One of my great privileges as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament is baptism. It is a rare gift to be charged with the responsibility of administering the holy and there is nothing else like it.
As a parish minister in Scotland I am often contacted by folks who live in the parish and who desire baptism for their precious new babies. It seems more often than not that they have little or no connection to the church.
I am always surprised that they actually want baptism. When pressed, they are generally unable to articulate their reasons for the request. They just somehow feel that it is important to start the child off in life with a formal blessing from God.
So, I am left in the awkward position of determining whether or not they are ready for such a commitment. I am not alone in this and different ministers handle the situation in different ways. Some simply say “no,” insisting that at least one of the parents need to be a communicant member of the church. This is actually official policy of the Church of Scotland and so not at all unreasonable to insist upon it.
Other ministers will baptize anyone who asks for it and will spend little if any time preparing them to understand the significance of the event.
I am somewhere in the middle. I am willing to entertain a request for baptism from a non-member, but am learning to do so under certain conditions. I interpret a request for baptism as a sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit, who has mysteriously prompted a couple to think about the spiritual significance of a new child, and so I see it as an opportunity to inform the parents about what may well be going on in their lives. I try to help them name the feelings they are having and to slow them down enough to think about what might be happening.
I give them a sheet with several questions to think about. “Why do you want the child baptized? What does baptism mean to you? Do you understand the vows you will be taking? What does baptism say about your own faith and the faith development of your child? How do you intend to fulfil the vows you are going to take?”
I leave them with the questions and make a second visit a week or two later to follow up. Some interesting discussions ensue.
Some, in making the effort, are on the right track and my job is to supply the theological language to articulate more clearly their desires. For others, it is just a beginning, a seed planted, to sprout some time down the road, when the Spirit of God begins to prod them again.
Recently I was making one of those second visits and I asked myself, “What do I really want them to know? Am I looking for a conversion moment? Do I want them to know certain passages of scripture? Do I ask for them to sign some sort of covenant or promise to attend the next communicant’s class?”
I could spend weeks with a couple, months even, and historically that is exactly what the church has done. But, today’s couples are often so surprised to find the minister asking anything of them that insisting on a lengthy period of education would only put them off.
What then is the most important thing to understand?
I asked some of my newest members to enlighten me. What do you think I should tell them?
Their answer surprised me. “I think it’s important that they know that God is real, and that they can trust in a spiritual reality that goes beyond what they normally think about.”
Not a bad beginning.
So, I took that to my newest baptismal couple and added two more ideas to ponder.
1. There is a spiritual reality, a God who really does exist.
2. God is not just a nebulous spirit, but has an identity and a defined personality. He is revealed to us in the person of Jesus.
3. God in Christ knows you and is interested in you and wants you to know Him.
I ask them to make a commitment to seeking this God, reassuring them that in spite of the fact that they may not understand very much, that God will help them to know more and will guide them to a deeper knowledge.
It’s a start and very much an evolving process, but one I hope will bear fruit.