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This post is the first in a series about a systematic approach to following up with families after infant baptism.
Baptism is a gift of God’s grace that unites us to Christ, marks us as beloved children of God, and incorporates us into Christ’s body the church. No matter when it occurs in a person’s life, baptism holds a special meaning for that individual, the family, and the church. For pastors, celebrating baptisms is one of the great privileges of serving God and God’s people.
Infant baptisms in particular present a unique ministry opportunity for several reasons. There is, of course, the joy of holding a little one and invoking God’s blessings on this new and precious life, calling upon the Holy Spirit to cleanse and claim this child for Jesus Christ, and anticipating the time when, by God’s grace and with the requisite moral and spiritual development, the child grows to be confirmed in the faith and to follow and serve Jesus Christ. Even before the application of the waters of baptism, a typical uncertainty accompanies the experience for the parents as well as the pastor. How will the infant respond once the handoff from mommy or daddy takes place? No one knows quite what that moment will bring—serene sleep, crying, a baby’s smile and giggle, or vomit that ends up on the pastor!
Another factor pertains to ongoing spiritual instruction and development after the actual baptism. While not limited to infant baptisms—since post-baptismal nurture is important for any person regardless of that person’s age at the time of baptism—this factor has particular significance in the case of infants who are baptized.
When an infant is baptized the parents (or baptismal sponsors) are not the only ones who make a commitment to raise this child to know and serve the Lord; the church makes a similar commitment. For the parents and the church to fulfill their respective roles, it is essential that the child be raised in the church.
Unfortunately, sometimes that does not happen: for various reasons not all parents follow through on the commitment they make at the infant baptism—not all parents actually raise their baptized children in the church—and sometimes congregations fall short of providing effective and sustained teaching for both children and parents about the nature of Christian discipleship. The results are not encouraging: missed opportunities for spiritual formation, in both the church and the home, and a truncated view and practice of infant baptism, disconnected from the life of faith that it is designed to engender and promote.
Hence there is a tendency for people to see infant baptism as simply a nice one-time event, complete with family pictures and tiny, commemorative outfits from previous generations, rather than a key part of a larger movement of God’s grace in the life of the child. What often goes overlooked is the vital connection between the baptism of an infant and a lifelong journey of faith formation and discipleship.
So, what can the church do to encourage and support parents in the holy task of raising children in the faith? How can congregations better fulfill their role of providing ongoing instruction to parents and children alike about the meaning of baptism and its connection to following Jesus, reminding a child of his or her baptized status, and lovingly holding parents accountable to the vows that they made at their child’s baptism?
This post is the first in a series about a systematic approach to following up with families after infant baptism. In this series, I will outline an approach devised by my grandfather, Rev. Bruce Knisley, a retired United Methodist pastor who refined it over his 43 years in full-time pastoral ministry and who later told me that he wished he had used an approach like this from day one. I have made some slight adaptations but have kept the essence of his strategy intact.
While there is obviously no perfect method, this system serves important instructional purposes. It presents regular reminders to both parents and the child of the meaning of baptism and celebrates the fact that the child has been baptized and is loved by God. It also contributes to the spiritual formation of the child as he or she grows year by year and moves closer to confirmation. This first post merely outlines the rationale for the system, and in the posts that follow I will share a systematic approach to infant baptism and beyond that I have found helpful—a system that could easily be adapted for use by pastors or lay leaders in another context. I hope you’ll stay tuned for more, and I welcome your feedback.