Beautifying baptismal services

Have you ever conducted a wedding between Sabbath school and the church service? Why, then should an event as significant as baptism be made so unobtrusive? Isn't it important to have a beautiful ceremony when uniting an individual to Christ and His church?

Herman Bauman is associate professor of religion at Atlantic Union College, South Lancaster, Massachusetts.

Many baptismal services seem to be conducted with little forethought or planning. Disorganized, unattractive, and squeezed between Sabbath school and the worship service, they appear designed to get the ceremony over and out of the way quickly. On the other hand, most wed dings seem carefully even meticulously planned to be as beautiful and significant as possible. Have you ever seen the bride and groom wearing ragged, wrinkled clothing? But how often we attire baptismal candidates in robes that are frayed, faded, and unpressed! Have you ever conducted a wedding between Sabbath school and the church service or immediately following the announcements? Why, then, should an event as significant as baptism be made so unobtrusive? Why is it so important to have a beautiful, carefully planned ceremony when joining two individuals in marriage, yet not equally important to do so when uniting an individual to Christ and to His church?

The baptism, whenever it is conducted, should be made the chief focal point of the whole service. Surely such an important event should not be tacked on at the end of the sermon or slipped in where it will be the least disruptive. The songs, the prayers, the sermon, and everything in the worship should lead up to the climax of the actual baptism.

The surroundings

Of all locations, the outdoor baptism is probably the most beautiful. Great care must be taken, however, in selecting the site when such a baptism is planned. Safety, beauty, and accessibility need to be considered. Before the baptism, explore every step of the water area and take out any rocks or harmful objects that might cause accidents. If the bottom is slippery it may be possible to put down canvas or spread sand over the area to give sure footing. Small posts, painted white and placed in the water, will identify the baptismal area, especially if a rope or cord is stretched between them.

Often an outdoor baptism is not feasible, and an appropriate indoor baptistry must be used. For visibility the best location is high above the platform, directly behind the pulpit. A tasteful nature or religious scene behind the baptistry adds beauty, as do flowers artistically placed around the baptistry.

Each church should have its own supply of robes without having to depend on borrowing them from the conference or another church. These robes should be of opaque material, somewhat water repel lent, and weighted at the bottom. Keep them pressed, mended, and attractive. And provide enough different sizes for each candidate to have a proper fit.

The candidates' role

The candidates need to understand thoroughly the meaning of baptism. They ought to know what is expected of them during and following the service. Before the baptism it would be well to demonstrate step by step just what will take place during the actual ceremony. Instruct the women to wear washable dresses, and the men slacks, under the robes and to bring towels and changes of underclothing.

On the day of the service, present each candidate to the church and introduce him or her to the congregation by name. Then, instead of having the candidates stand before the church while being quizzed regarding their acceptance of all the thirteen questions in the Church Manual, consider an alternative. Actually, what does the traditional examination prove? Will a person be rejected if he raises his hand at the wrong time or if he fails to put it up in response to a key question? Should a person be accepted for baptism simply because he knows enough to put up his hand when everyone else does? It seems to me that besides proving little, this exercise gives the impression of being a trial in which the church members are the jury. It makes an unnecessary spectacle of the baptismal candidates.

As an alternative, have the candidates organized into a baptismal class, either in the Sabbath school or in connection with evangelistic meetings. At a special predetermined class, review with them all the principles of faith of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Have these principles printed on cards and distribute them to each person considering baptism. Appeal to the candidates to commit themselves to these principles and to the church that teaches them, and to unite by baptism with that church. (They have already made a commitment to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, so this further response should be only a natural outgrowth of that.) Then ask each one who wants to make such a commitment to sign the card and return it to you. When possible, invite church members to be present so they can witness these commitments.

Individuals who may not be in a baptismal class can make their commitment in their own homes and sign the card there. Such a process is a much stronger decision than the mere raising of hands in front of a church. In addition, all these candidates are presented, by name, to the church board for discussion and approval before appearing before the church. Why, then, must they be "put on trial" again before the church?

When the baptismal ceremony is to take place, have the candidates sit on the first row or rows of the church and introduce them one by one. Then inform the church that these individuals have been thoroughly instructed and have declared their total agreement with, and acceptance of, the doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (If the congregation still wants some sort of specific commitment from the individual candidates, you may ask them to indicate their acceptance of these teachings and principles and their desire to unite with the Seventh-day Adventist Church by raising their hands.)

The standard method of voting candidates into church membership usually goes like this: There is an awkward moment while a timid church member summons the courage to say, "I move that we accept these candidates as members of our church, subject to baptism." While he hesitates the candidates wonder, What if they don't want us? The second to the motion comes quite easily. There never is any discussion, although it must be asked for. Then, in response to "Question," the pastor asks, "All in favor say Aye." A weak response follows, for most people are rather afraid to speak out in our services (as shown by the almost nonexistent amens). The candidates are definitely wondering now whether the church really wants them. Then the pastor really scares them when he asks, "All opposed say No!" Why put these poor people through all this? Let them know they are welcome and that we are thrilled to have them as new brothers and sisters!

Rather than going through a cold, formal vote, ask, "How many want to welcome these new members to our church? If so, raise your hand. In doing so you are saying, 'Brother, sister, this is a hand of welcome, but it is also a hand of love, a helping hand, a hand of encouragement whenever it is needed.'" As the hands are raised in a warm, loving welcome, ask the candidates to turn around and look at the welcome they are being given into the "family" by their new brothers and sisters.

Physical preparations

To avoid last-minute delay and confusion, have the candidates robed before the preaching service begins. (This is another good reason to be sure that the robes are modest, attractive, and in good repair.)

One imperative that is often overlooked is the necessity of private places for the candidates to dress and undress. So often we just herd the women into one large room and the men into another and tell them to get dressed. Surely the baptismal ceremony should not be remembered as an assault on their human dignity! If you are building a church, provide some permanent dressing booths for this purpose. If you already have a building with no such provision, at least stretch wires across the room and hang sheets to make private dressing cubicles.

Administering baptism

The sermon should not be long on baptism Sabbath. (Twenty minutes is ample.) Instead of a regular sermon, why not sometimes have testimonies regarding the conversion experiences of the baptismal candidates? The minister or the candidates themselves could present the testimonies. But be certain that you have the candidates' permission before relating anything that might be of a personal nature. Keep the testimonies spiritually uplifting; avoid recounting lives of gross sinfulness.

While the candidates are going into and out of the baptistry, something more than the splash of water is needed to contribute to the spirituality of the service. Soft music either by a choir or an organ, or even congregational singing, would be appropriate. An interesting innovation is to have individuals or a speech choir recite suitable Scripture passages as the candidates come into the water and as they leave.

Usually the candidates enter the baptistry one at a time, but when a whole family or very close friends are to be baptized, it is impressive to have them come into the water together. In the case of a family, have the father enter first, and he can assist the others.

For the actual baptismal formula, don't simply give a regular, memorized set of words, but try to say something that would be appropriate for each individual. Remember, too, the baptismal formula as it is usually given is not a prayer but a reminder to the candidate of his own commitment. Thus there is no need to lift your head toward heaven and close your eyes as you say the formula. Look into the person's face and encourage him to look at you, because, after all, you are speaking to him. Since it is not a prayer, you do not need to close with Amen.

When you immerse the candidate there is no need to plunge him in as rapidly as possible, causing him to lose his breath and creating a stir comparable to Niagara. Take a single step in the direction the person will be lowered and then let him down slowly and calmly. As his head reaches the water, pause for an instant to cover his nose and mouth with the cloth and gently immerse him. There is really no reason for the immersion to resemble a life-and-death struggle. As the person is raised from the water a hymn of commitment begins.

At the close of the baptism extend an appeal to unbaptized persons in the congregation to consider this step. A prayer of consecration can then be given right from the baptistry.

At the close of the service have the candidates return to the front of the church, where they can be welcomed as new members of the church, first by the minister and the elders, then by those in the congregation who want to take part. The baptismal certificates can be prepared in advance and presented to the new members at this time as well.

Like weddings, baptismal ceremonies need not all be identical in order to be beautiful and well planned. Each pastor will have his own special way of carrying out certain items. Beauty, not uniformity, is the goal. Let's invest this significant event with the dignity and attractiveness its importance deserves.

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Herman Bauman is associate professor of religion at Atlantic Union College, South Lancaster, Massachusetts.

June 1981

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