Most lifelong United Methodists are baptized as infants. Infant baptism is not required and people can be baptized at any age. We also do not baptize people again if they were already baptized in a different denomination. We believe that baptism is the act of accepting the grace that is provided to us by Christ Jesus. This grace exists in any denomination, and is available no matter our background or faith. In the Methodist church, we also believe that the public act of baptism is and should always be done within the community of the church. It is not a private act meant to be about our personal salvation. It is a social act of adopting a child (or adult) into the family of Christ. This act is done by both the congregation and the person(s) accepting the water of baptism. So if a family chooses to have their child baptized, they are really making a commitment to let the church family help raise that child in the faith. Likewise, when the congregation says the words in the baptismal liturgy, they are committing to both the family and child that takes on those waters.
One of the greatest reasons for the decline of the modern church is that we have stopped taking this commitment seriously. This includes the family of the baptized, but it also includes the baptizing pastor and the church congregations who make their commitment. The most common sentiment I hear when people come to me to have their child baptized is that their grandparents want them to be baptized, or that they just think it's the right thing to do. What is missing, and what often doesn't get taught, is that the waters of baptism don't actually do anything important if all we do is sprinkle (or dunk) some water on someone and then never connect with them again. If a family comes in for one Sunday, and then never returns, or is never reached out to by the church again, what has really been accomplished? In my mind, very little. And if we teach that getting baptized takes care of some eternal promise of salvation, but then never asks or requires anything else of the baptized or the community, then we are teaching a false, or at the very least, an inadequate doctrine.
In the Bible, the image of baptism and joining a church is characterized as an adoption into a new family, the family of God. Ephesians 1:4-5 says "God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love." Imagine the process of adopting a child. A family fills out paperwork, gets checked out by the adoption organization through interviews and background checks. They pay enormous sums of money and go through an introduction process with the child. It takes great time and effort, and that's all before the child comes home to live with their new family.
Imagine going through this process of adoption, but then never actually joining that new family together? Imagine the paperwork getting signed, the money getting spent, and the introductions made, but then the child never joins the new family. They never bring that child to the dinner table, or show them their new room, or bring them into their new house. Imagine if the family forgets that they did all that work, and forgets the commitment they made to caring for that child? This has happened too many times to count in the church today.
We have lots of people in our church who were baptized at one time or another, who don't join us for dinner at the communion meal. We've lost a lot who don't come to the weekly family gatherings or participate in the many holidays where we gather together. Did they not take that adoption seriously, or did we not take it seriously? Have we not lived up to our end of the bargain, and not cared, or invited, or participated in life with them enough? I have a vision for every church I participate in and lead. That vision is to help people understand just how important the waters of baptism are. And not because of the water itself, but because of our act of sharing that water by adopting Christ's children. If we can't live up to that, then we cannot be the church Christ calls us to become. As we begin new family ministries such as our Sunday Night Family nights, our ecumenical youth group, and our children's Sunday school, how are you participating in the family? What is your role as an adopted member? Are you a mentor, a teacher, a supporter, someone who cleans up, sets up or organizes ? We have been called, invited and gifted to participated as baptized members. Let's bring the family together in new and exciting ways.