It is always a joy to witness a baptism. There is no doubt that it is a morale booster for a congregation and a cause for celebration. Our assumption is that the person being baptized has made a commitment to follow Christ based on genuine faith and repentance. However, my experience as a pastor leaves me a little perplexed. If all these folks who got baptized were genuinely born again of the Spirit of God, why have so many disappeared from the church? I guess there can be multiple theories about that, but I have come to an observation that I believe is regrettably true. It seems we often baptize without discernment.
Here is what I've come to conclude: Good discernment can be overrun by well-intended enthusiasm or tossed aside because of wrong motivations, resulting sometimes in an unhealthy practice of baptism.
What we often don't do well
Sometimes we fail to talk thoroughly with the one seeking baptism. This is not limited to children, but it appears that most often this is where we sometimes allow our enthusiasm to run over our commitment to biblical guidance. In my experience, within the families of a church, the average age a child begins to inquire about baptism is in the range of 6-8 years old. They see others baptized and they are naturally curious. If they have grown up in church, they can tell you who Jesus is and what He did. And they are definitely going to claim to love Jesus. Why not? However, conversion is much more than this. It is about a demonstration of godly sorrow over sin, sincere belief in the gospel, and a solid commitment in regards to counting the cost of following Jesus.
We are afraid to say "not yet." When we have a conversation with one seeking baptism, and we come to the conclusion that his understanding of the gospel is still quite fuzzy or the motivation for seeking it may be off target, we are tempted to still grab on to some minimal rationale for pressing forward with baptism. The red flags are waving, but we are tempted to suppress them.
Just because a person has indicated an interest in baptism, doesn't mean he is ready for it. Just because one might desire it, doesn't mean it's the right time for it. This is especially true with children, but also with adults. The wrong motivations are numerous. Here are a few that I believe I have observed.
The rite of passage baptism
In a church-attending family, there comes a time in a child's life in which baptism is something that is expected within a certain window, typically as an older child 8-12 years old. Getting baptized is just something that you are expected to do when you're young. It becomes more of a community expectation rather than a genuine choice as a result of coming to personal faith in Jesus.
The group-think baptism
The group-think typically occurs among children and teens. During a Vacation Bible School or during a youth trip or camp, the church may cheer that 20 kids made professions of faith and got baptized, but experience tells me that in a short few years you'll look around and wonder to where the vast majority have disappeared. This is not to say that large numbers cannot experience conversion at the same time. We see this in the book of Acts. However, we must take the time to counsel each individual carefully even while we celebrate a larger move of God.
The desperation baptism
There are those who see baptism as the means that will possibly work to start reversing the intolerable circumstances they are currently experiencing. Baptism becomes their desperation hail mary. This person thinks that if he submits to baptism, then God will fix his problems. It's no wonder that when the crisis has passed one way or another, that this person's passion and participation disappears.
The magic water baptism
I know that within my Baptist tradition we are very clear on the view that baptism is a symbol. It is not a grace-imparting sacrament. However, that doesn't stop some good Baptists from still feeling like there is something transformative about the ordinance itself. Unfortunately, this notion is reinforced by popular singers on K-Love. And once it sets in that there really isn't "something in the water," the disillusionment has set in along with the inevitable discouragement.
The most important thing
When we take a person into the baptistery who is unconverted we are probably doing more harm than if we take the risk of offending by saying, "not yet."
That person who is baptized unconverted is most certainly placing his or her trust for salvation in the baptism itself, which is a perversion of the biblical truth about salvation. For this person, baptism is a religious work that has now earned favor with God void of true faith and real repentance. Baptism has become the transaction that has now punched the ticket to heaven. Now that this is done, life can get back to normal, which is the indication that this person never got the point. But for a lifetime this person may have the false security of a lie about his or her spiritual condition. He may demonstrate no real commitment in following Jesus or loving His church, but he knows that he got baptized and is a member of the church.
We want numbers
The truth is that the key measurement for a growing church has always been baptisms. And, without a doubt, churches should be sharing the Gospel, seeing people converted to following Christ and giving a public declaration of that faith in baptism. And hopefully we can look back on a period of time and celebrate that a number of baptisms took place. However, if we begin to decide how many baptisms are the true test of "success," then we run the risk of falling into the ditch of undiscerning baptisms. Our goal should always be to be congregations that are faithfully sharing the gospel, leading people to understand what it means to follow Christ, and baptizing those who demonstrate true understanding, repentance and faith.
So, we need to be careful in our counseling, courageous enough to say to someone (and maybe a parent), "not yet" if needed, and confident that God causes the increase.
My desire as a pastor is always to be faithful to God and His Word, to be more effective in ministry, and to get the Gospel to those who need to hear. If I am faithful in sowing and nurturing the Word, then I can trust God with the growth. I pray for the wisdom to recognize real faith and repentance and administer true believer's baptism to the best of my ability.
Pastors, we have an awesome responsibility as shepherds. Pursue discernment. Have courage. Trust God.
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