I remember the planning that went into it. I was a 15year old on-fire-for-Jesus Christian who had a holy encounter with God at a church camp. Typical stuff. I was convinced that God was wanting me to get baptised. This was the “next logical step” in my “Christian walk” and nothing was going to stop me.*
Except, I needed the right people to be there. My whānau members, a few friends from school and my group of mates from youth group. The guest list was exclusive.
I also needed to have the right song play the second after I emerged from the waters of baptism. But not just any song, no, it had to be done live—the worship leader and two close mates had to be on backup singing too (funnily enough I have forgotten what the song was).
I planned my speech meticulously, from every joke to every serious point. I was well-meaning but also OTT: “over the top”
It’s all about me
Organising my own wedding a few years back showed me just how much baptisms have become a “lite” version of the big day. The parallels are numerous. You have a guest list, you stress over the finer details, you prepare a big speech and ultimately… the day is about you!
Now, I am being purposely provoking here, because we all know that baptism is not really about us. But let me do a little comparison.
For my parents’ generation, baptism was a communal act often done with several other people (as is the case in most, though not all, Protestant denominations where baptism is a conscious choice by an adult). It was often spontaneous, done in large groups, and without much fuss or fanfare. Heaps didn’t even get to share a testimony.
Having baptised more than a dozen people over the years, I have met every excuse not to be baptised. One person told me that their sister backslid after getting baptised so they weren’t going to be baptised until they were assured they wouldn’t backslide too.
Another person had a family member from overseas that they wanted to be there—this delayed the baptism for years. Others have simply said to me “where in the Bible does it say you have to be baptised”.
Even more disconcerting is the oft-heard phrase “I just don’t feel like it’s the right time, I know God will tell me when it is.”
From individual to communal
If I were to say anything to someone getting baptised today it would be this: baptism is far more about Jesus and his Body than it is about you. I know this because we have hyper-individualised all of our lives including the sacred.
We need to embrace a more communal view of baptism, that is grounded in the local church which is the Body of Christ.
We need to realise that our entry into Christ’s Body (of which baptism is sign and sacrament of), is less about our own journey (though important), and more about who we are journeying with on the pilgrimage of faith.
Hear me out—I am not saying that our individual story does not matter. Instead I am saying we have given it too much credence. A rebalance is in order.
Baptism: the added extra!?
In the Scriptures, baptism is a powerful act that is imbued with meaning and ritual. It is a sacred covenant that professes Christ as Lord.
In his parting instructions, Jesus told his followers to likewise make more followers as they went, “baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. Baptism lies at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and his teachings.
Why is it then, that we modern-day Christians have made baptism so complicated?
St. Paul in his New Testament letters talked often about baptism as a sign of following Jesus. In fact, for him, the two were inseparable. That is, you couldn’t have one without the other—to him the idea of “waiting for the right time” would seem so alien if he were transported to our modern-day times.
And herein lies one giant problem for the church of today. We have compartmentalised so much of what it means to follow Jesus.
We make programmes that substitute for discipleship. We gather in Sunday services and call that fellowship. We sing songs and call that worship. We hear sermons and we think we have heard the Word of God.
All of these things I have mentioned are great, but not in and of themselves, are not the thing that they wish to accomplish. So too with baptism we have turned it into this “added extra option”, rather than the New Testament command that it is.
This is one massive problem I think that has contributed not only to our view of baptism but too so many aspects of what it means to live out our faith today. So then, what is a way forward?
A rethink of baptism
Returning to the earlier analogy of a wedding celebration, I think we need to recapture some of the New Testament imagery that is offered to us in order to have a more full understanding and practice of baptism.
In Romans chapter 6, verse 1-14, Paul explores this idea that in baptism we are actually baptised into Christ’s death, “that our old man was crucified with Him”. He links this idea strongly with the point of us also being “raised” with Jesus, born again in Him. We are dead to sin but alive in Christ.
Whereas our modern-day baptisms look like and function as a weddings between baptisee and Jesus, maybe a focus on scripture and tradition would find us instead celebrating in the way one would at a funeral.
Funerals are sacred events filled with symbol and reflection. Reflection on the life that was. For those who knew Christ in this life, they have the added feature of wonderings about what is to come as well.
What would it mean to look at baptism as an act of wilful submission into death? I think in exploring the answer we might just find a solution to the problems we face in our current understandings of baptism…
*The basic understanding that this author is meaning by baptism is full immersion as practiced within the Baptist movement of New Zealand. As such, not all of what is written will apply to those within other Christian traditions and their theology of baptism and is not intended to do so.
Caleb Haurua is a young dad, a NZ Warriors supporter, and Youth Pastor in Central Auckland. A proud Maori & Cook Island man, he gained his Masters in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College and has been in ministry since 2017. He loves to openly muse about things in articles like this one.