[Many of our evangelists at the recent evangelistic council requested that some material on how to conduct a dignified baptismal service be published in The Ministry, and it was suggested that we reproduce here some of the material in chapter 16 of Elder R. A. Anderson's book The Shepherd Evangelist.—Editors.]
OF ALL New Testament writers, Paul unfolds most clearly the beautiful spiritual significance of baptism. Writing to the Galatians he said,"As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Baptism is a holy ordinance designed of God to bring to the candidate the richest spiritual experience. When an evangelistic campaign is planned, necessitating, perhaps, the calling in of an evangelist to conduct the meetings, the question of who shall baptize the new converts is often quite perplexing. It is natural for those newly coming into the faith to expect that the one who brought them to the Lord will baptize them. And in many cases this is most fitting. But it is more desirable if the evangelist and the local pastor or pastors can participate in the service together. This does much to bind the new believers to their spiritual shepherds and establish them in their churches. In the very nature of things an itinerant evangelist is required to move from place to place, and his converts have to be left to the care of others. This transfer of loyalty and interest is not always easy. It can result in actual loss of souls. Every effort should therefore be made to avert such a situation. If a real spirit of fellowship is built up between the temporary workers and the resident pastors, it will do much to consolidate the work. Then, when the evangelistic company withdraws, the new converts will have already been tied in closely to the churches.
Local Pastors Prepare Candidates
The evangelist who brings men to decide for Christ is the one to whom they naturally look for guidance. The sooner he can transfer their affections from himself to the pastor who is to be their future counselor, the better. And no one else in all the world can so definitely cement them into their future church home as can the evangelist who brings them into the light of truth. If, then, the evangelist will manifest the spirit of John the Baptist, and gladly decrease, permitting the pastor to increase, it will bring about a wholesome spirit of good will and do much to establish these leaders in the affections of the church.
Techniques for Conducting the Baptismal Service
The Bible reveals baptism as an ordinance, but also more than an ordinance. It should bring to the candidate a real experience and to the onlooker a deep and lasting impression. But to make the scene impressive it must be worshipful—that is, full of worship. Nothing crude or coarse must be permitted to intrude. It naturally becomes a very solemn service, for it symbolizes our Lord's death and burial. But it also is a public confession on the part of the one being baptized that he too, in Christ, is dead to sin. However, the same service must also express the joy of the resurrection, for having been buried with his Lord, the candidate now rises "to walk in newness of life." Over a period of many weeks or perhaps months prior to the service he has been in the process of dying to self; he has been crucifying the desires of the flesh. Now he expresses all this in a definite act. He is buried with the Lord. Having died to sin, he rises to the full joy of the resurrected life. So the service must be joyful and full of resurrection hope.
To make it impressive everything about the service should be appropriate. When we bury a loved one no effort is spared to make the occasion as fitting as possible. No grave is ever beautiful, yet the presence of flowers and a carpet of grass, even though it be artificial grass, certainly do much to ease the shock of death. In the United States we are especially careful about these details. Likewise, with a little forethought and planning the baptismal service can be made both impressive and expressive.
When rightly carried out it speaks its message with rare eloquence. When every detail has been thought through and planned with particular care, and the whole service is pervaded by deep spirituality, we have worship at its peak.
It is always a privilege to unite precious souls with their Lord in this public burial of the old nature, and it is far too important a service to be pushed into a corner or sandwiched in between other meetings. Sometimes it has been tacked on to the end of a preaching service, which for lack of proper planning was entirely irrelevant to the occasion. The baptism should be not only a part of the service but the vital, chief part of the whole. Everything about the service—the hymns, the prayers, the sermon—should be building up to this high point. The two ordinances, baptism and the Lord's Supper, when rightly conducted will do more to build up the spiritual experience of the believers than perhaps anything else. Very definite counsel comes to us from the messenger of the Lord concerning baptism:
The one who administers the ordinance of baptism should seek to make it an occasion of solemn, sacred influence upon all spectators. Every ordinance of the church should be so conducted as to be uplifting in its influence. Nothing is to be made common or cheap, or placed on a level with common things. Our churches need to be educated to greater respect and reverence for the sacred service of God.1
Everything connected with this holy ordinance should reveal as perfect a preparation as possible.2
In the same reference we are told that "there should be nothing shabby or unseemly, for this is an offense to God."
Importance of Proper Equipment
When this service is conducted in a river or a lake, wonderful opportunity is provided for a public witness. But these outside meetings require that even greater attention be given to the care of the candidates than when the service is conducted where everything is provided. A baptism in a church is less trouble, but its evangelistic opportunities are also less.
Some of the most impressive services ever conducted have been in large city auditoriums or theaters where evangelistic campaigns were being held. Such a service can make a tremendous impression for good. But wherever it is held, provision must be made for proper equipment. Few things are as important as the baptismal robes. Proper robes are not an expense, but a wise investment.
This should not be regarded as a needless outlay of means. It is one of the things required in obedience to the injunction: "Let all things be done decently and in order." 1 Cor. 14:40.
It is not well for one church to depend upon borrowing robes from another. Often when the robes are needed, they are not to be found; some borrower has neglected to return them. Every church should provide for its own necessities in this line. Let a fund be raised for this purpose. If the whole church unite in this, it will not be a heavy burden.3
If it is wise for every church to have a set of baptismal robes, it is also wise for every large evangelistic team to possess such equipment. The attire of both minister and candidates should be symbolic. And if possible every candidate should be provided with an individual robe and a face cloth. This cloth should be small, but large enough to cover the face when the candidate is immersed. A handkerchief could be used, but these vary so in size that experience has proved the wisdom of supplying a special cloth with the robe.
Holding the Candidate
Obviously there is more than one way of holding the candidate, but a few suggestions here may be helpful. Some baptisms lack both grace and efficiency, and whatever impressions are made must surely be adverse. Experience has postulated this procedure as the best for me. First I place the specially prepared face cloth in my right hand, and the candidate takes hold of that right wrist with both his hands. This gives him a feeling of security. Then I place my left hand firmly between his shoulders, and in a few well-chosen words express to the worshipers my belief in the candidate's sincerity, his confidence in God, his surrender of self, and his resurrection to a life of victory. I conclude with the baptismal formula, stating it in words such as: "And now, brother (or sister), knowing that you have given your heart to the Lord Jesus, and that you are resting entirely in His finished sacrifice for your salvation, I now (raising my left hand) gladly baptize you into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." Taking a step to the left, I lower the candidate gently backward into the water. At the same time I bring my right hand up to cover his face. This latter prevents any tendency to strangle, and assures perfect control at the moment of immersion. Remember that slow, deliberate movements are essential to success. Nothing should be hurried. The raising of the candidate is, of course, the symbol of the resurrection, and it is well if the audience sings a stanza of some appropriate hymn or song of victory. Even if the organ plays alone it is effective. But a baptismal service is worship, and the worshipers will receive a greater blessing by participation than by mere observation.
As the candidate is raised from the water it is good to grip his hand and give him the assurance of God's blessing for a life of victory. Then he passes to the dressing room, where happy helpers will assist him in removing the wet garments. A touch of sweetness may be added to the service if as the candidate leaves the water he is handed a white flower; it may be a rose for the women and a carnation for the men—but some flower that symbolizes purity. Perhaps the associate evangelist or head deacon may do this for the men, and the Bible instructor or the head deaconess may present this token to the women, with just a simple word like this: "May this little flower be a token of the purity of the life of Jesus, which you have now received. May it inspire you to keep yourself unspotted from the world."
These details may seem insignificant, but they mean much to the success of the service. And although I urge that no time be wasted in needless occupations, yet something as important as baptism deserves our best attention. This is the greatest day in the life of the candidate, and the extra minutes spent in the carrying out of these suggestions will add much to the spirit of true worship and will bring a richer experience to those being baptized.
Conclude Baptismal Service With Appeal
When the actual baptism concludes the service of the hour, it is impressive if the benediction is pronounced from the pool. But before dismissing the meeting I have made it customary to give an invitation for any others who, having been impressed by the Spirit of God, would like to indicate their desire to go forward in such a service in the near future. This they can do by raising their hands or perhaps by standing. Having just witnessed the victory of others, they have had their hearts softened, and some may surrender at that time who would never respond in the usual way.
At the close of my first big public baptismal service in a truly conservative country I made my usual appeal, and the Lord certainly moved on the hearts of many. More than three thousand people were present, and when I asked those to stand to indicate their desire to go forward in such a service in the near future, I thought that perhaps thirty or forty might respond. Imagine my surprise when one hundred and sixteen stood! Well-trained ushers, who were always ready for any emergency, quickly obtained their names, and these were later enrolled in the preparation classes. Not all were actually ready to go forward at the next baptism. Many needed a great deal more preparation. But they were impressed, and that was the time to get their decision. This appeal might not always be made by the one doing the baptizing. At times I have been invited to make the appeal for the evangelist. And this has immediately followed the last immersion. I have been gratified to see on some occasions a very large response. This has been particularly true in some places in South America, even in spite of having to make the appeal through a translator.
When the baptismal service is concluded, it is well if each candidate can be provided with transportation to his home. This may not always be needed, for many will have their own cars. But if it is needed, helpers should be delegated for this service of love. Such a plan is particularly helpful if those using their cars can be counseled beforehand. They should be instructed in how to guide the conversation into channels of spiritual victory. This will reinforce the experience the candidate has already gained.
Baptism is certainly an ordinance, but if that is all, then its very purpose is defeated. It must be an experience. To be born of water is not enough. We must be born of the Spirit also if we are to experience true victory in our lives. When Ananias said to Saul of Tarsus, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16), he was speaking of something more than a mere ordinance.
Our Lord's Baptism
When our Saviour was baptized we read that He came up out of the water, and kneeling on the bank of the Jordan, pleaded with His Father for the baptism of power. It was then that He received the anointing of the Spirit. He was entering upon a new era in His life, and needed a special infilling of power. These descriptive words arrest us:
The Saviour's glance seems to penetrate heaven as He pours out His soul in prayer. . . . Never before have the angels listened to such a prayer. They are eager to bear to their loved Commander a message of assurance and comfort. But no; the Father Himself will answer the petition of His Son. Direct from the throne issue the beams of His glory. The heavens are opened, and upon the Saviour's head descends a dovelike form of purest light—fit emblem of Him, the meek and lowly One.
Of the vast throng at the Jordan, few except John discerned the heavenly vision. Yet the solemnity of the divine Presence rested upon the assembly. The people stood silently gazing upon Christ. His form was bathed in the light that ever surrounds the throne of God. His upturned face was glorified as they had never before seen the face of man. From the open heavens a voice was heard saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."4
And the one who follows his Lord can claim the same Spirit of power. So in preparing our candidates for this service, let us keep before them this larger experience, and by the grace of God lead them to claim the gift of the Spirit. Too many Christians are baptized into John's baptism, which was only a baptism of repentance. The baptism of the Spirit can alone prepare the church for translation. These words from Isaiah do not primarily refer to the experience of baptism, yet they may well be appropriated as a fitting promise for such an occasion: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee." His presence with them will make their baptism a foretaste of heaven.
1 Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 97.
2 Ibid-, p. 98.
3 Ibid., pp. 97, 98.
4 The Desire of Ages, pp. Ill, 112.