You all conduct worship as if worship was something that started last week. You forget that we are part of the vast host of saints of those who have gone before and that even now that as we worship God; we worship God in the presence of that vast company of unseen believers who surround us and are clapping their hands as we sing the praises of God. I have a great sense of the communion and fellowship between the church celestial and the church terrestrial. And there’s nowhere in my Christian expression where that sense strikes me more forcibly than in Christian worship. -- Albert Aymer, from the transcript of a panel discussion at Calvin Symposium on Worship, 2006
These two passages, along with many others, make clear that Christ expects the practice of baptism will be at the heart of his church. In Matthew 28:16-20 Christ gives his disciples the Great Commission to make disciples and baptize them. Becoming a disciple of Christ and being baptized go hand in hand. The baptism, he says, is to be in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and should be followed by teaching toward obedience (see v.20). This passage opens the door to the remainder of the New Testament and the establishment and growth of the Christian church. Soon after, when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Peter tells the listeners to "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38), and all who "accepted his message were baptized" (Acts 2:41). Baptism, therefore, becomes the sign of washing in Christ, the entrance into discipleship, and inclusion in the Christian church.
Paul, some years later, writes more theologically to the Roman Christians to explain the significance of their baptism. In Romans 6:1-7, he says we are baptized "into Christ Jesus" (v.3), and we are, more specifically, "baptized into his death" (v.3). So we are buried with Christ, raised with him, and may live a new life (v.4). In verses 5-7 he develops this thought to show that our baptism is a sign of being freed for a new life.
The Christian church practices baptism for infants and for adults. When the church baptizes adults, the baptism is always in conjunction with their profession or reaffirmation of faith (Acts 2:38). The church baptizes infants and children on the basis of God's covenant promises. These covenant promises show that God's grace extends before the child has the ability to choose him. Therefore, believing parents have the privilege of presenting their children to receive the sign of God's covenant (Genesis 17:7-14 and Colossians 2:11).
The following are foundational pastoral principles for baptism in the church today:
• Baptism is a celebration of God's grace, not human achievement. It is a means of grace through which God acts to seal the promises of the gospel.
• Baptism is not an end in itself. It always points beyond itself to celebrate God's grace and covenant faithfulness.
• Baptism is a sign of a relationship that is covenantal, not contractual. Our relationship with God in Christ is based on promises, like a marriage.
• Baptism is deeply personal, but never private. It is a communal action of the gathered congregation, which represents the church in all times and places.
The wisdom of the church in its practice over 20 centuries of time has taught us that the baptismal liturgy should contain at least these parts:
• A declaration of God's invitation and promises surrounding baptism, through the words of institution and instruction from Scripture.
• A statement of the church's faith, and the particular promises or vows of parents presenting their children for baptism or those being baptized.
• A prayer of thanksgiving and petition for the work of the Holy Spirit in and through baptism in the life of the community and those being baptized.
• The baptism itself, with words of blessing.
• A welcome into the church and commitment of the congregation to encourage and support newly baptized members.
Remembering our Baptism
Though baptism is administered only once and need not be repeated, we should be reminded of our baptisms regularly for comfort and encouragement. Martin Luther even urged Christian to practice the daily renewal of their baptism by saying I am a baptized person, and today I will live out my baptism. Following his pattern, many Lutheran liturgies regularly refer to baptism as the basis of all Christian living. The task of parents in training their children in the ways of the Lord should involve a regular reminder of their baptism, but the church should reinforce this remembrance. This can be done in several ways:
• One congregation places a "Baptism Candle" on the font at the time of baptism. The candle is given to the parents for their home. They are encouraged to light the candle and place it on their table each year at the anniversary of this baptism.
• The pastor or worship leader could remind worshipers of their baptism. For example, the assurance of pardon is built on baptism by which we were declared children of God. Both the assurance of pardon and the call to worship are good places in the liturgy to do this.
• Periodically the congregation should observe a "Reaffirmation of Baptism Vows" in which all those baptized repeat and reaffirm vows. It can be meaningfully included at the beginning of the year, an anniversary, in conjunction with a sermon on baptism, or in a baptism service.
Suggestions for Baptism Liturgies
The structure of a baptism liturgy leaves ample room for shaping it in a way that has special significance for the participants and the congregation. Especially in congregations in which baptism services occur often, worship planners will want to keep it fresh while retaining the significance of this meaningful ritual. We present here a list of ideas that have come from a variety of congregations and experiences. You may want to consider incorporating some of these in your baptism liturgies. (It is important to keep in mind that our aim is to practice a rich tradition with freshness, not just be novel or cute.)
1. The children of the congregation can be invited forward to participate in the service of baptism. This gives them an opportunity to witness the baptism up close and gives the pastor the opportunity to explain the meaning of baptism to them. If baptism occurs often, the pastor may want to identify several main core ideas and present one each time.
2. The entire extended family of the candidate for baptism can be acknowledged or join in a circle around the baptism font. This extended family is the "covenant circle" into which this person has been placed by God.
3. An elder can offer the prayer of intercession for the person being baptized, asking for nurture, protection, growth and blessing.
4. The congregation can sing the same hymn at every baptism service so that the hymn becomes identified with baptism. This repetition enables children and adults to learn it by heart. It is important that such a hymn carries the message of baptism's significance.
5. A special large banner can be constructed and hung for every baptism service. A smaller replica of this banner or an individualized banner can be made and presented to the person who is baptized or the family of a child being baptized.
6. A member of the congregation can present a red rose to the family as a symbol of the sacredness of this life as a special creation by God.
7. A candle can be lighted at the baptism service to symbolize the light of this life with all its promise.
8. Invite a family member (or two) to read a relevant Scripture passage as part of the baptism service.
9. A personalized baptism certificate and booklet can be prepared and presented from the church.
Above all, it is important that the service convey a spirit of celebration of the grace and goodness of God!
Guidelines for Music in Baptism Services
Because baptism is a welcoming into the church, it is important to involve the congregation in the celebration. This can be done through congregational singing or by involving the musical ensembles of the church in songs and anthems that celebrate the covenant. But because baptism is also a very significant time in families, it is very appropriate that family members be invited to participate in music ministry, particularly when the music used serves as part of the baptism celebration.
For an in-depth message about the Service of Baptism at Union Center Christian Church, listen to the audio stream of Pastor Craig's message from April 19, 2009: The Depths of Baptism.
Questions for Discussion
1. How did your baptism service show that baptism was a celebration of God's grace? Give examples.
2. Would you say that baptism services are an event that includes the whole congregation, or is it a family event at which the congregation is a spectator? Which should it be? How can your liturgies better reflect this?
3. Do you believe that the members of your congregation are aware of their own baptism and its personal significance for them? Why or why not? How could your liturgies improve that?
4. Think about the key elements in a baptism service (God's promises, the parent's promises in the case of infant baptism, the baptismal candidate's vows in the case of adult baptism, the water, the prayers, the hymn, the welcome, and the blessing), and discuss how each one could or should convey meaning.
5. Recall some of the baptism services you have seen in recent years. What stands out as particularly meaningful actions? Explain why.
6. Think about the baptism font in your congregation and the amount of water that is normally used in baptism. Is it prominent enough? What does its symbolism convey to the congregation? Could anything be done to convey deeper symbolism? Does the font have any significance on Sundays when there is no baptism?
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