Rev. Stephen M. Fearing is pastor of Beaumont Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, and a D.Min. candidate at New Brunswick Theological Seminary.
I can’t help but wonder if it’s time to reclaim baptism as the nonviolent protest that is needed so desperately these days in a world that tells us we owe our allegiance to everything else but God.
What a beautiful thing: a literal embodiment of liturgy, the work of the people. There is intentionality to it: the choreography is nothing less than a joyful offering to a God who knows what it feels like to be buried and raised and calls us to do the same.
For those of us who sprinkle infants in our baptismal practices, I believe the holy envy of our siblings who practice submersion baptisms can inform a new immersive baptismal theology to guide us in these complex times.
We Presbyterians love being decent and orderly. But sometimes I wonder if we are at times guilty of assuming the Holy Spirit
to be decent and orderly, too, keeping the unpredictability of immersion by the Spirit at a safe distance.
I was baptized on June 28, 1992, by the people of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia. Rev. Jim Holderness, whom I would later remember as the kind man who would embrace me in his arms each Sunday and tell me I was loved, presided. I was four at the time, so I depend on others for the details. I’m told it was a sunny day and a bit cool for that time of year. The worship service was a typical one; upon the sermon’s conclusion, my parents brought me forward. After saying yes to all the prescribed questions from the Book of Order, they gave me to Rev. Holderness, who then thrice anointed my head with a measured and modest amount of water, baptizing me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. After Rev. Holderness walked me up and down the aisle to a liturgy of “oohs” and “ahhs,” we took our seats and it was done.
Clean Feet, acrylic and ink on wood, Jennifer Bunge
Since I was raised a Presbyterian in the thick of the Bible Belt, the vast majority of my friends were Baptist. And they told me a different story of their baptisms. Unlike me, of course, they could remember theirs. And there was nothing measured and modest about the amount of water used. They were dunked, submerged, swallowed by the water; entombed and then raised to new life, soaked in the promises of God from head to toe. The whole experience sounded wild, abundant, and expansive to me. My baptism felt a little too . . . decent and orderly . . . next to theirs. I must admit, I’ve always held a holy envy for my Christian siblings who have been baptized by submersion.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to make a case against infant baptism. Infant baptism makes a beautiful theological statement: that God’s love finds us long before we could ever find it ourselves. I cherish the fact that I depend on my faith community to remind me of my baptism because I literally can’t do that for myself. I can’t help but wonder, though, what we could learn from revisiting our baptismal theology to see what the practice of full immersion baptism has to teach. Maybe it’s time for those of us for whom sprinkling is the norm to take a dive off the deep end.
A few months ago, the former editor of this journal, Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long, did an informal poll on social media to find PC(USA) leaders who had experience with full immersion baptisms. She passed along the names of a few of them to me, and these stories are the result of our conversations.
Rev. Andy Chambers is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Cornelia, Georgia. His congregation partners in ministry with a Laotian community, the Backyard Ministry, pastored by Rev. Souvanh Touralack. The congregation is one of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement sponsored by the PC(USA). The two pastors have baptized members of both congregations in the waters of the nearby Chattahoochee River.
When Rev. Chambers described to me what a typical submersion baptism looks like, I couldn’t help but smile. He showed me a picture of one of the persons who had been baptized. The joy on that face and the faces of the beloved community that surrounded them were proof of an unbridled celebration. There is a clear sense as they are gathered by the river that this is not just the community’s duty but their gladsome opportunity to give gratitude for what God is doing in their midst.
Imagine a warm, sunny day in Northeast Georgia. Dozens of congregants gather by the waters of the Chattahoochee River, singing, praying, and preparing for the ritual. Rev. Touralack and Rev. Chambers guide the baptismal candidate into the waters. The water is blessed and gratitude given for the stories of Scripture that remind us of our baptism. No physical script can be taken into the water because both hands are needed to guide the congregant on their journey. So the words flow from the heart and Scripture is spoken from memory. The candidate is submerged and entombed, swallowed by the flowing waters of that winding river. The newly baptized one emerges as a new creation, smiling from ear to ear, as the people clap and sing and celebrate. And having been helped out of the water, the newly baptized is greeted on land—as Peter himself was after he swam to Jesus—with an abundant meal. Portable tables are set with a bountiful feast of traditional Laotian dishes: fried rice, egg rolls, noodles, and all things curry. “We stuff ourselves until we all get tired and go home,” Rev. Touralack tells me with a chuckle.
They are a gospel people on the loose, released from the four walls of their sanctuary. Both Rev. Chambers and Rev. Touralack described the river baptisms by repeatedly using two words: open and free. There is no need here for restraint because God’s grace isn’t interested in that concept. In a world that preaches a narrative of scarcity and greed, there’s something countercultural—subversive, even—in the way they describe the baptismal experiences.
There is also something about the submersion baptism that reminds us of our dependency on God. “When I’m in the water, when I lay them down, I feel like I’m dying with them,” Rev. Touralack says. “You feel, ‘What does it mean for me to be up and alive and to be a new creation?’” Together, in a beautiful liturgical dance, both pastor and congregant die and rise together, saved from the jaws of death—a choreographed but simultaneously unpredictable ritual declaring our dependence upon God in all things.
I can’t help but wonder if it’s time to reclaim baptism as the nonviolent protest that is needed so desperately these days in a world that tells us we owe our allegiance to everything else but God. By the Chattahoochee River there is no American flag to conflate our allegiance to God with our allegiance to the stars and stripes. By the waters of the “Hooch,” there is no brick-and-mortar sanctuary to trick us into thinking that the body of Christ is somehow more the place where we worship than the blessed bodies that are gathered there. By the flowing waters of that local river, there is nothing more or less than an endless font found in nature and some portable tables full of traditional Laotian food to celebrate the fact that God’s love always wins. Between an unending natural font and folding tables full of bounty, God’s people utter, shout, sing, and pray a redeeming word.
Baptism as Hospitality
Rev. Karen Ware Jackson co-pastors First Presbyterian Church of Greenville, North Carolina, with her husband, Rob. Before this call, however, she was the pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Greensboro. At the time, that congregation partnered in ministry with a new worshiping community called El Shaddai Vision Church, pastored by Rev. Prince Mundeke Mushunju and comprised of immigrants from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Together, Jackson and Mushunju baptized congregants by full submersion. Unlike for the folks in Cornelia, there was no convenient body of water close to the church building, so they relied on the hospitality of a local Disciples of Christ congregation to facilitate their baptismal celebrations.
Jackson was effusive in her praise of the Disciples of Christ church’s hospitality. When it was time to baptize a member of First Presbyterian Church or the El Shaddai Vision Church, the Disciples congregation invited them to use the indoor baptismal pool in the rear of their chancel. When Jackson and Mushunju celebrated joint baptisms, their hosts would make sure that everything was prepared. The water was comfortably heated. They made available their white, weighted baptismal gowns. They laid towels out for participants to dry themselves after the ritual. All this meant that Mushunju and Jackson, leading the service either in English, French, or Swahili, could be fully present with God’s people. This ecumenical partnership reminds us that the sacraments offer an opportunity for a mutual practice of Christian hospitality.
During our conversation, Jackson and I spoke of our shared appreciation for the full-bodied sensory experience of being fully submerged. I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only Presbyterian willing to admit my holy envy of those who have celebrated the sacrament in that manner. We wondered together what it might look like for us “sprinkled” Presbyterians to reaffirm our baptisms in a fully immersive manner. I use the baptismal font in my congregation’s sanctuary on a weekly basis, most often during the confession and assurance of pardon. On special occasions, such as Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I invite the people forward to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads with water. All this is well and good, but Jackson and I imagined what a reaffirmation might look like outside the sanctuary in a natural body of water. “Not in the sanctuary of the church, but in the sanctuary of the world,” as she put it.
Imagine a group of adults, all baptized as infants, gathered by a river. The words of “Come, Thou Fount” are gently sung as the people, in pairs, descend into the water. A blessing is given for the water, a liturgy of gratitude for the eternal river of God’s mercy. The story of Peter’s post-resurrection plunge into the waters is read and the congregation reminded that on the other side of that sacramental swim were both a promise and a charge: forgiveness for our shortcomings and a call to be renewed to serve others in Christ’s name. Then, the pairs that entered together take turns submerging each other in the water, each reminding their partner that they are beloved children of God, never so broken to be withheld from the “streams of mercy, never ceasing.”
Now for the ordination exam question! Where does one draw the line between remembering one’s baptism and being rebaptized? Presbyterians do not condone rebaptizing (to quote Thoreau, “What is once well done is done forever”). But Jackson and I both agreed that, in the interest of a robust and expansive baptismal theology, the longer we find ourselves in this wild thing called ministry, the more willing we are to flirt with that line. One could make the case that as long as one avoids the phrase “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” everything else is on the table (or in the water). However we choose to define that liturgical boundary, I feel it is our responsibility as practitioners of the sacraments to err on the side of letting the Holy Spirit have the room she needs to stir our hearts and renew our souls in these difficult times.
All Hands on Deck!
Rev. Christopher J. Holland II is the executive pastor of Salt and Light, a merger of two congregations (PC(USA) and UCC) in Southwest Philadelphia. In addition to his responsibilities as a minister and father to six children, he somehow finds the time to run a nonprofit called The Common Place, a community that serves children and their families through educational programs, social service, collaboration, and faith formation. It isn’t surprising, then, that we only managed to find time to connect while Holland was in the car driving between engagements.
Salt and Light is a relatively new church merger. Since 2014, Holland has pastored New Spirit Community Church, a PC(USA) church. New Spirit began to collaborate with a nearby UCC congregation, Grace Christian Fellowship, and the Spirit nudged them together to form a new congregation in 2020, Salt and Light, a predominantly African American community. For practical reasons, their baptisms take place at the top of the service. After the baptism, the praise and worship team takes over to lead the congregation in song to allow everyone to dry off and change clothes before rejoining the service.
Unlike the folks in Cornelia, the people who are Salt and Light have little access to an outdoor body of water (consider the difference in climate). And unlike the folks in Greenville, they do not have access to a sanctuary with a permanent baptismal pool. The people who are Salt and Light use a portable pool instead. This came in handy during the worst of COVID-19 when the pandemic forced them and so many others to have outdoor worship services. The pool has no built-in heater, so it is filled with warm water immediately before the service.
At the beginning of the hour, the pastor and the candidate are already in the font-pool. Another elder stands to the rear and the other side to assist if necessary. Questions are asked of the baptismal candidate and the congregation. The water is blessed. And then the candidate descends into their watery grave and rises in new life in Christ as the congregation gently sings “Take Me to the Water.” Holland describes it as a very emotional moment. As the water streams down the robes of the renewed child of God, tears stream down the faces of those gathered. There is no rush; they take their time to let the Spirit soak in. The singing continues as the newest member of the kingdom of God is ushered off to change into dry clothes and return to worship cleansed and called, blessed and born anew.
What strikes me the most about Salt and Light’s celebration of baptism is that it takes so many people to pull it off. One person assembles the font. Another heats the water to the correct temperature and then pours it in (but not too soon lest the water get chilly!). Robes must be dry-cleaned and then laid out for the candidates. Fresh towels are made available to dry off afterwards. Assistants are needed on each side of the candidate during the moment of baptism to support and guide. People lay out rugs to soak up the water as the candidate departs the pool for the changing room. A team of people clean and disassemble the font at the conclusion. Holland assures me that it takes no less than eight to ten people to make sure everything goes smoothly.
What a beautiful thing: a literal embodiment of liturgy, the work of the people. There is intentionality to it: the choreography is nothing less than a joyful offering to a God who knows what it feels like to be buried and raised and calls us to do the same. There’s a communal ownership of the liturgy, a sacramental buy-in, as congregants are not passive observers but active participants in the moment when a beloved child of God is given a wide welcome into a new kind of community. This community is not like the rest of the world, where worth is dispersed to idols like money, or privilege, or status. The people that are Salt and Light are the preachers of God’s grace, and a few drops of water aren’t sufficient to proclaim their gospel message. One person alone can’t do it; a team is blessed with the work of the people to disperse God’s grace in abundant measure.
A Call for a New Immersive Baptismal Theology
My own experience in ministry is evidence of the aging demographics of our denomination. I have served as solo pastor of two relatively small congregations, one in New York and the other in Kentucky, over the past eight years. And in those eight years, I’ve only baptized two people (and one of them none other than my own child!). By contrast, I’ve presided at the Lord’s Table well over a hundred times since my ordination. I suspect the congregations I’ve served are not the only ones experiencing such a dramatic disparity between the frequency with which they celebrate the two sacraments.
My response to this situation has been to infuse baptismal theology and liturgy into worship whenever possible. I take it as my responsibility as a worship leader to make up for the infrequency of baptism in any way I can. The Book of Order mandates that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated at least quarterly, though most congregations I know celebrate monthly if not more frequently.1 But, for obvious reasons, there is no mechanism to ensure that baptisms are celebrated as often. This means it’s up to us as preachers, music ministers, liturgists, Christian educators, and artists to make up for that deficit.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” a statement written by the World Council of Churches in 1982. Also known as the “Lima Document” or simply BEM, it explores the theological threads that different Christian traditions hold in common regarding the sacraments and practices of ministry. Since I was introduced to this document in seminary, I have revisited it frequently to clarify and express my sacramental theology both inside and outside
Congregants have often playfully teased me because of the fact that I speak of baptismal theology so much. “Pastor Stephen, you talk about baptism a lot!” My response is often, “Well, without it, what have we got?” Baptism is the foundation of our lives as Christian disciples. It is simultaneously where we come from and where we are called to every day of our lives. To emphasize this point, every year on Baptism of the Lord Sunday I use the BEM as an example of how important it is for us to have a robust and immersive baptismal theology.
The BEM reminds us that our baptism represents five truths: (1) participation in Christ’s death and resurrection; (2) conversion, pardoning, and cleansing; (3) the gift of the Spirit; (4) incorporation into the body of Christ; and (5) the sign of the kingdom. This serves as a reminder that baptism is no appetizer; it’s a five-course meal in and of itself! We need this reminder because we are a forgetful people and it’s all too easy to settle into a simplistic baptismal theology where it means nothing more than a moment to express our liturgical “oohs” and “ahhs” at a cute baby in a white gown. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with our “oohs” and “ahhs” when we see the beauty of a child of God welcomed into the beloved community. But we must take care not to have our baptismal theology stop there! Those of us who practice infant baptism can sometimes forget that the commitment the congregation makes to nurture and guide the child in the faith as they grow up is just as important, if not more so, than the commitment the parents make on their child’s behalf. All three of the pastoral leaders I interviewed for this article expressed that congregations can fall short if they are not careful; we baptize the child and then we think our job is over when it has just begun!
For those of us who sprinkle infants in our baptismal practices, I believe the holy envy of our siblings who practice submersion baptisms can inform a new immersive baptismal theology to guide us in these complex times. My conversations with Revs. Chambers, Touralack, Jackson, and Holland offer us the following reminders of what it means to embrace an immersive baptismal theology.
An immersive baptismal theology comes from the margins. It comes as no surprise that submersion baptisms in all three of these communities come from immigrant congregations and/or communities of color. The congregations of First Presbyterian Church of Cornelia and First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro are blessed by the baptismal practices of the immigrant communities they partner with in ministry. As our country becomes more culturally diverse, such partnerships are ripe places to explore the movement of the Holy Spirit. Could it be that cross-cultural baptismal practices serve as an act of resistance to ideologies that express fear at the increasing diversity of this nation? Could it be that such partnerships are, in and of themselves, forms of nonviolent protest to the forces of racism that are tearing apart our country, our communities, and our congregations? Collaborations between predominantly white congregations and immigrant communities can be a beautiful sign of the kingdom of heaven, where all parts of the body of Christ have an equal place and bless one another in their Christian witness.
An immersive baptismal theology is a group project. These conversations reminded this pastor that we all need reminding that baptism is not something the pastor does alone. The participatory aspect of the Lord’s Supper is rather straight forward; we get up, walk to the table, receive and partake of the elements, and walk back to our seat. But baptisms, if done without intention, can feel more like something we watch instead of something we do. The people who are Salt and Light know that when it’s time to baptize, it’s time to get to work! Everyone has their role to play, and the result of their work—the work of the people—is a sensory-filled embodiment of resurrection in action. I wonder how those of us who practice infant baptism can make the sacrament more collaborative. What would it look like if each congregant was handed a glass of water and, prior to the baptism, was invited to come forward to fill the font? What if more of our congregations took baptism outside the walls of the church? What other rituals might the congregation you serve embody to explore the gift of baptism?
An immersive baptismal theology is an untethered celebration of God’s abundance. The BEM reminds us that baptism is simultaneously a gift from God and our collective response to that gift. But the weightiness of these times can feel like a barrier to our joyful embodiment of the sacrament. Many of our congregations feel buried these days. They are buried by the weight of the pandemic, navigating the wilderness of identity crisis because the church they are now doesn’t resemble the church they were before March 2020. They are buried by the weight of the decline of mainline Christianity, struggling to see hope and resurrection as older generations join the church triumphant. They’re buried by the weight of racism and white Christian nationalism, wrestling with the fact that it is our responsibility to inoculate ourselves from a pandemic of a different kind that threatens the unity of the church and the welfare of our neighbors. In the midst of this widespread disorientation, an immersive baptismal theology is necessary to keep us grounded in who God is calling us to be and how we can respond faithfully in a world fraught with uncertainty. In interviewing these three pastoral leaders, I began to see a pattern in the language they used to describe their baptismal rituals, which included freedom, openness, wildness, unpredictable, untethered, abundance, and joy. This language reflects the idea that the practice of baptism can invite us to a communal catharsis, a releasing of sin and injustice and a reclaiming of our identities as children of God, baptized, beloved, and blessed. Perhaps the congregations we lead need a catharsis like that right now. Who knows what kind of space an immersive baptismal practice might break open to make room for the Holy Spirit to stir our hearts and compel us towards an ever more faithful discipleship of the risen Christ!
Last year, the congregation I serve baptized my eldest daughter on her first birthday. I say the congregation did because, while I presided and thrice anointed my daughter’s head with a generous amount of water, her baptism was an act of the congregation and the Holy Spirit. The process of writing this article has reminded me of the beauty of that truth. My spouse and I welcomed our second daughter to the world a few months ago. The tentative plan is to have her baptized on the occasion of her first birthday which, as it turns out, will be only a few days from Baptism of the Lord Sunday next year. In anticipation of that celebration, the communities I’ve learned from in this journey challenge me to holy curiosity about how we can cultivate an immersive baptismal theology while practicing infant baptism by sprinkling. I am stubbornly determined that the two need not be mutually exclusive. The practice of full immersion baptism need not diminish the importance or holiness of baptism by sprinkling. Baptism is no zero sum game, thanks be to God!
These communities have taught me that I can return to the waters of my baptism whenever I need. The water of the Chattahoochee River is the water of my baptism. The water in a Disciples of Christ Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, is the water of my baptism. The water in a portable font in Philadelphia is the water of my baptism. Every lap I swim, every shower I take, every drop of rain that blesses the parched places of the earth, those are the waters of my baptism.2 I may have been baptized on June 28, 1992, but that sacrament isn’t over. The disciples of these three congregations have cleansed me anew through the re-living of their baptisms. And in their stories I see the future of the church: a community unbound by the walls of a building, manifested from the margins, and collaborative by nature.
We Presbyterians love being decent and orderly. But sometimes I wonder if we are at times guilty of assuming the Holy Spirit to be decent and orderly, too, keeping the unpredictability of immersion by the Spirit at a safe distance. But it doesn’t have to be that way. An immersive baptismal theology could be a tremendous blessing to our congregations for the living of these days. So together, let’s take a deep dive; the wild and wide waters of our baptism beckon!
- Book of Order, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part 2 (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, PC(USA), 2019), W-3.0409.
- An immersive baptismal theology is mindful that not everyone has access to clean, abundant water and seeks a world where that is no longer the case.