Preparing adults for baptism

Losses of new members would indicate that too many are not sufficiently prepared prior to baptism. What can we do in the adult baptismal class to prepare for church membership those who have studied and accepted Christ and His way of life?

Carl Coffman is chairman of the Department of Religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Are we getting too streamlined today in our soul-winning methods and in our preparation of candidates for baptism? Are we trying to move people too fast, beyond the limits of the most rapid spiritual growth experienced even by especially receptive individuals? When we baptize them, are they really prepared, both in under standing and experience, for church membership?

Losses of new church members would appear to say that many are not ready. Is there anything we can do to lessen these losses, and the trauma that these dear, but partially prepared, new members so often experience? If people grow as do things in nature (see Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 33-89), our Bible studies, evangelistic series, and baptismal classes should be in harmony with these principles of growth. The special concern of this article is: What can we do in the adult baptismal class to prepare for church membership those who have studied and accepted Christ and His way of life?

Current practice in the church varies greatly both in the content and concept of the adult baptismal class. In some cases there is no class beyond the Bible study series or the evangelistic campaign. Others simply review the thirteen points of the baptismal vow or review the fundamental beliefs as given in the center spread of the baptismal certificate. Some place a brief printed booklet in the hands of each candidate, ask him to study it, and arrange time for questions. Some use their own mimeographed outlines of cardinal points. These many methods provide widely differing degrees of thoroughness. How thorough shall we be? How long should we take? Do we have a clear purpose for such a class?

After the presentation of the basic Bible truths is complete, and after a commitment has been made to join the church, I feel there is need of a class with the emphasis and purpose of preparing the candidate to enter intelligently into church membership. I call it the "Introduction Into Church Member ship" method, and after years of experimentation, I feel it is of extreme importance and value. It is not simply a review of the basic study series. Rather, it is an attempt to set all truth into the frame work of the real nature of church membership, and to clarify the responsibilities of the member to his Lord and to his Lord's church. I have found that I need seven studies to accomplish this pur pose. These can be done in a week, seven Sabbath afternoons, seven Mon day nights, or as fits into the local pro gram.


The first presentation, "The Church and Its Lord," is based on the problem that is brought to view in Testimonies for the Church, volume 6, page 371. Ellen White wrote in 1900: "The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden." She is discussing the health-reform message in the context. However, her emphasis on conversion in relation to baptism cannot be misunderstood. Elsewhere she says, "Apart from Christ, baptism, like any other service, is a worthless form." Evangelism, p. 318. She adds: "God would be better pleased to have six truly converted to the truth . . . than to have sixty make a nominal profession, and yet not be thoroughly converted."—Ibid., p. 320.

Thus, the key concept of the first study is that church membership is for the converted, not for those who plan to become converted. Sin is presented as an incurable disease, the inability to love in a way acceptable to God. The only cure is to be found at the office of the Great Physician (see Luke 5:30-32), where man is made a "new creature" (see 2 Cor. 5:17). God is able to begin re-creating the ability to love in the now-believing sinner (see 1 John 4:7, 8, 19), and this love becomes the motivation for obedience (see John 14:15).

Such an approach allows the pastor to make certain of the candidate's relationship with Christ as Saviour (particularly when someone else has given him the Bible study series), and cements in the candidate's mind the centrality of con version both to his own eternal destiny and to the success of his part in the witness of the church to the world.


The second study is titled "The Church and Its Doctrines." Its purpose is not to review all the doctrines that the candidate has previously been taught. Instead, it is to help him see more clearly that all the teachings of the Bible exist to define the way of life that the Christian church member should live. Thus the candidate can become an intelligent Christian, knowing not only in whom he believes but also what he believes and why it is important. Great stress is placed on the fact that the real purpose of each doctrine is to mature one's con version experience. This principle is demonstrated in connection with the Sabbath, tithing, and health. As Seventh-day Adventists, we have not always made this clear. It helps the person who is becoming a member to understand each doctrine as a means to an end, thus avoiding the mistake of seeing salvation as the result of what we know or do.


In study three, "The Church and Its Divine Commission," I raise the question: Do we choose our church because it is better by comparison than another or closer to the Bible than another? This study clearly presents the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a church of prophecy, appointed by God to arise at a given time, to bear a particular message, and to accomplish a certain work. The origin of the church, both in and after William Miller's day, is clearly studied. The prophecies of Daniel 8:14 and Revelation 14:6-12 are carefully reviewed, particularly in the Millerite context, with emphasis on the developing understanding of the third angel's message as the Sabbath came to be understood and accepted in the years immediately following the 1844 disappointment. It is important to attempt to insert some of the "flavor" of this formative period into the hearts of those soon to be baptized. If the candidate can sense that he is joining the church of God, not a church that is more Biblical than others, great strength is gained.


Study four is exciting. I call it "The Church and Its Divine Gift." The books of the Spirit of Prophecy are displayed across a table in front of the room. In the center is a beautiful Bible, with a red rose in a vase immediately behind it. With the help of those present, I write on a blackboard all the terms we normally use in connection with these books—"pen of inspiration," "Spirit of Prophecy," "servant of the Lord," "redleather books," "the Lord's messenger," "gift of prophecy," "Ellen G. White," "Sister White." The Biblical evidence for this gift in the church is briefly reviewed. Then the books are actually used to show Mrs. White's attitude toward the Bible, and what she taught on salvation by grace, the Second Coming, and other key doctrines. The general areas in which she wrote (such as education, health, youth, evangelism, et cetera) are pointed out, and questions are welcomed. I do not cover the basics of the prophetic gift; these have been studied previously in the Bible study series. The baptismal class simply at tempts to amplify the content of that gift and reveal its beauty and blessings.


In the fifth study, "The Church and Its Administration and Finance," I use 1 Corinthians 14:33 as a basis for presenting the way in which the church is organized, from the member and the local church to the General Conference. This session covers how the tithe is used, the equality of the minister's salary, and the support of local and foreign missionaries. Tithe envelopes are distributed, and class members are shown how to mark them properly. The support of local expenses, the church school, and the budget is explained. Emphasis is placed on the responsibility of the church member to support the church in doctrines and standards, in regular attendance at Sabbath school, church, and prayer meetings, in business meetings, in witnessing, and in praying for the work of God. The candidates are told how to contact the pastor and church officers when they need counsel or help.


The sixth study deals with "The Church and Its Standards." I ask: Is a "standard" something that the church decides on and enforces, or is it a Biblical principle, a part of the Christian's way of life as set forth by God Himself? Is God, through standards, trying to limit the joy in our lives, or is He trying to show us the levels at which joy is really found? I cover the standards of true Sabbathkeeping, dress, food, recreation, reading, music, et cetera, in connection with a genuine Christian life style. Jewelry and the wedding ring are studied from the Biblical principles of internal and external adornment and from the writings of Ellen White. I do not study the jewelry-ring problem in the basic Bible study series, finding it far more impressive to include it at this point when there has already been commitment to Christ, to His church, to basic doctrines, and to the gift of the Spirit of Prophecy. Discussion time is vital here.


The seventh and concluding study of the baptismal class is titled "The Church and Its Ceremonies." The meaning of baptism is made clear. The ordinance of humility is discussed, with an attempt to show its place in the Christian life as a "rebaptism." The Lord's Supper is studied in order that it may become all that God intends it to be to the new member. At this final session, I distribute baptismal certificates and review the vow. The candidates are then invited to sign it, and instructions regarding the baptism itself are given. Next I take the class into the sanctuary and show the candidates where to stand when examined. They see the dressing rooms and are assigned to one by the deacon or deaconess present, and finally they are shown the baptistry and how to stand when baptized.

It is a good policy, incidentally, for the pastor to present to his church board only the names of those who have signed the baptismal vow and to secure the approval of the board members prior to the baptism. This builds much confidence in the pastor's leadership and safeguards him from occasional unknown problems in a candidate's life that should have been taken care of before baptism.

I am very much aware that such classes take time. But I consider it the most valuable time that I have ever in vested. And I believe that every minute is more than repaid in the far smaller amount of time that I must spend after baptism to help these new members mature in their church experience. I have, as well, built a confidence between them and myself that has opened the door wide for me truly to be to them the earthly shepherd of the Lord.

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Carl Coffman is chairman of the Department of Religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1981

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