Profession of Faith and Baptism

Q After a few years of welcoming younger children to profession of faith, our church has reverted to the older pattern where only the young people eighteen and older want to profess their faith. That seems to be when they are ready. Isn’t that OK?

A Having eighteen-year-olds make profession of faith is indeed terrific. It is far better than in many churches where youth simply drift away!

Further, I want to affirm the assumption you make that people need to be ready to make profession of faith. It should never be forced or anything but genuine, so the church should affirm the appropriateness of profession of faith at any age.

But I also want to gently suggest that the patterns a church cultivates can make a big difference for when people feel they are ready. If a profession of faith class is primarily targeted to sixteen-year-olds, it is no wonder that few ten-year-olds come. If profession of faith consists of an interview with an imposing group of a dozen or more council members, it is also no wonder than few younger children feel ready.

Churches that have established profession of faith classes for eight- or ten-year-olds, assigned nurturing mentors to each young person, and created a positive climate for a profession of faith interview (perhaps with a pastor, mentor, and parent who each share their faith, even as the child shares his or hers) often find that many younger children and youth feel ready to make this step.

I wholeheartedly affirm this intentionality, particularly if those relationships can follow young persons through their middle and high school years. In a culture that subjects very young children to powerful formative forces, the church needs to strengthen its relationships with children and youth, and to joyfully invite them to profess their faith. It’s a tangible way to help children claim their identity as those who belong to Jesus and Jesus’ family.

Q In our church, professions of faith are nearly always celebrated at the same time we’re trying to do other things like install officebearers or welcome new members. Shouldn’t we focus just on the young people making profession of faith?

A Celebrating the work of God in a young person’s life is important. I wouldn’t want to detract from that.

At the same time, I like the approach of your church. Installing officebearers involves having them make a profession of faith. Members who join your church make a profession of faith. Having young people join them for their formal profession of faith fits right in.

In fact, it can teach an important lesson. While baptism is rightly celebrated just once, profession of faith—formal or informal—is something we need to do repeatedly throughout our lives.

I can almost hear your pastor saying to those making profession of faith: “We don’t know what future professions of faith you’ll make, as you journey throughout life. Perhaps you’ll serve as a deacon or elder. Perhaps God will call you to another church, maybe in some place we can’t imagine. What we do know is that the God who claimed you in baptism will never leave you or forsake you . . . .”

Q Why do we baptize people only once? I heard that Billy Graham was baptized three or four times. What’s wrong with that?

A Much depends on how you understand baptism. If you think that baptism grows out of a person’s faith commitment, then it makes sense for baptism to be repeated when that faith commitment grows or is reaffirmed. (And yes, Billy Graham was baptized more than once, in part because of this understanding of baptism, and in part because it was required by the Baptist church into which he was being ordained.)

But if you think of baptism as a sign of God’s embrace, a sign of God’s promise, as Reformed Christians do, then it makes sense for the church to resist rebaptism because it may unwittingly communicate that God’s embrace and promise were not effective the first time.

It is true that many people who are baptized spend many years “in the far country” resisting God’s love. If they eventually return God’s embrace and desire to join a church community, the church celebrates this not through rebaptism, but through a profession of faith and reaffirmation of baptism.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 92 © June 2009 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.