Breaking Through the Baptism Barrier
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2010 Oct 21
I don't often talk about Meck's numbers, and for a lot of reasons - some of which I wrote about in a previous blog post titled "The Largest and Fastest Growing" that you can read here.
But sometimes looking at numbers is necessary to both evaluate, and then challenge, the status quo. Consider our mission: Reaching people for Christ and baptizing them, followed by discipleship.
Yet the numbers being reached for Christ by individual churches are often dismal, and the numbers of those who then go public through baptism are even worse.
Let's talk about one slice of this challenge, specifically getting those who have committed their lives to Christ to go public through baptism.
Here come some of the numbers I'm often reticent to share, but I think it might help prove a point: last year, Meck baptized 150 people. In the past six months alone we've baptized 329.
We've always been successful at getting people to cross the line of faith, but less so at getting people to cross the line of water.
So what did we do to break through the barriers of baptism?
Four things that I think will serve others:
1. We held clear "Decision" weekends that were marked in ways that people could refer back to - and so could we.
At Meck, we've learned that there are "horizontal" series and "vertical" series. Our language, but maybe it will serve others. By "horizontal," we mean series that dig into the relevance and practical value of the Christian faith and the teaching of the Bible. Such series would deal with things like parenting, family and relationships. "Vertical" series tend to be the ones that get people to cross the line of faith - series on the nature of God and the Person of Jesus.
Whether at the end of a "horizontal" series, or more commonly in a "vertical" series, we will offer a clear presentation of the gospel and an opportunity to cross the line of faith and become a Christ follower. We call such weekends "decision" weekends. We often mark them in ways that are physical - coming on stage to walk across a bridge or picking up a small wooden cross from the foot of a large cross - for those who have prayed the prayer.
Later, we can say, "Do you remember when you prayed the prayer? Do you remember walking across the bridge, or taking up your cross? If you do, then here's what Jesus asks you to do next."
2. We taught on baptism leading up to the event itself.
There is no substitute for direct teaching on anything you are asking someone to do. In the past six months, we did a two-week series titled "Live Out Loud" and then more recently, a one-week talk titled "Just Say the Word." In both situations, the end of the series/talk afforded an opportunity to be baptized as an immediate response.
The talks dealt not only with the theology and importance of baptism, allowing us to properly vet people on the front end to prevent those who might desire to be "rebaptized" due to the emotion of the moment, but also addressed the biggest questions and obstacles that surround the sacrament. During one of the talks, we even played "whack-a-mole" with reasons not to get baptized with an actual "whack-a-mole" game I brought on stage.
If you are interested in any of these talks, you can click here.
3. We offered the opportunity to be baptized as part of our weekend services, with the chance to decide to participate spontaneously.
We had heard of a handful of churches doing this, and were intrigued. Our concern was proper vetting - we didn't want to just get people hyped up to do something that would, in truth, not be true to the sacrament itself. Also, how do you prepare for scores of people to get baptized on the spot? That meant clothing, toilet articles, towels, and so much more.
We went to work on this, and came up with a strategy that has really worked. You can get the logistical download here. The vetting was handled by the talk that preceded the event on that day (see above).
Right now, we would tell you that we will never go back to doing baptisms any other way. It captures the spirit of the Ethiopian eunuch who, once he understood it all, said, "What is stopping me from being baptized right now?" Answer from Philip? "Nothing" (Acts 8:37).
4. We made it a celebration people wanted to be a part of.
When we transitioned to the baptisms during the service itself, which entailed having all those being baptized exiting to the baptism area, we had a live video-feed into the auditorium for the remaining worship experience. As our band was leading everyone in worship, the images of people being baptized were on each screen. For years, it has been our culture to applaud each person upon exiting the waters, and that carried over into the auditorium as applause broke out with each person in harmony with the music.
It was beautiful.
And it made even more people want to get up and join in the experience. Seeing others obey the call of Christ prompted them to obey.
We also threw parties on these weekends.
Not sure how you are wired up on such things, but we throw periodic, unannounced "flash" parties following our weekend services three or so times a year. They exit the service and find ice-cream trucks, super-slides, and moon-bounces ready to be enjoyed. We tell them, "Enjoy - and all you need to do is use the linger time to meet one person you don't already know."
Baptism weekends are always flash party weekends, with the added words, "and be sure to congratulate all who were just baptized."
All of this takes work, and enormous intentionality.
You may not want to mess with it.
But we were glad we did.
In fact, over the last six months, 329 times glad.
James Emery White
"The Largest and Fastest Growing," James Emery White, posted at churchandculture.org at: http://www.churchandculture.org/Blog.asp?ID=75
To download the latest baptism talks given at Meck, such as the "Live Out Loud" series and "Just Say the Word," visit: http://www.churchandculture.org/media.asp
To download a pdf related to "spontaneous" baptism events, see: http://www.churchandculture.org/pdf/spontaneousbaptism.pdf