Restoration Movement churches practice “believers baptism.” Unlike our friends in other traditions who baptize babies, our understanding is that baptism is something an individual is invited by God to choose when they are mature enough to commit themselves to following Jesus and take on the title “Christian.” It is not a decision that parents, congregational leaders or church traditions make for a child. Rather we believe strongly that it is a choice that every individual must make for themselves. Because of this commitment to believers baptism we tend wait for our children to indicate that they are ready to be baptized. In contrast to other traditions who celebrate spiritual milestones and commitment ceremonies at specific ages (the Jewish Bar Mitzvah at age twelve, the Catholic First Communion at age eight and Confirmation at age fourteen), in our tradition we feel that baptism should be initiated by an older child or teenager when he or she has come to belief and has a personal desire to be baptized.
While there are many beautiful and powerful elements of this practice, there are also ways in which it can be tricky. Whether or not a child will initiate baptism on their own depends greatly on the child’s personality. Some kids are wired in such a way that it comes easily for them. They’ve seen people baptized, heard lessons and sermons about the importance of baptism, and find themselves wanting to participate. The audience and the attention do not intimidate them. These personalities are in many ways drawn to the public nature of the practice.
Other kids, however, are wired in an opposite direction. These kids equally believe that they should be baptized, but the idea of initiating the process, even when that means simply having a conversation with their parents or church mentors, can be overwhelming. These are the kids who wait because they are shy or intimated by the idea of the attention and the audience. They don’t have less faith or less desire to be baptized. It’s just that the public nature of the practice makes it intimidating to them which leads them to delay and refrain.
This situation becomes even more complicated by normal developmental dynamics. On the one hand, we worry that grade-schoolers are too young to be baptized — we want our kids to understand what they are doing and make a decision from a place of maturity. However, for those who are intimidated by the attention and the audience, adolescence can just make things worse. The teenage years are emotionally complicated. Because of changing bodies and a new and growing self-awareness, teenagers tend to be more self-conscious than younger kids. The very normal dynamics of teen self-consciousness create additional barriers for kids whose tendency may be to hold back and not place themselves in the spotlight. A child who might be a little intimidated as a 10 year old, could be completely overwhelmed as a 14 year old, thus making it even less likely that he or she will initiate baptism in adolescence. It’s not that they don’t want to be baptized. Often they do. But the idea of calling so much attention to themselves overwhelms and paralyzes them.
This can be the beginning of a most unfortunate downward spiral. With each passing year the pressure mounts. They feel more and more guilt that they aren’t baptized. The guilt causes them to question their faith and commitment. They start to believe that their baptized peers are true Christians, but maybe they are not. Instead of growing in their sense of Christian identity with each passing year, the opposite happens — the older they get, the less “Christian” they become. When they were children they were part of a Christian family and the Christian faith was an identity that belonged to them through their parents. But as they grow older and more independent, the fact that they have not participated in this central ritual — the exact ritual that, according to our beliefs, identifies a person as “Christian” — becomes more and more glaring. These kids enter adulthood feeling like the window has closed and they have in some way passively chosen to not accept Christ. And that is a tragedy. It is a tragedy if certain children are more invited into this beautiful ritual than others are, simply because the way we tend to do it is a better match for some personalities than it is for others.
This unfortunate spiral can be mitigated if we can consider doing two simple things. The first is that we should consider encouraging our children to be baptized before adolescence. If a child is baptized between the ages of ten and twelve, they enter adolescence with that important milestone in their recent memory. More than that, through baptism their identity as a Christian is firmly established and has been celebrated by their family and faith community. This gives them a spiritual advantage as they face the craziness of adolescence, providing a tether to a shore of spiritual security.
The second thing we can do is offer all children the encouragement and tools they need to be baptized. We must realize that the effectiveness of baptism is not undermined when the decision is not completely initiated by the child. A parent or trusted mentor should say to a child, “I think you should get baptized this year. When would you like to do it? Where would you like to do it? Who would you like to have there? What sort of celebration would you like to have?” Through these simple questions a parent initiates the conversation and give older children an easy onramp into the process. Adults can suggest various options, realizing that each person is different and what is best for one kid isn’t necessarily best for another. Some kids will be like the idea of being baptized with a friend or sibling or cousin. Others will be comforted if they know that a trusted adult will hold their hand all along the way so that they never be alone in the spotlight or intimidated by the individual attention. Contrary to our assumptions, Biblical baptism is not simply between an individual and God. Baptism is and always has been about the faith community and about faith-filled families. We do ourselves and our kids a disservice when we place so much emphasis on the individual.
As strongly as we believe in the importance of baptism, we also believe that is is a holy mystery — that somehow through this simple, ancient practice, God meets us, claims us, and gives us the Holy Spirit to dwell in our very bodies. Thus, it is vital that all of our kids, with all of their different personalities, be fully invited to participate in this holy and beautiful ritual. No one should be excluded! We must lovingly support them all so that every child in our churches will remember their baptism as a powerful, life-defining event.
This piece first appeared in Mosaic.