by Robert Brow
lanes of the city, and bring in the
poor and maimed and blind and lame
....Go out to the highways and
hedges, and compel people to come in,
that my house may be filled"
NOW, LETS BE PRACTICAL. If our model is what underlies and explains the New Testament approach to baptism, how do we apply it in a parish? For the sake of simplicity, I will use the terminology of an Anglican or American Episcopalian type of local church; this is what I have been familiar with in three different continents, Britain, India, and North America. It is my hope that those of other denominations will understand and translate these principles in terms of other types of church organization. For Lutherans, Methodists, the Canadian United Church, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Presbyterians, the translation will be simple. Those who delay the baptism of children from Christian homes till puberty, or till they can make a profession of faith, will need to substitute dedication or some similar rite to mark the entrance of the child into Christian teaching.
We begin with the object in view: to take in and teach as many as possible. We seek to obey the command, "Go ... make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20).
So we persuade our own congregation to form themselves into a school for learners - not an old fashioned structure with a teacher lecturing rows of passive pupils, but rather a happy place, more like an open school, with newcomers welcome, and everyone learning at a different stage on his or her own level. We begin with what Jesus taught in the Gospels: learning to talk to God as a loving Father, to love our enemies, to forgive, to understand the Bible, to develop gifts and talents, to care about our neighbors. We can then proceed to the teaching of the Epistles both for new Christians, and for the very advanced.
If an individual, or a whole family, wishes to begin learning, we baptize them as soon as possible with a minimum of fuss. If they have already been baptized in any other church, we help them to continue their discipleship with us. We ask nothing of them, except that they come and learn. Our responsibility is to provide the facilities and the teachers needed. If we can't do that for them we have no right to baptize: it would be like enrolling students in a school that does not exist!
The key to our model of the church is that baptism is the beginning of teaching by the Holy Spirit. The baptism itself therefore tells you nothing about the qualities or intentions of the person baptized. It makes clear that this person or household is now to be taught by the Holy Spirit in the fellowship of our church. Thus the whole responsibility is taken from the candidates and given to our congregation. It is our responsibility to accept all comers, and to ensure that they are taught as much as they are able to receive. And our acceptance of unsatisfactory sinners is not to be passive: "let them come if they really want." Rather we are to go and bring them in. And if that does not fill our church, we are to "compel" others to come in. If we make it clear to them that they come in to learn (rather than to profess goodness) we may find many more willing to find out about Jesus Christ than we anticipate.
Once this principle is established, then the baptism (or dedication) of children will follow inevitably. No one is too young to learn. We pray for our babies in their cribs, teach them the name of Jesus along with "Dada" and "Mama," read them bedside stories from the Bible, and take them to worship with us even before they are weaned. If they are part of the school of Christ, and baptism is the entrance to that school, it makes no sense to delay till they can prove they have understood its teaching.
This acceptance of children for enrollment in the school of the Holy Spirit brings us to a serious objection: "You have suggested a kind of in indiscriminate baptism, and we may agree to that for adults who make some kind of commitment. If you confine yourself to the children of parents who can be expected to teach their children, the argument still holds. But it is impossible to practice the indiscriminate baptism of thousands of children whose parents have no interest in teaching them, who cannot teach them because they themselves know nothing of the Christian faith, and who make no attempt to worship with God's people."
Let us put the situation at its worst. Here is an Anglican or Episcopal church with an average of a hundred people meeting faithfully for worship on Sunday mornings. In the afternoon, the custom has been for christening parties at which parents turn up to have their children "done." Some of these have phoned ahead to check the time. Others appear unannounced. None have any connection with the worshipping church except that they live in the parish, though in some cases a relative or friend has suggested that this is the most convenient place, and the rector is a kind old fellow who greets everyone very nicely and asks no awkward questions. Each baptism is recorded impressively in the register, and the proud mother receives a baptism certificate for her white-robed baby. After the service the family gathering enjoys the christening party, photographs are taken, and everyone is very satisfied that "the right thing" has been done.
Now an enthusiastic new rector comes to the parish, announcing "If that is indiscriminate baptism, I will have no part of it." He insists on an interview with every family before he will baptize their children. First of all he refuses all who come from outside his parish boundary. Next he insists on a confirmation certificate from each parent, or at least regular attendance from one of them. The first year or two he has to bend a bit, and make exceptions, but by the time parents come with a second child for baptism, having made no attempt to come to church since the last one, he refuses adamantly. He sets up an impressive training program of several weeks of instruction and worship, which both parents must attend before the baptism. He also expects three-months notice of a proposed baptism, and makes doubly sure by insisting that godparents are serious, practicing Anglicans. Within two years the new rector has cut down his of baptisms to a trickle, and virtually all infant baptisms involve children of members of the congregation.
These, then, are the two practices which are set in opposition in the usual debate between those in favor, and those opposed to indiscriminate baptism. If I were forced to choose either of these alternatives I suspect I would have to leave parish ministry. The trouble is that the biblical practice of immediate baptism has never even been proposed, let alone practiced, and that is one reason for this book.
Admittedly in Great Britain, where the Anglican Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland are state churches, the huge numbers wanting christening for their babies is viewed as a lamentable problem. In other parts of the world it would be viewed as a teaching opportunity. Our job is not to reduce the numbers to what we think we can manage, but to take seriously our job as teachers of the nations. That, then, gives us a third alternative. Rejecting both the indiscriminate baptisms of the kindly old rector who baptized everyone and taught them nothing, and the discriminate baptisms of the rigorist rector who narrowed his teaching task down to his own little flock, and those who had the courage to join them, I propose a third possibility-baptism followed by as much teaching as we can give.
When someone with no regular church connection phones me about having a baby "done' I always begin by saying: 'I am glad you want your baby to be taught the Christian faith. We would love to do all we can to help you in our church." I explain that Jesus Christ has appointed us to be a school where people of all ages are taught about God, and forgiveness, and life after death. I then ask if they are enthusiastic about giving their child Christian instruction. (For of course, if the child is young, most of the teaching will have to be done by the parents themselves.) Would the parents, or at least one of the parents, be interested in learning about Jesus Christ?
If there is even a spark of interest I immediately schedule a couple of hours in their home with both parents before the baptism to explain the main facts of the Creed: God is the artist of our world, and he wants us to discover what he has in mind. He is more loving than any human parents, and he offers to adopt us into his family. Jesus Christ came from God, went through death, and demonstrated that there is life on the other side. The Holy Spirit of God works in our church to teach us and coach us in the experience of love and joy and peace in our families. I then explain the facilities we have to help the family to learn and grow as Christians.
I always leave a Good News for Modern Man New Testament in the home, explain that it is our text book, and show how the family can read a story from the Gospels together, discuss it, and later be able to read to their child. I explain that we can talk to God and tell him just how we feel. I show how we hold a child's hand at bedtime, and express to God the thanksgivings and concerns of the day at the child's own level of language and I urge the family never to ignore a child's spiritual questions. Then I leave my card, explaining that they can call me at any time to ask questions or request prayer. I describe our nursery and Sunday School facilities, and invite the family to worship and to share in our Holy Communion.
Baptisms are in the main service, and, hopefully, church members are friendly and welcoming. Sometimes a member knows the family or lives nearby. I try to get the mother, at least, into a Bible study group for beginners. If members of the congregation can be trained it is good for every new family to have someone to guide them into discipleship and worship. I find that the godparent system very rarely works effectively, and I prefer to leave it as a social formality since it is impossible to ensure that godparents not only belong to our congregation but also know how to do their job.
What then are the results of this approach? I find a few families are very willing to learn, and some, in fact, have asked for baptism for their child because they feel they need a framework of Christian values for their home. A few are obviously hostile. "We just want the child christened, that's all." I do not refuse baptism in such cases, but I insist on giving the family some teaching at least, and make clear that baptism is the entrance into learning from God and that we take this seriously. Most are more or less interested but obviously do not intend to be in church more than is convenient for them. Some of these can later be followed up, and if one has been friendly and warm, they may later welcome further involvement.
The advantage of this approach is that no family is rejected because the Christian church considers them unworthy, ignorant, or irresponsible. Everybody is welcome, and we are enthusiastic about our school and our teaching. There may be some parents who will avoid baptism for their children because they don't want the embarrassment of refusing to learn. Some will refuse to turn up after registration, but then, every evening school has some who register, pay the course fee, yet fail to attend.
The problem with the afternoon baptisms of the kindly old rector is that the practice gives the impression that something magical is "done" even though no teaching follows. The problem with the young rector, who wants to stop indiscriminate baptism, is that his practice shouts to the world that only well-behaved church members will be taken in. What the practice of the New Testament makes clear is that everyone is welcome, with their families and households. After a brief statement of what the school of Christ has to offer, baptism can be immediate, and since neither Jesus nor his disciples worried about the proportion who might fall away, neither should we!
What about restrictions due to physical locality? It may be necessary to say to some potential candidates, "You live too far away for us to visit you and include you in our fellowship." This often happens in a missionary situation. The proper answer should, however, include the encouragement that "We will send you some teachers as soon as we can, and they will baptize you and start a new school in your area." The same principle will apply where people want baptism for themselves or their children in a distant church for sentimental reasons, like the man who called me up to say he had been baptized in our church in 1897, and he wanted his great-granddaughter baptized there. I explained that I would arrange for a church nearer the parents' home to enroll and teach the little girl.
The advantage of using the school image in such cases is that the principle of not enrolling a child from across the city is well understood in similar terms. I might have baptized even in such a case if I had felt that I myself, or someone else, could have driven across and taught the family in their home, or if it turned out that the family was obviously willing to bring their child to church from that distance. As it happened, the man slammed down the telephone in a huff, but he had admitted and seen the force of the point that no school would enroll a child unless there was some way of getting the child to school or the school to the child. The important principle is that there is no discrimination because of the lack of qualities in the child or his parents.
Careful explanation will be required in the case of parents who want their child baptized but obviously have no intention of learning anything themselves or giving their child the opportunity of Christian instruction. If the family lives well outside the reach of the congregation, the geographical restriction will apply. If, however, they live within visiting reach of the congregation, and there are workers to contact the parents at home and eventually teach the child, it is probably worthwhile registering the child by baptism to make clear that there is no discrimination being practiced as to the Parents' character or worth. In such cases it should be made clear at the baptism that the child is now enrolled in the school of Christ, that so-and-so will call to give instruction to the parents about praying for the child, telling Bible stories, and reading and explaining the Bible. If the parents receive the teaching, well and good, especially if they can be encouraged to share in the worship of the church at least occasionally. If, finally, the parents not only refuse instruction at home but prevent their child from being taken to church, the principles still hold and the meaning of baptism is safeguarded. The parents know that they, personally, were not rejected, they can see the meaning of baptism as enrollment in the school of Jesus Christ, they sense the seriousness with which the church cares for its young ones, and any rejection that has taken place is entirely on their part, not the church's.
Finally, we make clear by our practice what baptism does not mean. We never suggest that baptism has some magical property in itself. This means that we refuse to encourage hasty baptisms because of imminent death. We also refuse to baptize wherever we have no intention of making efforts to incorporate the candidate into the fullness of the life of the Holy Spirit in the teaching and worshipping church. As we see it, there is no merit in the mere act of enrollment. There must be "the washing of regeneration and the renewal in the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). We accept the fact that in some cases, as in the baptisms in Samaria (Acts 8:4-17), there may be a time lapse between enrollment and the full life of the Spirit. But no baptism should be performed unless there is every intention of making this a reality. We stress again that any discrimination concerns only the church's ability to teach, not the candidates' intentions or worthiness. We demonstrate visibly that no amount of sin, stubbornness, unwillingness, weakness, or faintheartedness, on the part of the pupils or their families, will ever daunt us. It is for such failing, sinning human beings that Jesus Christ came to die. He undertakes to redeem the hardest cases, and the church has the resources of the Holy Spirit to do what would be impossible humanly.
We could object that the baptism of the eunuch from Ethiopia violated our principles (Acts 8:26-39). The man in question was moving hundreds of miles away, and there was no incorporation into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit after baptism. The circumstances are, however, exceptional. In the first place, the eunuch was obviously teaching himself by careful study of the Old Testament Scriptures even as he rode in his chariot. It is probable that Philip did intend to teach him more before he was snatched away to do another task. There may already have been some Christians in Ethiopia as a result of what happened on the day of Pentecost. The well-read eunuch had the Scriptures with him, and he understood how Jesus Christ related to them, and so might already have enough understanding of the Good News to begin a new school of the Holy Spirit in his own country. In any case, missionaries would soon arrive there to establish the ancient church in Ethiopia. There are many possibilities, and we do not know the whole story, but one problematical case is not sufficient to shatter the constant New Testament pattern that baptism into the name of Christ is always followed by teaching and fellowship in the school of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, we apply our school model of baptism to the history of Christian missions. An immediate advantage is that we can make sense of the mass baptisms by which most of Europe was Christianized. Those who insist that genuine faith must precede baptism inevitably view the tribal conversions of Europe as regrettable. The fact is that Europe became Christian as the church took in huge numbers Of very raw heathen, and then patiently taught the baptized.
Here are some examples. About AD 300 the whole kingdom of Armenia became Christian under king Tiridates III. In AD 486 King Clovis of the Franks was baptized with three thousand of his soldiers. A hundred years later Augustine and his monks baptized King Ethelbert of Kent and ten thousand of his Saxons. In AD 955 five thousand Magyars of Hungary were baptized and the remainder of the country became Christian, under King Stephen, by AD 1000. Then came Poland under Prince Mieczyslaw and Russia under Emperor Vladimir. King Olave of Norway had most of his country baptized and under instruction by the early eleventh century.
These are the most obvious cases of mass conversion, when a leader of a tribe or nation decided to have his people taught the Christian faith. Admittedly, in certain churches the idea of a probationary period before baptism appeared by the third century. However it would seem that for the first thousand years of church history it was taken for granted in most mission situations that baptism came first and the new disciples were taught later It would have been inconceivable to start asking each Saxon warrior whether he really believed in Jesus Christ. His reply would have been "My king has ordered it, so I will be baptized with him."
We can say that the work of baptizing most of the nations and tribes of Europe was completed by about AD 1150. For the next seven centuries virtually no new nations were added to the Christian churches. By the end of the nineteenth century, large scale church growth began again. What is significant is that where this more recent church growth has been appreciable it can be demonstrated that baptisms have generally been in large numbers, without a long probationary period. Admittedly, there have been few cases of a king being baptized with his tribe, but this is due to the fact that few tribes in Asia and Africa had a monarch. Where members of a tribe have become Christians in large numbers, the usual pattern is a few staunch converts in the beginning. Then a sub-conscious tribal decision takes place, as the elders discuss the situation, and weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of tribal conversion to Christianity. Once this has taken place, and a positive decision made, the number of baptisms will be as rapid as the missionaries permit. The missionaries may think that conversions are individual and based on genuine faith, but the subsequent fruits of conversion will depend largely on how well the arrangements for teaching and worship are provided.
In 1933 Bishop J. W. Pickett of the Methodist Church published his Christian Mass Movements in India. Dr. Donald McGavran called it an "epochal book" which "marked a turning point in mission History." By carefully surveying some areas where the church has grown most rapidly, Bishop Pickett was able to demonstrate that virtually all the growth of the churches in India had been by mass movements. A mass movement at that time was defined as a movement which eventually resulted in the turning of a large proportion of the members of a certain caste to become Christians.
Later the term "mass movement" was corrected to "group movement" or "people movement" as a result of the huge study of this phenomenon by the world-wide schools Of church growth connected with Dr. Donald McGavran. The word "people" is defined, not in racial or national terms, but by identifying them as communities who do not usually marry outside their own grouping. This makes it possible to use one term for a typical early European or modern African tribe, or a caste scattered among many other people over a large part of India, or a clan, or clannish group of people, within a nation or city.
Once Bishop Pickett had drawn attention to the fact of church growth by people movements among certain castes in India, the importance of this type of conversion became obvious. Just as the mass tribal conversions from the tribes of Europe had been despised, in the same way many missionaries and visitors from the sending countries sneered at the very idea of backward peoples being taken into the Christian churches in such large numbers. During the past forty years, more and more instances of people movements have been documented from every continent of the world. Even though Baptist missionaries only baptize adults, yet it has been shown that often their converts have come as a result of a kind of subconscious group decision to become Christians. This is true, for example, among the Naga and other border tribes of India. Most church growth in the African continent has been as a result of taking in large movements from tribe after tribe, and then instructing the converts in worshipping congregations.
This is not the place to describe the vast body of expertise which has been developed to analyze, locate, and encourage the process of church growth by people's movements. My concern is to draw three lessons from this material. A point first made by Bishop Pickett was that it is not the stringency of preparation before baptism that affects the ultimate health of churches, but rather the quality of the teaching and worship after the groups are taken in.
Second, we should note that good or bad motives make very little difference to the outcome. If people come with bad motives, but are well taught after baptism, the results are astonishing. Conversely, if people come with good motives, but the teaching and worship after baptism is poor, the results are depressing. Dr. Warnshuis sums up the results in a few words: "A whole chapter in Dr. J. W Pickett's thoroughgoing study, Christian Mass Movements in India, is given to a critical study of motives, of which forty instances are given. The remarkable conclusion is that the motives which lead people to Christ in people movements are those that lead individuals anywhere to Him. The sick with divers diseases came to Jesus and He healed them. Social, political and economic conditions are not to be wholly separated from religion in Asia and Africa any more than in America and Europe."
Third, there are many examples of people movements being slowed to a standstill by well-meaning missionaries who insist on so much pre-baptismal, individual testing and performance that the social inclination to baptism is killed. Dr. McGavran wrote: "What is done with these first converts is a matter of critical importance. Either the group tendency will be encouraged or discouraged by the preacher. Either he will impose an examination on all members of the group and admit only those who pass the examination as individuals, thus breaking up the natural units and stressing the one-by-one pattern. Or he will count the on to faith of as large and functional a social unit as possible the more important matter, and will so instruct as to preserve and enhance the social solidarity."
These three sets of empirical facts are provable again and again from the annals of church history and hundreds of missionary case studies. If that is granted it would seem that some form of immediate baptism followed by intensive instruction and worship is the most effective method of encouraging church growth.
Stringent requirements for baptism prevent church growth, and the checking of motives is also proved to be a futile activity. Motives are mostly mixed, and rarely disinterested, even if we assume that being disinterested was a New Testament virtue. If a movement begins among outcasts with the hope of bettering their condition, or among a border tribe for political reasons, who are we to discriminate? We probably began our Christian instruction for equally disreputable reasons: "I liked the singing"; "They were all so friendly"; "My girl friend attended"; "I felt like commiting suicide"; "My husband wanted the kids to go to Sunday School"; "I was forced to go to Sunday School". These and many other motives are as good and bad as each other, but as long as they result in Christian teaching and we accept it, all will be well. If baptism is made the entrance to the church as the school of Christ, and proper arrangements for teaching are provided, we can be as accepting as the New Testament suggests without any fear for the mission of Jesus Christ among the nations.
Earlier in this chapter, my illustrations of the principle underlying a discipleship view of the church used examples of infant baptism. Obviously there has been huge church growth among churches which practice "believers' baptism." The fact that children of baptized adults are dedicated makes no difference to the principle. My argument has been in favor of the immediate baptism of adults. In the New Testament whole households were baptized without any delay (Acts 16:15, 33). We cannot tell from these texts whether the infants in these households were dedicated, or whether they were baptized. The important factor is that church growth is slowed down to a trickle by insistence on rigorous standards of attainment before baptism. I suspect that it could be proved that where Baptist churches have had a typical peoples' movement, most of the baptisms were in fact indiscriminate in the right sense. The missionary may have thought that he was getting a "true" Christian profession, or approved signs of regeneration, but a careful analysis of what actually happened would indicate that the decision to be baptized as a tribe had already been made by the elders and a majority of the families. What made the work effective was the subsequent teaching of the converts and the quality of their worship.
Now the obvious question arises. If it is true that the New Testament churches baptized immediately, and then taught the converts, and if this was the method used to teach and civilize the nations and tribes of Europe, and if it has been the most effective method of church growth in missionary situations in the past century, then surely there must be an application to our task in so-called post-Christian Europe and North America.
We note that a majority of the people of our western world are no longer Christianized in any effective sense. If they have been baptized as babies, they have never been taught. As children, they have not been to Sunday School, or had any Bible teaching and prayer at home. They have had no experience of regular Christian worship. It is not that they have rejected a genuine Christian way of life. They have never even had the opportunity to discover what it might be. In fact their impression of what is involved is full of misconceptions. To be a Christian is conceived of as a largely negative giving up of good things, living up to impossible standards, swallowing a set of incomprehensible ideas, and then attending some outmoded preaching services. We are therefore back into a typically missionary situation.
Our problem is that we are saddled with a confused image of what we are trying to do. The IBM Corporation used to view itself as a mere maker of business machines. Suddenly it was able to redefine itself in a new way: "We are in the business of processing information." The change affected the mentality of its research scientists, executives, salesmen, and advertising teams, and soon took hold of millions of new customers in business, scientific research, the military forces, and every area of government. The result was huge growth into a vast international corporation which would have been impossible as long as they were thinking only of typewriters and adding machines. At present, most churches suggest that they are in the business of persuading people to be good, believe some abstract doctrines, and come to church instead of enjoying the week-end.
We need to recapture the idea that a Christian is someone who is enrolled to learn about the meaning of our world, to get to know God and all his loving purposes for us in Jesus Christ. The fact is that in every big city, thousands of people are willing to sign up for all sorts of evening courses to become "disciples" of guitar playing, yoga, meditation, marriage encounter, sensitivity training, and much else. It does not occur to the ordinary man that a church is a place to enter and learn. He assumes he would have to say he believed some incomprehensible ideas, measure up to some impossible standards, and dress up with his family every Sunday to appear in church. If he does come to us for baptism the church has habitually checked on his motives, and quickly demanded his time and money to keep the building in repair.
The way I picture my task affects every detail of my ministry. One way of looking at the problem is to say: "A hundred years ago the good church members in this parish came to church fifty Sundays in the year, and usually to the evening service as well. All the children of the neighborhood came to Sunday School in the afternoon. Now the average member comes thirty Sundays in the year, and never more than once a Sunday. What if their attendance drops to only twenty Sundays, and then to ten? Can we keep the thing going? How can I get them to be more regular? How do we recruit more attendees?"
With the Discipleship model the problems and the questions are quite different. "What learning opportunities can we offer this fall? Or, if a family is away at their cottage all summer, what books do they need to keep learning? Could we supply them with tapes?" In Ephesus, Paul taught disciples in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19.9, 10), so we ask, "What is the best location for teaching new families this year? Should we produce a brochure for the course? Do we advertise on the church page or through the community college?"
As we conclude I hope I have at least demonstrated the fact that the model which we use governs the kind of mission we engage in. From the beginning, Christians have assumed that their job was to teach all nations. They were confident that they could take in new learners by the thousand, and that the Holy Spirit would provide for their Christian education. I reject the mentality that we are in a post-Christian era. The world is wide open to our teaching. All we have to do is to go, make disciples, and teach them all that Jesus Christ has taught us.
"Thank you, Father, for all those who have had a part in your mission to me. Thank you for parents, friends, teachers. Thank you for books, hospitality, conferences, services to go to any week I choose, Make me part of your loving mission to others."
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