by Chris Ritter
Last year I baptized more folks than any year in my pastoral ministry. Our 31 baptisms set a new one-year record since our congregation’s founding in 1850 (the previous record was set in 2019). They represented an 11:1 ratio of our post-COVID worship attendance. By comparison, the denominational average is 71:1… meaning it takes 71 United Methodists in average worship attendance to produce one baptism. The Wesleyan denominational ratio of baptisms to worship attendance is 25:1 and the Southern Baptist ratio is 22:1. Our denomination baptizes both infants and adults and, unlike the other denominations mentioned, we do not re-baptize. As a congregation, we are learning a few things about encouraging new people to take the step of baptism.
[Some particulars about us: We are a multi-generational congregation with a healthy number of young families, few of which are cradle Methodists. Perhaps half our families choose to have their infants baptized while the other half opts to wait. We don’t offer “baby dedications,” but we do introduce all babies and bless them on their first Sunday at worship. I meet personally with each candidate for baptism (or with the parents in the case of infants) to talk about, repentance, the Gospel, and our personal response. All baptisms are a congregational act and not offered privately. We sprinkle, pour, or immerse.]
Prayer Begets Baptisms
We pray for life transformation. We pray for salvations. We pray for prodigals to come home and strangers to faith become joint-heirs in Christ. The prayer room is the engine room of the church. A large significant number of baptisms is the off-shoot of a church that is reaching new people, raising up the next generation, and calling unbelievers to faith. We should expect to see baptisms from the youth group, children’s ministry, recovery ministries, and senior ministries. It helps the whole church to remember our DNA when a baptism is witnessed.
Baptisms Beget Baptisms
An accident of our architecture is that we do not have a baptistry suitable for immersions. We own a big blue horse trough that we drag out and fill up. It is quite a labor-intensive operation for our volunteers to set up. This has caused us to offer several “Baptism Sundays” throughout the year. We promote these well ahead of time, which keeps baptism on everyone’s radar screen. Baptism Sundays trigger the unbaptized to think and talk about the step of baptism. If we don’t have any takers, we reschedule. If we have someone wanting to be immersed, we take their baptism date and promote it to others who might want to be baptized, too. We schedule at least one lakeside outdoor service per year and offer baptisms at the end.
Whatever the format, we encourage those being baptized to invite their friends and family. We always have more worship guests on a weekend when baptisms are happening. Nothing makes someone want to be baptized than watching someone be baptized. Highlight each baptism for the special event that it is and use each baptism as an opportunity to teach what the Bible says about baptism. Announce to the congregation that another opportunity is coming for those who are interested. Give people a chance to sign up. (Some adults and older youth, of course, want to be sprinkled and we certainly celebrate this, too.)
Confirmation Begets Baptisms
We are finding Confirmation to be a ministry gold mine in so many ways. An eleven-week journey in the foundations of the Christian faith for eighth graders, our confirmation program reaps so many life-changing dividends. This is true not only in the youth who participate, but also in their families and friends. Our confirmands take turns leading in worship and their loved ones come to cheer them on. Attendance jumps and this creates a window of opportunity for us to get them more deeply involved.
In some denominations, confirmation is open only to the baptized. I view that as a missed opportunity for evangelism. Over the years, we notice less youth are baptized before starting confirmation and more have their first contact with our church through confirmation. Our program intentionally touches very little on denominational particulars. We offer “Mere Christianity” with a focus on the person and work of Jesus. We use the Alpha Youth Course as curriculum, but this omits overt teaching on baptism. So we augment the curriculum with testimonies, instruction, and several opportunities for baptism.
Online Worship Begets Baptisms
This might be a little counter-intuitive, but it is important to baptize those you are reaching through online worship. One baptism last year was a man who lived 130 miles away and began worshipping with us online after visiting once from out-of-town. He called me and asked if he could drive in and be baptized one weekend. After discussing the profession of faith involved, he was baptized at one of our Saturday night services. It was wonderful. You never know who is watching out there. While we don’t offer online baptisms, we can certainly offer baptism to those online.
High Church Membership Standards Beget Baptisms
So many churches group baptism with church membership. This muddies the waters, I think. A few years ago, we moved to high standards for church membership. Before someone takes the covenant of church membership, they are to have an established track record of faithful worship attendance, serve in one of our ministries, participate in a group, maintain a positive Christian witness, and give regularly. We have learned that the involvement level people have when they join the church is usually the involvement level they maintain afterwards. So we front load our expectations. This means that membership is a later step instead of an early step. Baptism, however, can be that early step. Anyone wanting to profess Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord is welcome to be baptized. They can then start their journey toward the covenant of membership. With confirmation, too, the youth are only asked to profess Jesus as Savior and Lord on Confirmation Sunday. To become church members, they need to live into the same covenant as the other church members prior to joining. Parents answering for their small children at baptism agree to raise the children in the church. Treating baptism and church membership as a two-stage process frees us to teach on the importance of each step. We get more meaningful baptisms and better church members this way. Every good ladder has a bottom rung.
Social Media Beget Baptisms
Baptisms are a tremendous photo opportunity. Get good pictures. We recently ordered a re-usable hand-held sign that says “Baptized!” on it, along with our church logo. We invite those newly baptized to be photographed holding the sign. We share these in social media and they always get likes, comments, and shares. We also video each baptism from multiple angles and, with the permission of those baptized, offer these online, too. It is amazing that even people with no Christian faith will view the baptism of their friends or family members as something to celebrate. It is great positive content in an otherwise negative world. It is also a form of testimony. When we share our faith, others join us. I can think of nothing better to go viral than baptisms.
What are you finding that helps people take the step of baptism?