Ask Me: On Celebrating Conversion and Baptism

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I got two letters from readers in recent weeks asking about the how and when of celebrating someone coming to faith, and I found my answers being close enough that this post became a “toofer” 🙂

Splash - Emmanuel Szep (flickr creative commons)
Splash – Emmanuel Szep (flickr creative commons)

Dear Bronwyn,

I have a friend and coworker who I have been praying for for several years, particularly as she went through a deep depression. A few months ago, she hit “bottom” and I think around then she started visiting churches. Since then she is reading her bible, and has started doing things like posting verses on Facebook. She recently told me she’d like to be baptized. I asked her if she believed Jesus Christ was the Son of God, if He died for her sins, if He rose again, if she believed herself to be a sinner and needed Jesus (you know, the typical questions), all of which she answered yes to. In my head I was going crazy but we were at work so it felt weird to want to scream for joy.  It seems she didn’t have a “go down to the front and receive Jesus as your savior” kind of conversion but maybe more of a gradual drawing of the Holy Spirit kind of conversion and I want to get excited and do something but I don’t know what to do. How should I celebrate her becoming a Christian?     – S

Dear S,

How exciting for your friend, and for you! Your story reminded me of how I felt when a friend confided at work that she was pregnant after trying for a long time: I wanted to dance for joy and ask a million questions – but it wasn’t the appropriate time or place to bust out some dance moves, and so the moment passed with a polite, rather than a passionate response… 

The angels are certainly rejoicing in heaven over her, so I agree that some “on earth as in heaven” celebrations are in order too 🙂 There are many different ways to celebrate, but here are some suggestions for now: 

* Write her a letter! Tell her the story, in writing, of how you have prayed for her over the years and how exciting it has been for you to watch her take these steps. Encourage her and tell her that even though you couldn’t show it at the time, you’re thrilled! I’m sure she will treasure hearing it from you.

* If you’re a gift giver, a bunch of flowers, or balloons, or better yet – a favorite Christian book, might be a lovely gift to make things festive and acknowledge this big thing for her. One tip on the book: give her something that has been meaningful to you, rather than something you think she might need/want. Your personal vouchsafing for the book will be precious to her, and is not in danger of coming across as preachy.

* Ask her how you can pray for her as a new believer. If she is new to the faith, maybe she has never read the Scriptures with someone before. If you’re available for something like that – maybe she might like to read through a book of the bible with you and just talk through it? She’s at the beginning of such an exciting journey, and company always makes a new road easier to navigate.

* She’s expressed interest in baptism, which is the perfect way for her to “go public” with her faith, and for you in turn to make a public celebration of it. Check in with her on how that’s going. If it will be soon – maybe that’s the right occasion to present her with the letter and a gift? 

I’ll be praying for you both! What an exciting time. 

Dear Bronwyn,

I was baptized as an infant in the Catholic church as one of my parents was Catholic, but never got confirmed as I didn’t believe in the customs. In my 20s I came to a firmer faith, and as I had been baptized in infancy, the Anglican minister felt I should be confirmed rather than re-baptized. I am now at an evangelical church in the UK, where I’m told that Catholic infant baptisms carry a different meaning (in that they’re one of the things you need to do to get into heaven, like last rites). If that is the case, adult baptism apparently has a different meaning. Here’s my question: should I be re-baptized now?     -Sprinkled Once

Dear SO,

Tricky one! I would say my short answer is this: be baptized again if you want to, and if your community of faith would be supportive of it! Don’t do it because you feel you need to, or ought to – I think you have freedom in this regard. 

Here’s the longer answer as to why: baptism is a symbolic, public act. It is symbolic of being publicly recognized as belonging to a community of faith, and i particular, the community of the people of God, who were purchased and adopted into God’s family by Jesus’ death and resurrection (Cool explanatory pictures on that here).  Baptism is the wedding ring to the wedding ceremony. It is the certificate to adoption papers. And in your case, perhaps it would be similar to a vow-renewal ceremony.

Faithful, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians have deeply held and widely differing views on the meaning and mode of baptism, and I (for one), don’t think there is “one right answer” on this side of heaven on whether it’s better to baptize infants or adults, or both, nor on the question of how much water do you need for it to count as a baptism (just a sneeze-worth? or a good solid dunking?) There are so many faithful, wise, learned people who disagree on this issue that I think we are wise to go with the idea of a “bigger box” of answers, rather than trying to pin down one right way of doing things for everyone. 

My own experience is that I was dedicated as an infant by my parents (who were not professing believers) , then came to faith and chose to be baptized (by immersion, if that matters), as a teen. I later found myself in an Anglican church where infants were baptized, by sprinkling. I was a bit of an oddity. Now I attend a Baptist church, where only those “of age” can be baptized, and it involves a Whole Lotta Water.

When our children were born, part of me really would have preferred to Baptize them, a symbolic sign of their being included in God’s covenant community (rather than a statement of their personal faith), but as it happened – we were in a church that did not baptize infants, and so we chose the way of peace: to do why our community of faith did, and so we too dedicated our children and will let them choose to be baptized if they wish. 

But what if it were different? What if we’d been able to baptize them as infants? And what if they later wanted to be baptized by immersion? Or what if, like my husband, you were baptized as an adult – but only be sprinkling and not by immersion, and then you find yourself in a church where a sprinkling baptism “doesn’t count”? Would you be re-baptized then?

My counsel is the same: do it if you want to, and if it would be supported by the community around you as a celebrated public sign of your faith. I think submitting to the church you are in is important: if the public confession of faith is a significant aspect of how we understand baptism, then what the public thinks of baptism in general (and yours in particular) is significant in one’s decision making. What your church elders and pastor say are, I think, very significant in making this decision. I believe baptism should be a peace-making and celebratory thing, in keeping with the “spirit of the law”, don’t you think?

No doubt the issue of whether you belong to Jesus and the People of God was settled in eternity and has been celebrated by the angels. The question remains: do you feel the party on earth is still outstanding? If so, getting re-baptized could be a wonderfully exciting choice for you. Think of it as a “renewal of vows”, if you like 🙂 It doesn’t undo the first lot of vows, it just re-affirms how significant the relationship is.

Hope that helps.

Leave a Reply:

6 thoughts on “Ask Me: On Celebrating Conversion and Baptism”

  1. Tim and I recently had a long conversation about baby versus adult baptism. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!! As always, insightful and helpful.

  2. I love the pregnancy analogy. I find that the older I get, the more joy I feel about gradual realizations of faith than crisis conversions…I find myself celebrating the latter more robustly a couple years later.

    Also, I have my own ‘Bronwyn Asks’ question: What do you say to people right after they get baptized (like, you know, when they are still wet)? ‘Congratulations’ seems to subvert the basic principles of Pauline theology. ‘Welcome to the Family’ seems unbearably cheesy. ‘Oh my, if you only knew what this will mean, maybe you wouldn’t have just done that,’ also seems not quite in keeping with the occasion. Thoughts?

    1. Does “congratulations” really subvert Pauline theology? If congratulations means “well done! you accomplished it!” (as in a graduation), then I suppose so. But sometimes I think we mean congratulations to mean “yay! that happened for you!” (like a pregnancy announcement… where there is a tacit acknowledgement of divine agency). If congratulations for baptism falls into the latter, then maybe it could work.

      “Welcome to the family” would be cheesy depending on how you said it, I suppose.

      “Maybe you wouldn’t have done that” reminds me of the day we got married and went to a local beach to have wedding photos taken. There were many people on the beach enjoying the sunset, and many passers-by, seeing our wedding regalia, came up to us and congratulated us. One guy, however, took it upon himself to block our path as we were leaving the beach and to say to my husband: “this is the biggest mistake of your life!!!” #issues

      So what to say? Maybe you could do the “active listening thing” and ask a question: “This is a significant day – how are you feeling?” (which acknowledges the significance and shows interest and care). You could say: “I’m so glad I got to witness that. What a great day.” Or: “Thanks for sharing that with us. It’s always encouraging to see people publicly celebrate….”

      All of those could go the way of cheese, though….

  3. Great post, Bronwyn! I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant and went through the ceremony of Confirmation, but that ceremony didn’t mean anything as the teachers only seemed interested in the form rather than the substance. So, after God turned our six month sailing trip across the Pacific from a sight seeing journey into a faith journey, my pilot light faith was fanned into full furnace and Todd came to faith for the first time. We ended up joining an Anglican Church which performs infant baptisms. After discussing it with the pastors, we decided to have “A reaffirmation of baptismal vows” — even says that on the certificate — with a full dunking in the Pacific Ocean! And it was a public celebration of our private faith.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Bronwyn. I agree with what you’ve written, especially the part about having “a bigger box” of baptismal choices. When our children were babies, we chose infant baptism. In light of our own re-affirmations, I knew I would encourage them to choose for themselves whether or not to be baptized again. So far, our daughter has chosen to do so and that without our prompting. Both times, as a 7-month-old and as an older child, she was fully immersed! We woke everyone up the day we had the priest fully immerse our baby!

    1. I LOVE that your church had a name for it: a reaffirmation of baptismal vows. That is PERFECT!!!
      And as for a full immersion of a baby – I have never heard of that, and can only IMAGINE the caterwauling 🙂

      1. I think it got a lot of people to sit up straight and pay attention! I bet some were thinking, “What are they doing to that baby?” She had already been in swim lessons and had already had several immersion experiences. She came up smiling!

        We tried the same with our son at two months old. But my husband had misunderstood how long the water would be sitting before use and accidentally made it much too warm. The pastor, being a good dad and grandpa, improvised on the spot and scooped water over our son’s head. Baptism practicalities!

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