Recently I attended a bar mitzvah, a ceremony that initiates 13-year-old boys into the duties and responsibilities of the Jewish religion. The participants' anticipation and preparation for the program and the liturgy itself thrilled me. The parents and other relatives made this experience the most important event in the life of this young man. He was the center of attention of his family and synagogue. The entire ceremony impressed upon him that he was needed, that he belonged.
As I returned from this impressive ceremony, I thought about our own young people. When we baptize them into the church, how much special attention do we give them? Do we make this event the most memorable experience in their lives? Do we make them feel important?
Unfortunately, baptisms often don't seem to be very important to us. We list them casually in the bulletin and squeeze the ceremony itself in between the announcements and the beginning of the worship service. One minute the congregation is listening to an announcement about the church campout; the next, the curtains open and the minister and a youth are standing there, ready to begin without wasting any time. The pastor mentions the person's name, says some kind words, and immerses her. Then the curtains close, and the worship service continues as usual.
With a little planning and effort we can make baptisms more meaningful than that. If the baptism is held during a special service in the church, each family represented in the baptism can have a part in decorating the sanctuary. Flowers on the platform and pews will make the occasion more memorable. Have the youth walk to the foyer during the recessional at the end of the service to receive special greetings from the church members.
At a baptism I attended at one of our camps in Europe, the young people were baptized in a large water tank that was decorated with flowers, giving it the appearance of a beautiful garden. Before the baptism all the campers lined up in two long lines facing each other. As the campers sang, the ministers and the white-robed baptismal candidates marched between the lines to the place of baptism.
A band played several religious songs, and then the whole group sang a beautiful hymn. Those who were being baptized formed a circle, and a boy and girl prayed. A pastor, relative, or friend read a short biography of each of the baptismal candidates. Alternating with these biographies were music and the inspiring testimonies of those to be baptized. The baptisms followed the pastor's 10-or15-minute sermonette, and the audience sang a cappella between the baptisms.
Like this baptismal service, baptisms held outdoors can be especially memorable. Many youth—and adults, for that matter—prefer an outdoor baptism even when the water is cold. There's something about the natural environment that reminds us of the baptism of Jesus Christ Himself. The Lord has counseled us: "Whenever possible, let baptism be administered in a clear lake or running stream. And give to the occasion all the importance and solemnity that can be brought into it. At such a service angels of God are always present." *
Careful preparation is especially important when the baptism is to be held outdoors. Church members can deco rate the site with flowers, palm trees, or easily movable plants. If the baptism is to be held in a lake, a heart made of flowers can surround the youth during the baptism.
As soon as the youth are baptized, give each one a bouquet of flowers. If it is a cold day, they should get dressed first; but if not, they can remain by the water and receive the flowers and congratulations from those in attendance. A certificate and book should be given or sent to each one as a memento of his decision for the Lord.
One word of caution: Be sure that the young people are properly dressed with clothes underneath their baptismal robes (especially if the robes are white), or that they are covered with a blanket or large towel as soon as they leave the water. Neglecting this precaution can result in embarrassment to the young people and can ruin the sacredness of the occasion for all.
If the young people being baptized are members of the Pathfinder Club, have the club conduct a special ceremony using candles. Welcome them to the circle of lights by saying: "Your light is now part of our light. Welcome to the circle of love and fellowship in Jesus Christ." As sign each a prayer partner.
A weekend of celebration
Several years ago Pastor Ademar Quint began holding a special spring baptism for the young people in his church. Soon the entire South American Division joined in holding an annual spring baptism. The idea spread, and today the churches of every division are invited to participate in the annual Youth Spiritual Commitment Celebration in April.
A Spiritual Commitment Celebration can take many forms. Some churches devote an entire weekend to this special event; others, only the Sabbath morning worship service. Some link the worship service to an afternoon service. A Spiritual Commitment Celebration can also be part of a youth congress, a campout, or a Pathfinder Camporee.
Involving your whole church family in a weekend of celebration will make baptism a never-to-be-forgotten experience for your young people. A meaningful way to begin this special weekend is with a family Communion service. A unique setting can add much to the total impact of the service. If an auditorium or fellow ship hall is available, set the tables up in the shape of a cross in the center of the room. Use white tablecloths, arrange the bread and grape juice in a pleasing way, and accent the tables with candles.
For the foot-washing service, have the families sit together around the perimeter of the room and serve each other. During the Lord's Supper, fathers and husbands can serve the emblems to their family. To close the service in a meaningful way, each person around the room (including the children) can tell one thing for which he or she is most thankful.
Sabbath school is an ideal time for a special program presented by the Pathfinders and/or youth division. Be sure to allow the youth adequate time to prepare their program. The church service also should involve youth in as many ways as possible, and the sermon should relate to the weekend's special emphasis.
You can enhance the fellowship and unity of this special weekend with a church potluck. Encourage all members and visitors to attend. Arrange for extra food and table service so that there will be plenty for everyone and no one need stay away because he is unprepared.
The baptism and commitment celebration is best held on Sabbath afternoon after the potluck. To build the intergenerational bond, have some of the older members briefly tell how they became Seventh-day Adventists. Then have some committed youth give their testimony as to what the church means to them today. These presentations, interspersed with music by members of all ages, will make the baptism an event long to be remembered by the entire church family.
An all-church family social is a good way to end this special weekend of celebration. Your conference youth director has ideas on games all ages will enjoy. One meaningful way to conclude the social is to have all members—young and old—join hands to form a circle around the room and sing together a song such as "I'm So Glad I'm a Part of the Family of God." The benediction should particularly mention those baptized earlier in the day.
In your planning for the baptism and the special service of celebration that will accompany it, be sure to include the church school teachers and Sabbath school and Pathfinder leaders. Very often it is at a school Week of Prayer or a Pathfinder Camporee that young people make their initial decision for baptism.
Preparing for baptism.
At the bar mitzvah I attended, I was impressed with the amount of time the parents had spent studying the Torah with their son. As they thanked God during the service, they mentioned how worthwhile it had been to spend those long hours studying together.
The General Conference Church Ministries Department has prepared a baptismal manual that parents can use to study the doctrines of the church with their children. It is based on the 27 fundamental beliefs and will be a blessing not only for the youth but for the whole family. It can be the basis for using family worship hours to strengthen faith in Jesus.
Many times we assume that because young people are born into the church they know everything the church teaches. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who are responsible for the youth need to bring such topics as dress, modesty, hygiene, diet, recreation, social life, marriage, and music before them. And they should be careful to put Ellen White into a proper light—not as one who is always negative.
In the preparation of young people for baptism, a baptismal class is a must. Pastors typically hold such a class in the church or at the church school, often starting it right after the Week of Prayer or even at the beginning of the school year.
As you visit your young people in their homes, you will be able to ascertain their readiness for baptism. You will also have the opportunity to begin to build anticipation for the Spiritual Commitment Celebration.
Holding this annual event will take a little more planning than just squeezing a baptism in between the Sabbath school and church services. But for the young people you baptize, this will become the most memorable experience of their lives—as well it should.