Giving Up Infant Baptism as a Sacrament but Keeping Infant Baptism

What if we give up infant baptism as a sacrament? I don’t mean Methodism should become believer’s baptism only or should stop doing them. I imagine we could carry out many infant baptisms as we do weddings. Nowadays, weddings are simply quasi-religious ceremonies we agree to perform on behalf of the state (or, as a ‘service to the community’) for those couples who want more intimacy than a signing in the registry office, but not at the expense that many hotels/other venues charge.

Churches see weddings as a ‘reaching out’ opportunity and even if the couple has no interest in faith or will not ever come back to the church, I generally have a good time meeting the couple and it’s a fun day. All I ask is for the opportunity to share my understanding of Christian marriage (as an egalitarian!) and that they don’t ask to remove the Christological language. I believe that the couple intends to keep the vows they make to each other and love each other. But in most cases no one pretends this more than a ‘secular union’.

While infant baptism serves no state function as weddings do, many seek out having their children ‘christened’ (baptismal language rarely if ever enters in). I don’t get that many requests, as often people find their way to the Anglican church before ever getting around to the Methodists. But even some of Methodists colleagues have talked about the wonderful experiences and people truly seeking to understand what’s going on in some way.

I haven’t had those experiences. Most of mine have been done because they want to get the kid in a faith school, want to appease grandmother, or simply think it’s the done thing. As far as the vows, they of course want to love their children (I have not doubt about it!) but have no real thoughts about what it means to bring up the child in the faith and only a handful of the churches could carry out their vows to assist the child (not all churches have an active Sunday school or other children’s activities). Nor as far as I have seen are parents bothered that the churches don’t have the resources to do this.

An alternative that’s been floated is to talk about having a service of thanksgiving. What parents want is for a time to come together to celebrate the family – and why wouldn’t the church want to be a part of it? But, when I say it’s not a christening and there’s no water involved, we go right back to baptism. Because I struggle with the ‘if it moves baptise it’ understanding, I have felt the need to defend baptism in some way – even if in the end I comply.

So, why don’t we simply stop worrying about where it takes place (in church) and when (in worship)? Why don’t we focus on the parents loving the child and not really worry about what happens with the faith side of it? Why don’t we adapt the service to one that simply focuses on that love and God’s love for the child? Then we could drop the language of bringing someone into the church and drop the vows that keep them trying to live up to that language. It could provide a moment of reaching out to the family with God’s love, giving the family the service they want, but not push baptismal theology to breaking point.

Do you have any thoughts?

Invitation to Shared Memory

Two things converged on me today that have me thinking about evangelism. The first is earlier today I was reading Jane Williams‘s article on the Guardian website discussing Genesis (5 part series beginning here). While Jane Williams is always excellent to read, what caught my attention were the comments. They were primarily atheists (with a smattering of people interested in religion generally). One particular commenter kept asking could Jane prove God exists and if not why should we take any notice of Genesis if there isn’t a god.

The second thing was tonight at our Circuit Meeting, I read a reflection by Ken Carter on the church’s liturgical year that compared it with other calendars we use (e.g., the sports calendar and civic calendar). On the sports calendar Carter writes:

There are sacred spaces (Fenway Park and Cameron Indoor Stadium are but two examples), secret societies (betting services, fantasy football), and remembrances of shared history (for example, the remarkable Ken Burns PBS series on Baseball, updated last fall). It is not unimportant that parents pass the importance of the sports calendar along to their children.

Passing along sports tradition is a way of passing down shared memories. I grew up on stories of Bear Bryant, the legendary foot ball coach at the University of Alabama. I have been known to use ‘we’ when talking about Alabama memories, even when talking about what happened to ‘us’ at the ‘Punt, Bama, Punt‘ game, which happened two year before I was born. The stories of Bama football rank only second to the stories of Jesus in quantity and influence in stories my dad told me growing up. The sports stories have been included me into a family that makes their memories my memories, too. But, I have always grown up with these stories.

As I was reflecting during the Finance report (my apologies to our extremely capable circuit treasurer), my mind drifted to those commenters on the Guardian’s articles. I realised what a strange task Christians have when it comes to a very secular culture. Maybe the commenters on the Guardian website are a small sliver of British culture, but it did make me realise their very secular nature. And then we want to ask them to take on a book like Genesis as their shared memory with us! I tried to think about it as if I was one of those commenters who grew up not taking it for granted that Genesis has something to say to us about God (or indeed that God exists)! The question kept running through my mind, ‘why would they take Genesis in as scripture?’ It really is an odd thing to go from not believing in God to a belief in not only God but that these stories shape your identity in this God.

Back to the sports memory, often one will adopt the shared memories of a sports team and at times change ‘allegiances’. Usually this happens through participation. For Valentines Day a few years back, I got April tickets to the Duke-NC State game. When I told her this in November, she was unimpressed. Just after Christmas, she went to her first game and realised what a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium meant: joining in the cheers, the community of other fans, and of course the game. All of a sudden, Valentine’s Day couldn’t get here fast enough, and she has been a committed Duke fan since that night. She took on the memory of Duke’s past. But it was through participation, not from stories handed down to her from birth, that Duke’s memories became shared.

It may be a loose analogy, but it reminded me of something Will Willimon said in an interview,

From my experience and as the gospels portray it, following Jesus [comes before knowing Jesus]. The first thing Jesus says to people is, “Follow me.” He doesn’t say, “Understand me, think about me or get a good concept of me.” He just said follow me, and the amazing thing is people did, even when they didn’t know who he was or where he was going. Jesus unpacks that in the gospels.

In other words, knowing Jesus comes from participation in him. I don’t know if this would bring the atheists on the Guardian website closer to thinking about God, but it may signal that if we start with Genesis and expect full belief in it, that may be the wrong way to go about it. The point where anyone gets to know Jesus will be in the participation, and that may begin at birth or through some in-breaking where one hears the call to participate. In any case, it will have to be God that does the drawing to himself. We are to testify to God and model what it means to follow Jesus, while we are still getting to know him.

If you have to name it a ‘Fresh Expression’, then is it really one?

Looking at some of the activities listings on many church notice boards, I have seen a few that list an event as a ‘Fresh Expression’. Fresh Expressions is a movement(?) that encourages churches to find new ways (or ‘fresh expressions) of being church for people who have no contact (and in increasing cases, never had contact) with inherited church. Often, but not always, they are aimed at young families. The intent is to give an encounter with the gospel in an atmosphere in which they are familiar (as opposed to sitting quietly and singing hymns and listening to sermons).

It seems a little counterintuitive to me to name it a fresh expression when that’s what it is supposed to be.  Fresh Expression has no real meaning to those who would come (any more than church would). Why not find a name for it that excites and tells something about what you’re trying to do?

My Own Personal Jesus… what is the message here?

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Your Own Personal Jesus

I saw this sign today while visiting Wells-next-the-sea (on the North Norfolk coast). It was on the board inside the churchyard for the Evangelical Congregational Church Centre. I can’t figure out if they are advertising a programme, giving a ‘thought for the day’, or trying to say that the church is the ‘personal Jesus’.

With no referent, I assume they are trying to reach out to those who need someone to hear their prayers and need someone to care for them. Not necessarily bad in itself, I suppose. But is this the reason for the church’s existence?

I guess this is why I have been thinking about hell and universalism this week. Without hell, it seems the church has lost a primary motivation to do to mission. It also seems that we struggle to find our reason for existing. So, we are now here to let people know we are ‘there for them’ (which reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine try to ‘be there for’ the couple who are fighting and they are trying to break them up under the pretense of caring for them).

Leading two churches worried about their future, I am struggling to article a vision for mission in a new era. I don’t think hell is useful anymore, but certainly our mission must be broader than ‘being there’ for others (again, not bad in and of itself, but not enough on its own). Any thoughts?

Is Hell Useful in Evangelism?

Since I posted my throughts on the ‘evangelical
universalist’, I have been thinking about hell.
I don’t have a lot of scholarly research on
hell and its uses in the Bible. Perhaps I need
to do some over the next few weeks, especially
if I am posting on it. But, I have come to some
conclusions about hell in evangelism.
Even if I am wrong about hell (i.e., it is an
actual place of eternal torment in which people
are sent there as their punishment for not
believing in Jesus), I still have to wonder
about its effectiveness in evangelism. Here
they are:
1. If ever it was a good idea to preach hell as
a means to bring people to conversion, there
seems to have been some sort of understanding
among even the non-believers that there was
such a place. For instance, I am teaching my
daughter to look both ways before she crosses
the street. For this to have any impact, she
has to have some sort of understanding that
there are cars that drive at highspeeds that
could seriously harm her.
2. Therefore, Hell is only a deterent if one
actually believes that such a place exist. If
someone doesn’t believe in God, then why would
she or he believe in hell? Certainly, if
evangelising an atheist (or an adherent of some
religion that has no equivalent), the person
can say, ‘I don’t believe in hell.’
3. Then, the conversation must move from God to
hell. Evangelism then becomes convincing the
person about hell and then the conversation can
turn to God.
So, in an attempt to get someone to believe in
a good, loving God, one would have to get the
person to believe in a place of eternal torture
first. And then get him or her to belive this
good, loving God would send him or her if that
person doesn’t believe in God.
Perhaps those that would want to emphasise
God’s holiness (God’s inability to have sin in
God’s presence) think I am being flippant. But,
I believe evangelism is more about the good
news of God’s reign in love. The story, over
and over, in the Bible is the story of God’s
grace toward those who have time and again
turned away from God. We stand up to [BNP
Leader] Nick Griffen and his hatred because we
believe in the love God has for all people. As
much as we wish Nick would go away, we are at
the same time calling for his conversion and
not simply his silence (admittedly, this is
harder to do!). This is why we preach God’s
love and grace rather than a place of eternal
torment – because that is what God emphasises
in God’s story. God, through the continual
sending of love, converts us and makes us holy.

Since I posted my throughts on the ‘evangelical universalist’, I have been thinking about hell. I don’t have a lot of scholarly research on hell and its uses in the Bible. Perhaps I need to do some over the next few weeks, especially if I am posting on it. But, I have come to some conclusions about hell in evangelism.

Even if I am wrong about hell (i.e., it is an actual place of eternal torment in which people are sent there as their punishment for not believing in Jesus), I still have to wonder about its effectiveness in evangelism. Here they are:

1. If ever it was a good idea to preach hell as a means to bring people to conversion, there seems to have been some sort of understanding among even the non-believers that there was such a place. For instance, I am teaching my daughter to look both ways before she crosses the street. For this to have any impact, she has to have some sort of understanding that there are cars that drive at highspeeds that could seriously harm her.

2. Therefore, Hell is only a deterent if one actually believes that such a place exist. If someone doesn’t believe in God, then why would she or he believe in hell? Certainly, if evangelising an atheist (or an adherent of some religion that has no equivalent), the person can say, ‘I don’t believe in hell.’

3. Then, the conversation must move from God to hell. Evangelism then becomes convincing the person about hell and then the conversation can turn to God.

So, in an attempt to get someone to believe in a good, loving God, one would have to get the person to believe in a place of eternal torture first. And then get him or her to belive this good, loving God would send him or her if that person doesn’t believe in God.

Perhaps those that would want to emphasise God’s holiness (God’s inability to have sin in God’s presence) think I am being flippant. But, I believe evangelism is more about the good news of God’s reign in love. The story, over and over, in the Bible is the story of God’s grace toward those who have time and again turned away from God. We stand up to [BNP Leader] Nick Griffen and his hatred because we believe in the love God has for all people. As much as we wish Nick would go away, we are at the same time calling for his conversion and not simply his silence (admittedly, this is harder to do!). This is why we preach God’s love and grace rather than a place of eternal torment – because that is what God emphasises in God’s story. God, through the continual sending of love, converts us and makes us holy.

Unchurched prefer traditional buildings?

Daniel Hixon at Gloria Deo points to a study that reveals younger unchurched prefer the look and feel of traditional church buildings. Lifeway, who did the study, seems shocked and Daniel seems to make more of the study than I do.

The popularity of the traditional/gothic building among younger unchurched people was related to a broader cultural trend I have been trying to point out on this blog: many younger people (including younger evangelicals) are looking for more of a sense of historical connectedness and transcendance in their religious experience … I suspect the fact that postmoderns/millenials are very symbol and icon savvy is connected with this shift as well.

I don’t want to say that aesthetics are unimportant. We discussed this a lot last week in class. Planning a church building should include more than practical considerations. I even would take into account what Bishop Wright said about simply moving into a building that carries with it memories of its past (the example he used was that of a former cinema converted to a church when his diocese has lots of large buildings that could have been bought). Of course, places can be transformed into sacred spaces, but that’s not the point here.

Still, this survey’s results conveyed what unchurched people thought. However much they like the architecture, they don’t go. Well, they do but likely not for worship. Cathedrals here can charge anything from £5-10 and people will pay to go in. These style of buildings are quite popular for weddings here.  Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island decried the lack of pews in Lincoln Cathedral (which use folding chairs that are easily removed) because it detracted from the beauty of the church. Yet, I read no interest in spiritual matters. I suspect that the preference for traditional buildings for unchurched has more to do with their perceived aesthetic and historical interest. I don’t think we can count on this to be a point of evangelism. Also, for the stories of people who like this sort of building, I can point to other stories of people terrified to go in them because of their religious connotation.

Unchurched do go into the ‘temples of consumerism’, the coffee shops, the pubs, etc. I don’t think they go there because they intend to worship there, nor do I think Christians should copy their layouts simply because that’s where people go. It is worth looking at why people gather in these places.  Traditional architecture has the problem of boxing us in. Large pulpits and pews don’t provide the place for people to talk in small gatherings as the coffee shops and pubs.

I have long thought that churches should at least downplay (if not abandon) the attractional model of evangelism and mission. If mission includes being sent out, then why we do plan mission with the intention of getting them to come to us? I still say we don’t need pews, but perhaps rather than making our churches look like coffee shops we need to go there.

Creating sacred space includes more than what the building looks like.  It includes creating community. Something I find hard to do in the traditional buildings. I do hope we can create a sense of sacred through liturgy and symbol, but I also think people are looking for a place to belong.

What Kind of Youth Work?

One of my churches has the opportunity to do some youth work. A local woman approached me about getting the church involved with finding ways to reach out to the kids who roam the streets of the village. She isn’t part of any organisation, but has stopped to talk to the kids that hang around, getting to know them, and asking them what they want to do. I don’t know if she has any religious beliefs, but feels the need to be attached to a larger organisation.

I think this person has a great idea about reaching out to the kids. And I have to be honest, I see in her a challenge to myself and the church in that she is doing what we are called to be doing. But, I have been wondering what it will mean to have the church’s name attached to it? Will the nature of the work change? The best I can tell, there seems to be two approaches:

  1. No faith aspect whatsoever: the major thrust here seems to be let’s get people across the door and offer them hospitality. Whilst I understand this approach, I am not sure how what we would do here is that different from a social work programme (I mention this the other day in my concerns about the Methodist Church).
  2. Full-frontal evangelism assault: Perhaps an overstatement, but in this type everything done is to present the kids with the gospel and make a decision. Maybe this is the overstatement because I have seen the former more so than the latter, so I haven’t seen anything else done well.

For me, I want there to be some sort of goal (for lack of a better word) that people encounter the gospel with a view to discipleship. From one person who I have discussed this with, the goal is not make the young people Christians. I have said that if that means what we normally think of as Christians (Sunday morning Sunday school attending, members of the church), then I quite agree. But, if we mean by Christian a new way of being one – one that even may break from past Methodism, I don’t see that as a bad goal (knowing that not everyone will make that journey).

I’ve not discussed any of this with the person interested in doing the youth work, so I don’t know her reactions to what it would mean to add a faith element to it. That may not be what she has in mind at all. If so, what does that mean about our involvment?

So, I am looking for help: is there a way to balance between the two, or should I just count of people coming into the church and hope that God reaches them through our outreach (albeit without talk of faith)?

A Call from Jehovah’s Witnesses

This afternoon there was a knock on the door.  Rarely does anyone call on me without letting me know, so I didn’t know who to expect.  I opened the door and I saw two elderly women standing there.  I then noticed the book they carried.  Knowing that Methodists, Anglicans, and Congregationalists rarely make this kind of house call, I knew it was Jehovah’s Witnesses.

They said there they were just going around spreading messages from the Bible.  I don’t know what look I had, but the lady who was speaking suddenly stopped and said, ‘Is the Bible the sort of thing you’re interested in?’  I told them I was a Methodist minister, and asked what church they were from (knowing the answer).  They told me, and the lady who first spoke said that she used to be Methodist.  I said I was sorry we lost her.

Then, she said that she is very interested in people’s beliefs and opinions and wanted to know what I thought happened after death.  I said my beliefs are a little strange in that I don’t believe people ‘go to heaven’ when they die, but wait for the resurrection as Jesus was resurrected.

The seemed a little caught off gaurd and said, ‘That’s what we believe.’  And what about the earth?  Well, I said that I believed it would be re-created into a new creation.  They nodded, and one lady handed me the little pamplet ‘Life in a Peaceful New World’.  I did admit that I was committed trinitarian, and they would not likely change my mind about that.

I don’t know if this surprised me or not.  I think a friend from Divinity School once encountered them and found out they believe in the resurrection quite strongly.  I think growing up, most people I knew got hung up on people saying that they didn’t believe one when to heaven when they died.  If that’s so, I know from experience people don’t tend to listen to the full story from me, either, when I say that (i.e., I believe we will be resurrected like Jesus to eternal life – just in a new creation than in ‘heaven’).

She said that she was surprised that so many ministers didn’t know their bibles.  Some had even been quite mean to them.  They spoke for a few minutes more about a number of issues, including women in the ministry being wrong (which I thought ironic, given that they were two women intent on teaching anyone).  In the end, I decided not to engage.  Having been what may appear to them receptive, that might give me a repeat visit.

Still, it was nice to talk theology again (outside of Disciple and the blog, I don’t get to often), and I believe them that they were interested (if only for evangelism purposes).

Culture Shock: There’s a Whole Lotta Jesus Going on!

I forget how ingrained Christianity is in the southern culture.  Let’s lay aside for the moment the debate over ‘civic religion’ (see my friend Wyman at Walking Together for his blog on a Stanley Hauerwas prayer) and questions of how people confuse Christianity with being an American.  Still, it’s everywhere.  Many more people here are involved in church and will use ‘church language’ in their natural conversations.  Church is simply taken for granted as a part of people’s lives down south in a way that would be completely foreign to many of my neighbours in Great Britain.

For instance, two days ago I went to the dentist in Alabama.  I had a very lovely dental hygenist who talked me out of bolting for the door (I had a bad childhood dentist and haven’t really recovered, so it takes a lot). She was wonderful and put me at ease.  Anyway, as I was explaining to her what I was doing in Great Britain, she told me she was a member at a United Methodist Church and then said, ‘It’s great that you feel God has blessed you in that way.’  That’s not a typical response I’m used to.  I usually get a blank stare and an ‘Oh.’  (Not from those who are in church, and at times other questions do follow.)

Welcome to South Carolina!

Welcome to South Carolina!

Then there was our stop at the South Carolina Welcome Centre Center.  I went to the information desk and asked for a SC map.  She asked me to sign the book, which I did (writing in my place of origin as England).  I then noticed that the person above had written in the comments, ‘Smile!  Jesus loves you!’  I decided to look around and see if I could identify the person who did it.  Sure enough, I could!  Not far a way from the desk was a man, a little older than myself, wearing a Jesus t-shirt. Similarly, driving down the interstate (motorway), I saw a truck with ‘John 3:16′ on the back.  No, not written out – just the reference.

Which makes me wonder:  why do I roll my eyes when I see something like that?  (Honestly, I perhaps would have rolled my eyes at phrases like my dental hygienist said, but I was grateful for the support – she had heard that I hated the dentist.)  I’m a Christian, and I believe Jesus does indeed love everybody.  So, why do I have such a problem with this harmless, though likely ineffective, form of witnessing?  Does it hurt anyone?  It does make assumptions which increasingly can’t be made any more – like exactly who is Jesus and what John 3:16 says.  Am I being too hard on people when I think that quoting an oversimplified colloquialism about smiling comes close to doing what James tells us not to?  While John 3.16 is a great verse and a great summary, can we expect people to grasp that story with one verse when they have no connection to it?  Both seem to believe that preaching the gospel can come in a disembodied form that does not need any personal encounter.