She started church as a high school freshman. Her parents, raised as spiritual orphans despite Jehovah’s Witness relatives, had little firsthand faith experience. So they decided their own children should make spiritual decisions for themselves. Bright, articulate, thoughtful, and winsome people, they were spiritual and ecclesiastical agnostics. “We’ll let the kids decide when they get old enough” was their philosophy. It’s a standard California line. Together their family attended a couple churches over a few Easter services. That was the extent of their spiritual history.
Five years earlier, as a nine year old, she had battled cancer. During those frightful days and the unsteady equilibrium that came after, she spent a lot of time with health professionals. She decided then to become a pediatric physician. To help kids. Of course. She was helped, and she wanted to offer help.
Maybe it was her cancer mêlée that made her spiritually inquisitive? Maybe it was the occasional Easter service? Maybe it was some mysterious adolescent angst: a deep desire to be loved or to belong or to be spiritually safe? Whatever it was, she announced to her parents that she wanted to get more spiritually involved. They had promised she could “make this decision for herself,” and now she wanted to implement their plan. She was ready. Her first thought was to ask a friend where she attended church. The entire family rallied around her plan. They would visit together: mom, dad, little brother, and her. Their strategy was to visit the friend’s church once, then shop around, exploring and experiencing religious options. “But,” she said, “We knew right away this was home for us.”
Three years later, now a high school senior, she was in my office telling me why she wants to get baptized. “I was raised to have spiritual choices,” she said. “And this is mine.”
“What does your baptism mean?” I ask.
“It means,” she says with the confidence of a 17-year-old, “that I’m all in.”
I smile to myself. All in. How wonderful that a high school senior uses a poker term to describe her faith. It’s not a direct quote from a time tested catechism or ancient baptism formula. But Augustine might be proud.
The day of her baptism her friends and family arrive early to sit in the front row: her boyfriend (a spiritual agnostic), her extended family (some Mormon, others Jehovah’s Witness), her parents (her mom gushing with enthusiasm, “I should get baptized too!”), and her high school friends. And of course, her church. Gathered around.
Before the service began, I asked her if she was ready for her baptism. “Oh, yes,” she glowed, “I’ve been practicing. I’m ready to go.”
“Well, I’m kind of tall. I didn't want to fall wrong and hit the sides of the baptismal. So I’ve been practicing my falling into the water.”
For baptisms we use a cattle feeding trough that we bring into the sanctuary. Ever the overachieving and highly prepared Advance Placement student, she had surveyed the situation during previous baptisms and decided her 5’10” frame required her to bend her knees just so. She smiled confidently as if I might have thought of this too, “I’m all set to go: I’ve been practicing falling onto my bed.”
Why join a church? Why align yourself with the motley crew of God’s people of all times and places? In a highly mobile, highly technical, highly individualistic world, why join this group? There are a hundred more hip activities for a high school senior. She has a boyfriend, Advance Placement classes, sporting events, and a job.
Even more, why join this congregation? Why commit yourself to a modest expression of the global church of all times and places? Why not join a church with a hip band of twenty some-things or a high-octane, high-attendance youth group?
These past weeks, on Christmas break from her university classes, she was back at home. With her family, her friends, and her church. At university she’s found another congregation to attend. It’s one we recommended. “I like the people there,” she said, “and I’m learning a lot. But I still miss our church.”
It’s the miracle of the gospel. A young woman is invited and included, helps teach classes for children, learns the faith in worship services and daily living, attending an imperfect congregation where she is welcomed and nurtured and taught to worship, and experiences a sense of belonging. Baptism was to her that day, and to all witnessing and remembering our own baptism, a participation in the gospel, a means of grace, a way to symbolize belonging to Jesus and his community. It was an act of love, a way to receive faith and grace. “All in.”
Kevin Adams is the author of 150: Finding Your Story in the Psalmsand The Book That Understands You. In 1991 Kevin and his wife, Gerry, planted Granite Springs Church, a congregation that has helped inspire a movement of church planting in the Sacramento area. He serves as senior pastor and as Director of the Church Planting Center at the Newbigin House of Studies (San Francisco), and he teaches at Calvin Seminary and William Jessup University. He is writing a book about living our baptism. Kevin is fascinated and intrigued by worship, how it forms and shapes individuals and contagious communities of faith. His special interests are in the missional depth and wisdom of the psalms, sacraments, and preaching.