By Ken Sehested, the curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action
Last week I wrote a quick note to my friend Kyle, who gets as excited about baptism as I do, to share the news.
“We’re baptizing seven of our youth group this coming Sunday. Is it OK to brag about this?”
“Yes,” he responded.
Our congregation hasn’t always had a large youth group; nor are we a large assembly. When we began 17 years ago, we named as one of our priorities to be a child-friendly church. And we do fairly well.
But like so many congregations, about the time high school rolls around, many of our young lose interest in all things churchly. (So don’t write to ask about our “secret.” We can only stand in awe and thanksgiving at the vitality in our midst.)
I will say, however, that instructing, and being instructed by, our children is the most labor-intensive work a congregation does. Remember that when you do church budgeting of time and money.
Nurturing the faith of our young is the most important thing we do. Surely this involves insisting that freedom is more than the choice between an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy.
Our failure is not that we ask too much, but that we ask too little. Last Sunday night, after braving the chilly water, the first thing our youth did was to emerge to serve communion to the gathered witnesses.
As a founding co-pastor, the refrain to which I returned as much as any other was this: Whether we grow, in membership or budget, is neither here nor there. Those statistics do not indicate much more than how good we are at marketing. And marketing has little to do with evangelism, with calling people into the community of faith on the Way.
As our motto frames it, we discover and respond to who we are, and to Whom we belong, by “seeking justice, practicing peace, and following Jesus.”
What is important, however, is that we communicate our vision as passionately, intelligently, and convincingly as possible, attested by a lively, risk-taking, mercy-mending company of prayer, praise, discernment, and practice.
The recovery of baptismal integrity is the believing community’s greatest challenge. As it stands, the dying and rising ritually proclaimed in baptism mostly provokes avoiding and shuffling.
As careful readers of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth know, the Apostle’s teaching about being “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17) results not in a solitary “new creature” (as the King James version has it) but a “new creation.” It’s not our hungry little egos that are bolstered by this transformation. What is transformed is the lens by which we encounter and engage the world in all its beauty and its agony.
“Following” is a more important word to us that “believing.” The latter is done easily, and singly, from a recliner; whereas the former is communal—we catch courage from each other—and it requires putting some skin in the game.
Which, once upon a time, is what baptism meant—a risk-your-assets conviction. It is, in a very real sense, an act of sedition against a disordered, dismembering world that believes eating, or being eaten, are the only options.
Faith in the manner of Jesus certainly involves a sense of destiny, immersed in a beatific vision of what is to come. But it abides in conflict with the current rule of manifest destiny. Instead of purging the meek, the stranger, the barren—others of every sort—baptismal obedience entails privileging their voices, recognizing that our own salvation is bound to theirs.
This is the church’s legitimate boast, that it has issued the call to its young; it’s principle glory, that they have heard and heeded.
Baptism isn’t a transactional arrangement or contractual accord. There’s no getting right with God.
There’s only getting soaked.
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Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action. (24 September 2018)