Singing around the Font
David Bjorlin is a teaching fellow in music and worship at North Park University, the pastor of worship and creative arts at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago, Illinois, and a hymnwriter.
While there are no other explicit references to congregational singing in the baptismal liturgy, GTG’s Baptism section suggests a few other places where song might be appropriate in the rite.
As with all liturgical elements, the season of the church year, lectionary texts, sermon theme, and the community’s cultural, liturgical, and social context will also play a role in choosing the most appropriate song for these different places in the baptismal liturgy.
While a definitive definition of a Presbyterian baptismal theology is surely debated, the Book of Common Worship gives a helpfully succinct theological description of baptism that both points to ecumenical convergences and specific Presbyterian characteristics.
While the Spirit’s role is unexpectedly emphasized in these baptismal hymns, it is perhaps more surprising that mentions of the covenantal nature of baptism ranks fourth on the list of theological images, particularly in a denomination firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition.
If your church is at all like mine, baptisms are one of the most joyous occasions of the Christian liturgical life. It is a profound gift to witness the new life that is birthed from the waters and to be reminded of God’s promises to us as we make or renew our promises to God and one another. And, as with so many of our Christian rites, baptism is both solemnized and celebrated with song. If song is indeed an expected component of our baptism rites, it calls pastors, liturgists, and worship leaders to think critically about the liturgical and theological role song plays in the rite. In this article, I will examine the role of congregational song in baptism, particularly in the PC(USA) context. Because of the potential size of such an undertaking, I will limit the scope of my article to three main areas. First, I will examine the baptismal liturgy in the Book of Common Worship (BCW) and explore where congregational songs are already an expected part of the rite, and where additional songs may be implied and/or liturgically appropriate. Second, I will compare the baptismal theology described in the introductory text of the baptismal rite in the BCW to the sung theology of the baptismal section in Glory to God (GTG) to ascertain which themes are well represented or underrepresented and give possible reasons for these levels of representation. Finally, I will argue that some of the underdeveloped baptismal themes in the hymnal may be bolstered by the utilization of baptismal songs from believer baptist traditions, reminding the baptized of the ethical call that God places on their lives through the waters.
New Life, acrylic and ink on wood, Jennifer Bunge
Congregational Song in the Book of Common Worship Baptismal Rite
In the baptismal service itself, there are two places where the singing of a congregational song is explicitly encouraged. First, in the transition space between the sermon and the presentation of the candidates, the Book of Common Worship states, “Following the sermon, a baptismal hymn or song may be sung while the candidates, sponsors, and parents assemble at the baptismal font or pool.”1 While most baptismal hymns would not be out of place in this transitional space, there are a few contextual and liturgical keys that could help determine the most fitting congregational song. First, and perhaps most obviously, because the song is to be sung as the candidate(s) makes their way forward, songs that emphasize the movement toward the baptismal waters make good liturgical sense. Glory to God has several appropriate options, including “Ho, All Who Thirst (Come Now to the Water)” (#479) and “Take Me to the Water” (#480). Other congregational songs that could serve this liturgical movement well include John Foley’s “Come to the Water,”2 the African American spiritual “As I Went Down to the River to Pray,”3 and Kristian Stanfill and Bret Younker’s contemporary praise song “Come to the Water.”4
Second, the age of the baptismal candidate(s) may make some congregational songs more suitable than others. If the baptizand is an infant, songs like “These Treasured Children” (#487), “Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters” (#490), or Thomas Haweis’s “Our Children, Lord, in Faith and Prayer”5 help emphasize the covenantal and communal nature of baptism in which a community of faith brings their children forward to be marked as God’s own. If the baptizand is an adult, songs like the aforementioned “Ho, All Who Thirst” (#479) or Thomas Kingo’s “All Who Believe and Are Baptized”6 underscore the believer’s active response to God’s prevenient grace (a theme we will return to later in the paper).
Just as the baptismal rite suggests accompanying the movement toward the font with a hymn, the rubric also encourages a song as the baptized are welcomed into the community with the passing of the peace and communion: “Those who have been baptized are welcomed in a manner appropriate to the particular congregation. The people may sing a refrain such as ‘You Have Put On Christ’ (GTG 491) or ‘You Belong to Christ’ (GTG 492), an ascription of praise (GTG 580–91), or a baptismal hymn (GTG 475–93).”7 As the first two song recommendations suggest, one of the possible functions of this song is to remind the baptized—both those baptized moments ago and those baptized decades ago—of baptism’s continued promise and call. So, in addition to the two recommended by the BCW, other suitable songs around these themes in GTG include “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” (#486), “Wonder of Wonders, Here Revealed” (#489), and “Now There Is No Male or Female” (#493).
While there are no other explicit references to congregational singing in the baptismal liturgy, GTG’s baptism section suggests a few other places where song might be appropriate in the rite. For example, David Gambrell’s paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed—“I Believe in God the Father” (#481)—is placed in the baptism section of the hymnal and could be used as part of the Profession of Faith in the baptismal rite. Especially when there are multiple baptisms on a Sunday, a short refrain can also be used between baptisms as both a doxological response and as a functional means of transitioning between the different baptizands. Both “You Have Put On Christ” (#491) and “You Belong to Christ” (#492) serve this purpose well. Indeed, as Carl Daw notes about the former in his brief commentary below the hymn in GTG, “In the rite of baptism provided in Evangelical Lutheran Worship this text appears as one of the optional congregational responses after each person is baptized.”8 Other doxologies, glorias, alleluias, short refrains/praise choruses, or other cyclical songs of adoration and praise that are well known to the community could serve a similar purpose.
In the commentary to Sylvia Dunstan’s “Crashing Waters at Creation” (#476), Daw draws another explicit connection to the baptismal rite, pointing out, “Like the Thanksgiving Over the Water in the rite of Baptism, this text . . . recalls significant events in salvation history involving water.”9 Each of the first three stanzas of the hymn deftly mirror the main subjects of the Thanksgiving over the Water (save the Flood narrative), as can be seen by comparing the corresponding sections on page 44.
Sung Theology in Glory to God
One of the questions that should always be asked by pastors, liturgists, and/or church musicians in congregations is whether the songs we sing truly represent the context’s stated theological beliefs. Do we sing all of what we purport to believe, or are there important theological themes that we do not address in our songs?13 In the context of this article, then, the question is whether and how the songs recommended for the baptismal rite (as presented in the baptism section of Glory to God) correspond to the stated baptismal theology of the PC(USA).
While a definitive definition of a Presbyterian baptismal theology is surely debated, the Book of Common Worship gives a helpfully succinct theological description of baptism that both points to ecumenical convergences and specific Presbyterian characteristics: “The Sacrament of Baptism holds a deep reservoir of theological meaning, including dying and rising with Jesus Christ; pardon, cleansing, and renewal; the gift of the Holy Spirit; incorporation into the body of Christ; and a sign of the realm of God. The Reformed tradition understands baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant.”14 The first sentence of this description demonstrates an almost one-to-one correspondence with the five major theological meanings of baptism given in the World Council of Church’s (WCC) influential document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry: Participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection; Conversion, Pardon, and Cleansing; The Gift of the Spirit; Incorporation into the Body of Christ; and The Sign of the Kingdom.15 As the BCW makes clear, it is the Calvinist emphasis on baptism as a covenantal sign that is a particular Reformed theological characteristic of baptism. This description, then, gives six theological themes that the PC(USA)’s worship book deems central to a Presbyterian understanding of baptism. So, which of these theological images are well represented in the baptism section of GTG, and which are perhaps underrepresented?
To answer this question, I analyzed the texts in the baptism section of GTG (#475–493) and marked each time one of these six theological images was used in the hymns. I also indicated whether the theme was explicitly mentioned or implicitly alluded to in the text. For example, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” has fairly clear references to pardon, cleansing, and renewal—“he to rescue me from danger, / interposed his precious blood” (to name just one example)—but the references to God as fount (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:16–18) and the sealing of one’s heart (Eph. 1:13–14) both imply the work of the Holy Spirit.16 Obviously, counting allusions is subjective and relies on the theological assumptions of the reader, but it at least gives a close approximation of theological references, listed below in order of total mentions:
What could account for this revival of Spirit language? In line with some of the reasons given by liturgists Teresa Berger and Bryan Spinks in their introduction to The Spirit in Worship—Worship in the Spirit, I believe this resurgence is in part due to the ecumenical influences of the Liturgical Movement and the ensuing liturgical reforms of Vatican II that recovered pneumatological language and images from the shared depository of the early church liturgies (e.g., the recovery of the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit in post-Vatican II Western eucharistic prayers); as well as the ecumenical influence of the Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostal/ charismatic liturgical and theological traditions, both with well-developed pnuematological theologies and praxes.24 Perhaps the most important liturgical influence on worship resources like the BCW and GTG to emerge out of this ecumenical milieu was the WCC’s aforementioned Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM). This document has not only guided worship book and hymnal committees, but also writers and editors of congregational songs and liturgical rites.25 The fact that the baptism section in BEM gives pride of place to the Holy Spirit’s role in the ritual is no doubt one of the key reasons for the Spirit’s prominent place in the songs of GTG.
While the Spirit’s role is unexpectedly emphasized in these baptismal hymns, it is perhaps more surprising that mentions of the covenantal nature of baptism ranks fourth on the list of theological images, particularly in a denomination firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition. Yes, baptism is described as the event where “God’s covenant with us is sealed,”26 but this is the only place in the baptism section where the word “covenant” is explicitly used. As is clear from my list, covenantal language can still be employed without using the word “covenant” (e.g., Fred Kaan’s description of baptism as a “birthmark of the love of God”27), but it is still surprising to see this word so essential to Reformed baptismal theology used so sparingly. Why might this be? First, just as covenantal imagery can be used without also using explicitly covenantal language, so too the image of baptism as incorporation into the body of Christ is by its very nature covenantal, even without direct references. This is, after all, one of Calvin’s most basic arguments for infant baptism: just as circumcision was the covenant sign of God that both marked the child as God’s own and incorporated Hebrew (male) children into the people of Israel, so too baptism marks a child as God’s own and incorporates them into the body of Christ. From a Reformed perspective, incorporation and covenant are inextricably linked. So, in Lynette Miller’s “Now There Is No Male or Female,” the baptized are “marked” with water as children “born to God,” and this water “joins us to those who, before us, / ran the race and fought the fight.”28 While not using covenantal language per se, in the Reformed tradition the language of being marked and joined to God and one another is naturally interpreted through a covenantal lens.
Second, if ecumenical influences help explain the preponderance of pneumatological language in these hymns, these same influences might also help explain why covenant language is less pronounced. Hymnals tend to be on the vanguard of ecumenism, bringing songs written from many different traditions and eras into one resource.29 While hymnal committees are always vigilant to ensure that the theology of songs are in line with the particular theological tradition of their denomination (one has only to remember the debate over whether to include “In Christ Alone” in GTG!), it is only natural that the more ecumenical a hymnal is, the less room there is for theological perspectives particular to the theological tradition/denomination. In the case of the baptism section of GTG, Reformed hymns are joined by texts written from Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions. It is little wonder that these texts would not highlight the covenantal nature of baptism as explicitly as Fred Kaan’s (United Reformed Church) “Out of Deep, Unordered Water” (#484) or Jane Parker Huber’s (PCUSA) “Wonder of Wonders, Here Revealed” (#489). Also, if the WCC’s Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry did serve as a guiding resource for the PC(USA)’s baptism rites and hymns, including songs from a diversity of traditions would help ensure that the multivalent symbol of baptism described in BEM was not boiled down to one or two theological images favored by the Reformed movement in GTG. Thus, the surprisingly high number of references to the Holy Spirit and low number of references to God’s covenant in the baptism hymns of GTG might best be explained by the broadening ecumenical vision of the church’s liturgical life.
The Ongoing Ethical Life of Baptism
As the above table shows, the Glory to God hymnal committee did an admirable job of including a range of hymns and songs that represent both a generally ecumenical and particularly Presbyterian theology of baptism. Yet, if I were to suggest supplements to this section of the hymnal, my first additions would be songs that emphasize humanity’s necessary ethical response to God’s work in baptism. Yes, the sacrament of baptism is always first God’s promise to us, but in baptism we also commit ourselves (or our children) to a life of Christian discipleship that is marked by a radically different ethical framework than our broader culture. The introduction to the Profession of Faith in the BCW clearly demonstrates this two-way nature of baptism:
Within this covenant God gives us new life,
strengthens us to resist evil,
and nurtures us in love.
Through this covenant, we choose whom
we will serve,
by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.30
Through baptism, God gives prevenient grace, but we still must choose to live our lives in faithful response to that grace and in faithfulness to our baptismal vows.31
No doubt part of the reason there are fewer hymns on the ethical call of baptism is due to the normativity of paedobaptism in PC(USA) churches. There are, after all, few clearer symbols of God’s prevenient grace than God’s making covenant with a helpless infant, while the immediate ethical demands made on an infant are minimal. It is quite natural, then, to have a critical mass of songs that fit the particular context of an infant baptism. But perhaps this points to an underlying issue: if a congregation only sings songs about baptism on Sundays when there is a (most often infant) baptism, it is easy to see why these hymns would focus mostly on theological images that are particularly suited to the most common form of baptism. Yet, if baptism is more than just an infant rite of passage—if indeed the waters are a sign of God’s reign where people are cleansed, buried in Christ’s death and resurrected in his new life, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and made members of Christ’s body—then baptism must be a continual source of spiritual renewal and ethical transformation. So, in the same way that the baptismal font or pool serve as a visible symbol of baptism’s foundational role in Christian faith week after week, so too singing baptismal hymns, even on those Sundays where there is not a baptism, can serve as an aural/oral symbol that regularly reminds us of baptism’s call on our lives.
When baptismal hymns do become a regular part of a congregation’s Sunday-to-Sunday worship repertoire, there are naturally more opportunities to broaden the sung baptismal theology to include songs that address the call to countercultural Christian discipleship that baptism places on our lives. Perhaps this is where songs from believer baptist traditions—African American spirituals, Anabaptist hymns, and Evangelical choruses—could help. Since these traditions tend to emphasize baptism’s call to conversion, personal commitment to Christ, and ethical transformation, they could help draw out these often underrepresented themes in paedobaptist traditions like the PC(USA). For example, the African American spiritual “Certainly, Lord,” makes the connection between baptism and Christian discipleship explicit:
Have you got good religion,
Have you got good religion,
Have you got good religion,
Cert’nly, cert’nly, cert’nly Lord!
2. Do you love ev’rybody . . .
3. Have you been converted . . .
4. Have you been to the water . . .
5. Have you been baptized . . .32
While one could read the stanzas as the sort of order of the Christian conversion experience (getting religion leads to love leads to conversion leads to baptism), I tend to understand the questions of each stanza as a demonstration of the way conversion, the ethical commitment to love everybody, and baptism are inextricably bound together, each a necessary component of the other. For those who have been baptized, the ethical call of the hymn is a radical one: to love everybody, friends and enemies alike.
‘In part because of their history of being persecuted for their baptismal beliefs and practices, Anabaptists too have long drawn a connection between the rite of baptism and an ethically transformed life. This can be clearly seen in the first and third stanzas of contemporary Mennonite hymn writer Adam M. L. Tice’s “The Water Is Ready”:
The water is ready;
how can I be worthy?
Yet God has invited,
so I will step in.
The water is waiting,
and my soul is thirsty—
dried out by my wand’ring,
my striving, my sin.
A calling is ready;
how can I be chosen?
Yet God is more gracious
than I can conceive.
A calling is offered,
and my soul has heard it:
do justice, love kindness,
walk humbly, believe.33
In Tice’s text, baptism is a gift, yes, but one we must choose to accept, and it is a gift that places ethical demands on our life: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Mic. 6:8). In true Anabaptist fashion, this call is not only for ministers or the spiritual elite; it is the basic call of all who would claim the radical way of Jesus Christ.
Finally, while not quite as obvious as the previous two examples, there are even hints of the ethical components of baptism in Hillsong songwriters Brooke and Scott Ligertwood’s “Beneath the Waters (I Will Rise).” While much of the song connects baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus (which fits the major contours of an evangelical soteriology), in the bridge of the text, baptism is also connected to a fundamental shift in allegiance:
I rise as you are risen,
Declare your rule and reign;
My life confess your Lordship,
and glorify your name.34
Those raised to new life with Christ in baptism now confess the lordship of Christ and the primacy of Christ’s reign, and their ethical lives should be lived in line with this confession. Here we see a shift in allegiance mirroring the renunciation of evil and the profession of faith in the baptismal rite. As it does in this text, developing the ethical implications of baptism may also underscore baptism as a “sign of the realm of God,” one of the most underrepresented of baptismal images in GTG. While the particular evangelical theological and social imagination represented in the Hillsong movement and its songs might limit their use in PC(USA) contexts, perhaps the emphasis on baptism as a pledge of allegiance to Christ’s reign could be employed by PC(USA) songwriters in broader and more inclusive ways.
While I am not a Presbyterian, I can image one of the possible critiques of my argument from those in the Reformed tradition is the way it may seem to uphold a narrow decision theology where salvation is boiled down to a single and decisive conversion moment. When decision theology is overemphasized, I do believe it can erode a covenant theology in which the primary work of salvation is God’s. However, perhaps these songs from believer baptist traditions can serve as a helpful counterbalance that does not undermine God’s primacy in the work of salvation, but reminds those in paedobaptist traditions that God’s covenant does call us to ongoing decisions. Maybe it is not one single, dramatic decision to follow Christ (though I do not discount these dramatic conversion moments), but those daily, hourly, minute-by-minute decisions when each of us must “choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) over and over again. And so, over and over again—through word, symbol, and song—we must return to God’s promises made at the font and open ourselves up again and again to their transformative power that those of us who have been grafted into the body of Christ through the waters of baptism might truly be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. This is both the great gift and task of God’s baptismal waters.
- Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2018), 405.
- John Foley, “Come to the Water,” in Gather, 3rd ed. (Chicago: GIA, 2011), #583.
- African American spiritual, “As I Went Down to the River to Pray,” in Voices Together (Harrisonburg, VA: MennoMedia, 2020), #453.
- Kristian Stanfill and Bret Younker, “Come to the Water” (2012 sixsteps Music).
- Thomas Haweis, “Our Children, Lord, in Faith and Prayer,” in Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive, 2013), #805.
- Thomas H. Kingo, “All Who Believe and Are Baptized,” tr. George T. Rygh, in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #442.
- Book of Common Worship, 413.
- Glory to God: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013), #492.
- Glory to God, #476.
- Book of Common Worship, 410–11.
- Sylvia Dunstan, “Crashing Waters at Creation,” in Glory to God, #476.
- Book of Common Worship, 411.
- For hymn/songwriters, this question can be a fruitful way to find new themes and topics on which to write.
- Book of Common Worship, 403.
- Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper, no. 111 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), 2–3
- Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” in Glory to God, #475.
- For a general overview of this resurgence and some of its causes and antecedents, see Teresa Berger and Bryan D. Spinks’s introduction in The Spirit in Worship—Worship in the Spirit, eds. Teresa Berger and Bryan D. Spinks (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), xi–xxv.
- Ruth Duck, “Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters,” in Glory to God, #490.
- Michael Saward, “Baptized in Water,” in Glory to God, #482.
- Ronald S. Cole-Turner, “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise,” in Glory to God, #486.
- John Brownlow Geyer, “We Know That Christ Is Raised,” in Glory to God, #485.
- Jacque B. Jones, “These Treasured Children,” in Glory to God, #487.
- Book of Common Worship, 409.
- Berger and Spinks, introduction to The Spirit in Worship, xi–xxv.
- As Berger and Spinks note about BEM, it is “perhaps the most celebrated [ecumenical] document (with practical liturgical implications!)” (xvii).
- Jane Parker Huber, “Wonder of Wonders, Here Revealed,” in Glory to God, #489.
- Fred Kaan, “Out of Deep, Unordered Water,” in Glory to God, #484.
- Lynette Miller, “Now There Is No Male or Female,” in Glory to God, #493.
- As Methodist liturgical scholar Karen Westerfield Tucker asserts, “The sharing of hymnic repertoire unselfconsciously pushes the work of ecumenism forward as a witness to the churches—and skeptical world.” “Have Hymnals Become Dinosaurs?” The Yale ISM Review 1, no. 1 (Fall 2014), https://www.ismreview.yale.edu/article/have-hymnals-become-dinosaurs/.
- Book of Common Worship, 409, emphasis added.
- Or, as the introduction to the baptismal rite states, “The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response. The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith. These two forms of witness are one and the same sacrament.” Book of Common Worship, 404.
- “Certainly, Lord,” in One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (Chicago: GIA, 2018), #188.
- Adam M. L. Tice, “The Water Is Ready,” in Pulse and Breath: Fifty More Hymn Texts (Chicago: GIA, 2019), 107–09.
- Brooke and Scott Ligertwood, “Beneath the Waters (I Will Rise)” (2011 Hillsong Music Publishing).