Baptism is first and foremost a public event that gives evidence of one’s commitment as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The congregation gathers to support, encourage, affirm, and renew a shared commitment to live in light of the gospel’s claims on our lives. When one comes for baptism, we as a whole church community reaffirm our identity. Together, we promise to learn, grow, and encourage one another.
The public dimension of baptism is embedded in practices that underscore the claims of baptism. For example, on the eve of an infant baptism in some congregations in Sierra Leone, the oldest woman in the family takes the young child in her arms for a guided tour of the village. She walks down the streets of the town, pointing out significant places to the babe in her arms. “Here is the school where you will go to learn how to read. This is the house of your aunt and uncle who will help take care of you. Watch out for this house, because it is full of danger, and you can lose your way. This is the church where you will be baptized tomorrow and where you will learn the stories of Jesus.” Though the young child will not consciously recall this tutorial, it offers a shared way of life, a map by which the family and community hope to orient themselves and the newest member of their family.
This form of public testimony provides a clearer identity of ways that Christian faith guides us in our lives. On this point, the witness of the early church provides essential and compelling help for recovering more robust and faithful ways for baptism to embody our witness to the transformative work of the Spirit in our lives.
1. Christians witness from the margins of society about the possibility of new life. This is a key lesson for churches in the twenty-first century. For better and for worse, the church no longer occupies a role at the center of society. While remnants of Christendom persist in the platitudes of politicians running for office and in the desperate desire of some Christians to force so-called Christian values on the population at large, the reality is that the church has receded from its place of cultural power and dominance. This shift (which is viewed as a loss of influence by many who grew up in the church in another era) brings with it the possibility for congregations to reclaim a distinctive voice. In a culture immersed in consumerism and greed, the church offers a different model: life shared together. In an early account of the birth of Christian communities, the book of Acts offers a vivid description of life in the church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
The identity of this nascent community is clearly grounded in the memory of Jesus’s life and ministry. These early followers of Jesus describe life shared together in fellowship in communion (note the author Luke’s signature way of describing communion as the breaking of bread) and daily prayer (most likely the Temple prayers in Jerusalem).
2. Christians stand with and for the poor by offering hospitality and generosity. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45).
This sketch of shared life pictures distinct ways the community interacts with the society by welcoming newcomers while also responding to the needs of others. While many scholars consider this depiction of the early church in Acts utopian and idealistic, the primary point is that it presents the church’s understanding of its own identity as one that exists in the midst of popular culture, while acting responsively with generosity to all who are in need.
3. Christian faith takes root as our actions conform to the gospel’s call to faithful discipleship. Christian community is marked by its life together. It is not programmatic, offering classes and interest groups for identified niche audiences (an approach guided by contemporary market principles). Instead, all the members of the community participate in regular, distinctive practices that shape their lives.
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
Out of these shared experiences comes a core Christian identity that extends goodwill in responding to the basic needs of people. This identity is what the church has to offer, and baptism becomes a visible expression of full commitment to this shared way of life.
Individuals who visit our churches come in hope of hearing good news. This good news addresses people’s core questions about their identity and the meaning and purpose of their lives. These basic questions include: “Who am I?” “What am I doing?” and “Where am I going in my life?” Baptism offers the Christian community’s response to these questions. Here, our identity as believers provides an alternative witness to the values of individualism, success, and consumption in the society at large.
Baptism is an action that demonstrates conversion. Through baptism, the church invites us to turn away from the constant quest for more toward a life lived in service to our neighbors and in solidarity with the poor, the stranger, the outcast, and the forgotten. Clear Christian identity and a call to conversion require us to turn in a new direction. The gospel presents an alternative to the consumer-driven culture of success. Therefore, a Christian identity rooted in the gospel invites and welcomes visitors to explore and to join the church’s ongoing process of conversion and transformation, which is rooted in our lifelong journey of discipleship.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from Leading through the Water by Paul Galbreath, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Leading through the Water
by Paul Galbreath
In Leading through the Water, Paul Galbreath demonstrates one way of linking baptismal practice to daily life as congregations provide an alternative witness to the cultural voices around us. At the same time, it expands the vision of baptism from a single occasion to a distinctive way of life within a community of faith and a primary metaphor for Christian discipleship.
Leading from the Table
by Paul Galbreath
Developing leadership skills that connect the congregation’s eucharistic practice to the life and work of the church is essential to moving toward unity within congregations, denominations, and throughout the church. This book is a series of reflections about the way the prayer at the communion table provides a pattern for our lives. The goal is to shift our understanding of table prayer from a formula led by the pastor to a road map that highlights intersections between the practices at the table and the daily practices in the life of the community.
A New and Right Spirit: Creating and Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture
by Rick Barger
In a culture marked by a consumerist approach to nearly everything, it’s little wonder that there is much confusion about who and what the church is supposed to be. Barger argues passionately for congregations to reexamine what it means to be an authentic church in a culture where authenticity is hard to come by. He exhorts leaders to turn away from the story of our culture and to return to the story of the church, which is grounded in Christ and the resurrection.
In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship
by N. Graham Standish
Too many worship services, suggests Graham Standish, are perfunctory, suggesting that most churches don’t think much about how to connect people with God. In God’s Presence makes the case that congregations must restore intentionality and authenticity to worship in a way that will open people to the Holy. Intentionality, he says, reflects a deep understanding of what tradition has attempted to do, what contemporary people are hungry for, what is going on in our culture, and how to connect the three.
Imagining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change
by Gary and Kim Shockley
Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church, we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.”
God is in the details of ministry!
Ordinary tasks can be spirit-centered!
Nurturing the Spirit
August 30– September 1, 2011
Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, Asheville, NC
Presenter: Bruce Epperly, Alban Author
Join Bruce in the Smoky Mountains for three days of learning and emersion in spiritual practices that will enhance and revitalize your preaching, teaching, pastoral care, evangelism, and spiritual leadership.
Bonus: Participants will receive a copy of Bruce’s Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in the Ministry(Alban, 2009), named “2009 Book of the Year” by the Academy of Parish Clergy.
Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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