohner's "Song for Holy Baptism" (in his collection Rainbows and Butterflies) is a delightful choice. Or have adults and children join in singing Marty Haugen's "Child of Wonder."
Reformed theology understands and values the congregation's role in baptism. Everyone joins the parents in confessing faith in Christ. In many liturgies, every member also vows to support the parents and those who are bapized. This public commitment recognizes the congregation's central calling to model the faith and guide these new members as they grow into Christian wholeness.
Baptism invites each of us to follow more faithfully in the way of Jesus Christ. Whenever Martin Luther felt tempted by the powers of evil, overwhelmed by fears, or tempted to doubt God's love, he would remind himself, "Behold, I am baptized, and believe in Christ crucified."
The reminder to renew our baptism can be made graphic if the pastor walks down the aisles and scatters water over the heads of the congregation. Roman Catholics often include this symbolic scattering of water in their funeral services (referring to Rom. 6:2-4) and their Easter vigil service.
We should also recognize the repetitive value of baptism. Each new celebration reminds all those previously baptized that they have shared in these same waters. Some pastors invite children to the font to view the baptism from a closer vantage point, reminding them that they also once experienced this sacrament.
In some churches, an elder prays for the child and parents. This is especially appropriate if that elder is responsible for the spiritual care of this family. Some congregations also assign mentors to encourage the parents to raise this child in a Christian context. This mentoring can be carried through as a way of leading and guiding a youngster to prepare for public profession of faith.
Or again, some pastors introduce the newly baptized child(ren) to the congregation. Walking down the aisles, the pastor will say, "Take a good look at Carol, our newest member. Some of you will care for Carol in nursery, instruct her in church school, or act as her youth sponsor. But all of you will be models for Carol and every other child within this congregation, showing them what it means to be a Christian."
Each celebration of baptism should invite us to turn away from evil and turn toward Jesus Christ. Since baptism is a sacrament of grace, we need to recognize it as a gift from God—not of our earning—and gain a growing sense of gratitude for this gift of grace.
We can also improve our baptism by reliving it more intentionally. Given the hectic pace of life in our society, it is wise to remind ourselves that there is a different way. Busyness is often not a sign of commitment and dedication but a mask for barrenness and forgetting God. Our baptism reminds us that we belong to God; it calls us to live as God's representatives in a needy world.
One of the central roles of families is to create and celebrate good memories. We all enjoy observing birthdays. On these significant dates, we reflect on the past year and on how God has guided and provided for us. Similarly we ought to celebrate our baptism day.
Our family has been celebrating our baptisms for the past few years. First, I searched for the exact baptism date of each family member. Then, I wrote the dates in red on a calendar. We observe each person's baptism day by reflecting on a biblical passage related to the sacrament or to our maturing in Christ. Together we talk about what it means to be baptized and how we can more fully commit ourselves to Christ. I also search for a gift for the occasion—something that either symbolizes baptism or reminds that person of God's love. Churches can encourage this practice by presenting a candle or other significant reminder of the baptism. Families can use this reminder annually to reflect on what it means to belong to Christ and to walk in his light.
Churches can also challenge us to "improve" our baptism by providing a copy of the baptismal vows. Framed and placed in a prominent place, these vows can remind us of God's promise and our own response. They can also encourage us to see our responsibility to others within the fellowship of the church.
Encouraging parents to write a prayer for each child's baptism day also promotes the celebration of our baptism. This prayer can remind everyone of God's desire and expectation for them to follow Christ. It can also remind parents to practice a consistent Christian lifestyle that will point their children to Jesus.
These prayers can be saved from year to year. And they can be reviewed and updated as the child grows in years, understanding, and commitment to Jesus Christ.
Baptism, like every other spiritual gift, does not work automatically. We must have an intentional desire to realize its significance for our lives by paying attention to it and practicing it. For many of us, baptism began with parents who believed and promised God that they would form us in the ways of Jesus Christ. However, that is not the full story. Those early words and vows spoken on our behalf need to come alive as we personally pledge ourselves to Christ. Thus we join in the pilgrimage with other believers, improving our baptism, and growing into greater maturity in the Lord Jesus Christ.
FROM THE PEW
Our pastor, Archie Vander Hart, invites the children to come to the font to watch. He uses lots of water, handfuls poured on their heads (and he has large hands) to depict the image of God's cleansing. Most touching to me is when Archie takes the baby in his own arms and blesses him or her. That symbolizes vividly for me and others in the congregation how God holds and enfolds us in his arms.
Member of Fuller Ave. Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan
"Baptized in Water"
[PsH 269; PH 492; WC 758]
"You are Our God, We are Your People"
"Almighty Father, Covenant God"
"Out of Deep Unordered Water"
"Child of Blessing, Child of Promise"
"Water of Wonders, Here Revealed"
"Christ, When for Us You Were Baptized"
[PH 70; RL 241]
"We Praise You, Lord, for Jesus Christ"
The banner idea on page 25 and the bulletin cover design on this page graphically represent the individual and communal character of baptism. The bulletin cover highlights the events of the day while the banner shows how God's covenant (symbolized by the rainbow) is worked out through generations of baptized people.
These banner and bulletin cover ideas make use of simple-to-trace figures in addition to historical symbols of baptism: the shell, the water, and the descending dove. Both banner and bulletin cover could be used to establish new visual rituals to enhance the act of baptism in your worship. Possibilities include:
■ Before, during, or after the baptism service, add a figure to the banner for each person being baptized.
■ Before the service, make miniature banners for each person being baptized to take home. Include on these small banners a figure, the persons name, arid the date.
■ Get the kids involved. All of the shapes used on the banner could easily be created by church school children. The figures would be more interesting, too, if you had the kids cut figures out of the fabric without using a pattern. Hand out squares of fabric cut to some consistent size and let the children's creativity (and varying skill!) insure diversity among the figures on the banner.
■ On the bulletin cover, add the name and date alongside each figure, representing the person being baptized. The cover can serve as a take-home memento of the occasion.