Dear Disciple of Christ,
One of the “new things” pastors deal with as pastors, are the “rites” of the church. We do baptisms and confirmations, weddings and funerals. It is most often the decision of a pastor whether they will set “restrictions” on any of these rites. For example, the pastor (or congregation) may have standards for a young person to be confirmed. I knew a pastor back in Queens who had specific “point values” attached to attendance in worship and classes, reports like sermon summaries, and service actions in the church. Once a student had achieved a certain number of points, they were allowed to be confirmed.
My own reaction to that was not all that positive (in fact, I was more than a little uncomfortable with the practice). Besides seeming a little too law oriented to me, I felt it might indicate to a student a focus on what they were achieving more than what they were affirming. In the “new” Green Hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship, the very title of the rite is the “Affirmation of Baptism.” What a confirmand does is affirm that the Holy Spirit has worked in them to bring about faith that came in baptism. It is much less informational than affirmational. I have always felt that if a young person came forward and indicated they were ready to “affirm” the faith of their baptism, I would be hard pressed to say they couldn’t do that. I am not opposed, by any means, to confirmation students learning the faith and participating in worship and service, but the focus seems to me to rejoice in the fact they are now “of the faith” and ready to confess it.
The rite of baptism raises some similar decisions. If you were pastor for a day (or year or for your lifetime) and someone asked for their child to be baptized, what would you do? Seems like a “no-brainer” but what if this were a stranger who asked for their child to be baptized? That is, they have no connection with the church where you serve and maybe have never been there. Believe it or not, that happened a number of times in my ministry. Back in Brooklyn I even got calls from people (assumedly going through the phone book) asking if they could “get their baby done” at my church. If you can remember this was Brooklyn and New Yorkers talk and think in basics (even the pastors there), you might “get” the sense of my conversation with them. I can remember asking them what they wanted me to do to their child. One stammered for a bit, looking for the words and official titles (baptism, christening, etc.) and finally indicating it was “with the water.” “Baptism,” I asked. “Are you asking for me to baptize your child?” “Yes,” they said with excitement, “That’s it. Would you baptism my child?”
To be honest, I did know all along what they were asking about. But I did want to enter into the conversation about baptism. After all, they were clearly not living out the covenant of their own baptisms (to live among God’s holy people, hear the Word and share in the supper), so it would question if they would do that with their child. I would be asking, in the liturgy for baptism, if they would bring their child to the services of God’s house, teach them the Lord’s prayer the creed and the Ten Commandments. I would be asking if they would place in their hands the Holy Bible.
I found that the questions I was asking weren’t always so helpful in bringing people to church for the baptism but I needed to know why they were bringing their child and what they were expecting would happen in the baptism. I wanted to build on their desire for baptism for their child but clarify what would be important, that the child understand the gift they were receiving. Sometimes I tried describing the gift of a computer their child might get. It would be a gift but the blessing of that gift would be realized if the child was shown how that computer works.
Ultimately I found it best to simply invite people to join in worship on a Sunday so we could talk about the baptism in person after the service. Sadly few took me up on the invitation. My “success rate” was similar to that when it came to weddings. I used the same approach with marriages that I did with baptisms. I would ask the people (those who came but were not connected to my church) why they wanted to get married in the church? What were they expecting would be different by being married in church (as opposed to city hall)? Most often couples talked about God blessing their marriage or “seeing it.” I would indicate He can really see it wherever it takes place and the blessing comes from His gift and how that gift is cherished and experienced according to His will.
Once again I would ask the couple wanting a marriage in church to meet me after worship on Sunday. They would often ask what time that was and I’d say what time worship started. I wanted them to see my role (my call) as a pastor in a church community not simply a religious justice of the peace with a pretty back drop of a building for their wedding pictures.
To be honest, I have always found these rites of the church a challenge to deal with, not with members but with those who come from outside for a particular “service” without a connection to the community of faith. I wanted to build on their desire for the rite (baptism of their child, a place for the wedding) without driving them off being offended. But I saw this as a “teaching moment,” a time that they were, after all, asking for a connection to the church (if not to the faith and/or God and His will). I have never refused to do a baptism or a marriage, but quite a few times people did not come to meet me to discuss it. I felt bad about that but I also felt a responsibility as a pastor to speak honestly to them about the faith and its expression in their lives.
It is all a reminder to each of us of the importance of living out the faith we confess on a Sunday when we go into the world on a Monday. I pray the Lord’s blessings on the witness of your life in the church and in the world.
Peace in Christ,