Preparing children for baptism

Your baptismal class will contain children whose parents have done their work and those whose parents have not. Is there a way to prepare those who are ready for baptism, while permitting the unready to grow awhile?

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

For many pastors, a substantial number of the yearly baptisms involve the boys and girls of church members. Some need very little baptismal preparation because their parents have taken the spiritual training of their children seriously since the days of the crib. It is fair to say, however, that the larger number probably have not had this thorough training in the home. What do we do, as pastors, when our youth get to that thinking age when they ask for baptism?

In a recent study that surveyed the convictions and methods of twenty-nine North American pastors on this subject (Carl S. Johnston: "The Spiritual Nurture and Preparation for Baptism of Adventist Youth," Andrews University, May, 1980), it became quite clear that the pastors surveyed took seriously their own responsibility for adequate baptismal preparation of their young people. They were also keenly aware of the parental problems that leave so many Adventist boys and girls unready for the step that their peers are requesting and in which they want to be included. The study by Johnston also took notice of the strong emphasis that Ellen G. White places on the responsibility of parents to prepare their own children for baptism, and for delaying their baptism when they are not ready.

She says: "After faithful labor, if you are satisfied that your children understand the meaning of conversion and baptism, and are truly converted, let them be baptized. But, I repeat, first of all prepare yourselves to act as faithful shepherds in guiding their inexperienced feet in the narrow way of obedience. God must work in the parents that they may give to their children a right example, in love, courtesy, and Christian humility, and in an entire giving up of self to Christ. If you consent to the baptism of your children and then leave them to do as they choose, feeling no special duty to keep their feet in the straight path, you yourselves are responsible if they lose faith and courage and interest in the truth." —Testimonies, vol. 6, pp. 94, 95.

The pastor, however, faces a different problem. He confronts boys and girls whose parents have done their work and those whose parents have not. The children are all in one group, and all want to be baptized—together. Should they be separated into two groups? By whom? By what criteria? With what results? Or can the pastor deal with them as one group, but use methods that will further prepare those who are ready and at the same time lead the unready to choose, in counsel with their parents, to prepare further before being baptized? We are all aware of the problems that we can create by telling a boy or girl that he or she is not ready. Yet we have a serious responsibility, as well, not to baptize a child prematurely.

We need to engage in some real evangelism with this yearly baptismal-age group of boys and girls. Especially if we are getting a large number of our baptisms in this area, it is worth our best effort. The future spiritual success of these youngsters may be increased by utilizing methods that will truly prepare the ready while permitting the unready to grow awhile. The following concept has been field tested, and it works. You can experiment with it and adapt it to your own situation and needs.

First, arrange a meeting with the target group, at the church school, at least two months before you plan to begin the actual baptismal class. At this meeting, encourage each child to examine himself or herself and then discuss with his parents whether he or she should look forward to baptism during this school year. Then spell out exactly what your plans and objectives will be as you help the children prepare for baptism. They must complete a junior Bible course on their own and have the graduation certificate before they are baptized. Help them (with a two month head start) to get into the course and begin the studies. Also, send a letter home with each child, to his or her parents, explaining your plans. Include the date you will begin, the proposed date of baptism, the requirement to finish the individual Bible course and class assignments before the baptismal date, and an appeal for the parents' cooperation. Emphasize the sacred nature of baptism and the seriousness of their decision to grant permission for their boy or girl to plan for this step. Provide a place at the bottom of the letter where the parents can sign their names, and have the letters returned the next day to the school, where you can pick them up.

Arrange with the teachers for a time and place to hold your baptismal class. Begin the first meeting by giving each child a mimeographed page listing the requirements. The students must be present at every study. They must take notes (I outline the study on the blackboard, which they must copy) and then recopy the notes in ink at home, writing in the words of the texts and looking for illustrations to include. I give one key question for each lesson that they must discuss with their parents and together formulate their answer for the notebook. Make it very plain that the notebook must be complete before anyone will be baptized. Also, request that they bring the notebook to the baptismal class every week so that you can check it with them and help them if they were unable to complete some part of the assignment. When the notebook is completed at the end of the series of classes, I have followed the plan of covering their names and submitting them to a group of five church members for judging. I give all the students a meaningful gift, but special gift goes to the top two or three, or even five if the class is large.

Two weeks before the classes are over, assign each student to write a one-page theme on the subject "Why I feel I am ready to be baptized." The children should discuss this with their parents as they write and submit it the following week. I also sometimes give a simple, yet comprehensive, final examination. I have not failed anyone, but I have used it to counsel with parents if there seems to be a lack of effort on the part of a student to do his best.

Schedule one extra class at the close of the series. Ask for the completed notebooks, return and discuss the examination if you gave one, and return the themes that were written. Have each child put his or her theme in the notebook before turning it in.

The following Sabbath afternoon schedule a meeting with the students who plan to be baptized and their parents. At this time return the notebooks with the awards. Read the final exam questions to the entire group so that the parents can see what was expected of the students. Also, read Ellen G. White' s counsel to parents regarding the solemn importance of what they are giving their children permission to do. Then distribute a baptismal certificate to each candidate; review the vow; and have each sign his name, age, and address in the presence of the parents. Collect the signed certificates for the church board to approve and for the church clerk to complete and record. Finally, give the candidates instructions for the baptismal service the following Sabbath—show them where to sit, where the dressing rooms are, and how to stand in the baptistry when baptized.

In light of these requirements, it has been my experience that those children who are ready get the work done and the unready ones do not. I have found that the unready children withdraw during the course of the class and decide to wait a year. I compliment them on their decision and urge them to study care fully and plan for baptism next time. This does not often bring negative reactions on the part of either the student or the parents.

It is also good to make home visits to each student who decides to wait, thus helping the parents to understand why, and encouraging them to help their boy or girl toward the next class.

God can bless this type of thorough evangelism. We, as pastors, want our youth to be converted and become intelligent church members when they decide to be baptized. It is apparent that we must dedicate quite a bit of time to this if we do it right. But isn't that really what ministry and successful soul winning always require? Can we afford to do anything less?

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

April 1981

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