April 6, 2020

The Evangelical Liturgy 16: Baptism

chbaptsI need to be very clear at the outset: we won’t be having a discussion on the theology of baptism. I will be talking about the place of baptism in liturgy, and I will be doing so from the standpoint of a credobaptist describing the Protestant liturgical worship service.

Most formal worship spaces, even simple ones, will have a baptistry or baptismal font. In those churches where the baptistry/font is a permanent part of worship architecture, there is a constant reminder of the place of baptism in the Christian life.

In my tradition, faith unites us to Christ, but baptism is the “confession” of Christ before men that initiates participation in the gathered people of God. The baptistry/font is frequently a part of worship as baptisms are performed and confessions of faith given in the waters of baptism.

Because baptism does not have a place in the “regular” liturgy of worship similar to the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, the inclusion of baptism and baptismal liturgy in worship may often be at the beginning or end of a worship service. This is not a rule, of course, and baptism can be placed at any place where the minister wants to emphasize the Gospel through baptism.

It is important that, in the credobaptist tradition, the one being baptized make a confession of faith prior to being baptized. Many churches have found these testimonies to be some of the most powerful moments of worship throughout the year.

A baptismal liturgy should bring out the meaning of baptism and give all present encouragement to renew their baptismal confession.

While churches baptizing infants will not have confessions or testimonies of conversion, they can incorporate testimonies of the meaning of baptism within their tradition.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to say the creed with the candidates for baptism there, in the water, and to baptize them as they affirm the faith?

Some churches baptize only once a year, but I would encourage those who can to baptize as often as possible to incorporate baptismal themes from the larger liturgy and the Christian year into worship.

The variety of baptismal theologies should have little impact on the place of baptism in liturgical life or in the use of baptism as a theme for corporate worship.

For example, Trinity Sunday has obvious baptismal connections as does Lent and Advent. The “new creation” that is born out of baptism points to both evangelism and discipleship. Of most importance is the fact that baptism is “the Gospel in water” in some way in every tradition.

The celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper together is a special and memorable time in worship. I have only experienced this a few times in my life. I’d like to do so more often.

It has to be said that some evangelical churches have done nothing less than bring embarrassment to the Biblical teaching on baptism by placing it in contexts that were questionable and in using innovations that are unwise and without authority. I won’t illustrate, but let’s be conservative with the liturgical and practical aspects of baptism, making its meaning and place one of real honor and connection to Jesus.

As a credobaptist, I lament the decline of baptismal theology and practice in our tradition and hope that baptism and the Lord’s Supper will find themselves at a center of liturgical renewal among Protestant evangelicals.

(A study of the early church and baptism would be helpful to everyone. See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the New Testament.)


  1. I find that churches seem to include baptism more often than the Lord’s Supper. I am not sure if that is due to proclaiming the gospel in that evangelical way, an issue of logistics, or some issue of what the Lord’s Supper is about.

    • Certainly true in many Baptist churches, because their constitution may say how often and when the LS is celebrated.

      • True.
        I am also thinking of the megachurches who proclaim/advertise baptisms, but will quietly have the LS at times other than Sundays (such as the semi-regular “believers” services).

  2. My church has recently taken the step of planning 4 baptismal dates into each year as a step towards placing baptism more prominently in our thinking and expectations. A small, but important step to recognise that baptisms should not be an occasional oddity, shoe-horned into services.

    I’m just waiting for the font/baptistry to take up a more prominent place in our worship setting, though with talk of a birthing pool-as-baptistry being purchase, my hope is maybe in vain. (Maybe there’s a new birth metaphor to be utilised though…)

    • I’m going to ask a question, not to debate credobaptismal theology, but just to understand. Mark H says that there are four baptismal dates in his church. Let’s say someone professed faith and wanted to get baptized before the next scheduled date. Do you believe that there is any detriment to his soul or spiritual growth to have to wait possibly three months for baptism?

      • No. Delaying baptism was quite common in various periods of Christian history. But I don’t support delays, simply because in some churches it can be months and I find that to be less than the glad response we should be modeling.

        • We were at a church where our daughter wanted to get baptised. She was 7, I think, at the time. I don’t remember the reasoning, but it had been 2 years since the prior baptism in the building (although every summer at family Bible camp, there was a lake baptism “en mass”). She didn’t want the lake.

          There was some discussion about whether Dad (I) should be permitted to baptise. Another child wanted his Dad to baptise him. Anyone we talked to couldn’t recall a non-pastor baptising his child (unless the pastor was the father of the child, of course).

          My child wanted me to baptise her and I was blessed to have had the opportunity. It took some hard discussion with some others, though. I’d encourage anyone who has a child who wished Mom or Dad to baptise him to go to bat for your child’s heart – and (if need be) do it among friends outside the liturgy if necessary.

          The church we were attending at the time was non-liturgical / not “high church” and had special Sunday evening baptism times outside of the morning service.

    • what if (and we hope this isn’t the case, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen) there are not any new Christians between the last baptismal service and the next scheduled one?

      I hate to think negatively, but I have been in churches in the past, that due to their small size – and despite their attempts at reaching the community – may not have had a conversion every single quarter…

      • I think scheduled baptisms on an annual calendar is a bit unusual. Most churches would be more flexible.

        • The ancient church seemed to have them once a year, at Easter. And catachumens might have to wait several years until the elders deemed them ready.

          • Which ancient church? … and “ready”? “deemed”? Good grief, the Ethiopian got dunked in the first pond they came across, and everywhere I read in Scripture it says baptism was immediate! “DEEMED”? Wow, I would REALLY not fit into that church.

            I detest with a passion “baptism classes” that must precede baptism, for the same reason. I would support mandatory classes AFTER baptism, but to force people to do them before baptism is just wrong in my opinion. The greatest thing in the world happens to a person, they want to publicly attest to their new faith by baptism, and the church is standing behind them with the reins going “WHOOAAAH THERE SINNER, you ain’t ready yet!”

            What?!?! Not ready?!?! This is the best time! Right now! Just like the Ethiopian! “See, here is water, what prevents me from being baptized?”

          • David Ulrich says

            I completely agree with Michael. I’m finding more and more that just because our “Church Fathers” set up a tradition, doesn’t mean that we should follow it, as in the case of baptism. Scripture is clear that when people came to faith in Christ, they were baptized! Paul tells each person that we should make our own calling and election sure, not some board of elders who cannot “weigh the heart.”

            If we were out preaching the Gospel in the streets and someone comes to faith in Christ, why not take them to the first fountain, swimming pool, or even bath tube, and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit right then and there? Isn’t that what happened in the time of Jesus and the Apostles? Why has baptism become so formal and ritualistic when there should be nothing formal about the pure joy at the knowledge that one’s sins have been completely forgiven and wiped out, and you are now following Jesus Christ and being baptized? I was baptized a month after the Lord saved me. How I wish I had been baptized the same day or day after!

          • Mandatory classes AFTER baptism? I don’t support mandatory anything. Mandatory doesn’t offer life.

  3. excellent post. thank you for taking the time to include baptism as a central element to liturgy. i wonder, have you seen an effective way of including a “reminder” or “renewal” of baptism on a weekly basis? just as many have wrestled with the question of how frequent is it appropriate to celebrate the Eucharist, i wonder if anyone is wrestling with how often we should be reminding our congregations, or performing, baptisms?

    • the sign of the cross is a good way to remind oneself of baptism in the ligurgy. you might want to do this in the invocation and the absolution. but it also is remembered when we confess the trinitarian creeds like the Apostles or Nicene.

  4. What does “baptismal liturgy” look like (for one who attends a body which leans toward the less than authoritative innovations)?

    Please also share how a combined celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper might look on a practical level, including how you would tie the two celebrations together? Thank you.

  5. You’ve thrown catnip in front of us Campbellites, Michael.

  6. imonk: At the church I attend the one being baptized enters the water and then is instructed by the Pastor to 1) tell us what your life was like before you met Christ. 2) tell us what your life has been like after you have accepted Christ. The stories that follow would fit into what used to be called “testimony time” and may be shared in attempt to illustrate the work of God and His saving grace but frankly most of them seem to really diminish what God has provided in salvation and how baptism points to that. Some of the stories are plain embarrassing. Does this practise fit in your understanding of the one’s “confession of Christ” in baptism? Isn’t it possible that the act (sacrament) of baptism stands on its own and speaks on its own in terms of the story that needs to be told. What are your thoughts on this kind of format in the baptism service?

    • I’ve been to marriages like that too, where instead of reciting the standard vows they make something up. Results vary, but rarely improve upon the old ritual.

    • That sounds horrible, especially since baptism is marks start of your Christian life, not towards the end.

      Since I was baptized about the age of 10 or 11, I wouldn’t have had any testimony.

    • As with many things, I think the concept or sentiment is nice (sharing your specific testimony) but in practice, I think it ends up being a negative thing. Presumably baptism should be taking place as soon after conversion as possible (like in Acts) in which case there’s not a lot of detail or depth of Christian understanding to share about “life…after you have accepted Christ.”

      I think this approach you describe fits in with other more “democratic” approaches to worship like having pastors or lay leaders pray extemporaneously rather than using written out prayers from a prayer book. (other examples abound like writing your own wedding vows as someone mentioned, having a general time in worship for people to share prayer requests or words of thanks and praise, etc). All well and good in my opinion, but in practice, it seems to me that the process degenerates into a man-centered event, where often the people who seem to need the attention the most or who are the most naturally talkative end up monopolizing the time and generally leaving the rest of the congregation feeling uncomfortable and hoping that it all ends soon.

      So because a lot of deeply devoted, intelligent, mature Christians have put so much thought into published prayers/orders of worship/baptismal ceremonies, I prefer to see those words and practices used without modification and leave more personal reflections and times of sharing for private gatherings.

    • That doesn’t bode well with me as a father of a baptised child. The reasons are simple from my perspective.

      My 7yo wasn’t a big drinker, wasn’t promiscuous, wasn’t into drugs or cutting or other self-destructive behaviors. She was SEVEN. Many kids (especially raised in the church) I doubt understand the depravity of which we’re capable – in thought and in action. And most “churchies” keep their kids sheltered from the evils of the world anyway. So, my 7yo daughter would be relegated to “I don’t yell at my sister any more” or something like that. 🙂

      And, if baptism is immediate – as it was in Scripture – then the child is not able to speak of “life after meeting Jesus”.

      Yeah, that’s not solid at all for child baptism – even in credobaptism.

  7. Great post. I had a very interesting class at Asbury this summer on the sacraments, and one of the things we talked about was the need for a “reaffirmation of baptism” liturgy; this is one in which the congregants are encouraged to actively renew their confession/vows as a church. Any thoughts?

    • I’m fairly sure most of the hierarchical churches (if I can so phrase it) do something similiar for Holy Saturday, e.g. the Anglicans and Methodists and Presbyterians, but this is the Catholic version: during the Vigil of Holy Saturday, the congregation as a whole renews our baptismal vows in the recitation of the baptismal promises.

      Wikipedia has a good article on this, giving the breakdown of the parts of the liturgy:


      Renewal of Baptismal Promises:
      V. Do you reject Satan? R. I do.
      V. And all his works? R. I do.
      V. And all his empty promises? R. I do.

      V. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth? R. I do.

      V. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father? R. I do.

      Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting? R. I do.

      V. God, the all-powerful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May he also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.

      R. Amen.

      • This is basically the baptism rite as outlined by Hippolytus which Robert Webber touches on in “Ancient-Future Faith”. I have observed many adult credo-baptisms in an Eastern Orthodox church. My kids were old enough to be credo-baptized in a Lutheran church, which also included the renouncing of the devil. There really is a natural place for baptism in liturgy. It seems to be a natural fit in EO churches, where becoming a catecumen is just part of the journey.

  8. “place of baptism in liturgy”, a completely new concept to me, and a welcome one. We were blessed with six baptisms this summer, in the neighbor’s pool. The testimonies were amazing. While there are times the whole ‘baptist denomination’ thing chafes, this one one day I was proud of my heritage, yes, my liturgical heritage. Thanks for the perspective adjustment, Imonk.

  9. A church I attended before moving away would have a primary baptism service once a year outdoors at a small river in the area. I really enjoyed that. They would typically have a few other baptism services indoors with a portable baptistery (They just built a new sanctuary that may have a permanent baptistery now). They also offered immediate baptism if someone requested it, although I don’t know if that ever happened.

  10. Imonk,

    What do you make of larger churches making baptism a seperate service say off in an anteroom or chapel like setting? I know that may be neccessary just because they baptize so many ( a good problem I guess), but are there any issues there that might come up?

    • No moral issue, but baptism should be as public as possible. It’s the nature of a public declaration/confession of faith and a congregation’s public reception of someone on behalf of Christ. Just one of many things being done that has some negative aspects to it.

      • That’s one thing I never got about baptismal pools in churches. Is the point of public, well, being in public?

        Of course, I just about killed our pastor when I got him to do outdoor baptisms in Wisconsin. In October. It was 38 degrees and the river was about 45 – 11 baptisms. After that we did baptisms in winter in the pool at the school we were meeting at.

        But really – if your in Florida, what’s the point of having indoor baptisms?

  11. Don in Phoenix says

    Raised by Pentecostals, educated by less-wacky evangelicals, and employed (as a musician) by Lutherans and Presbyterians, I made my peace with paedobaptism a long time ago (as long as it’s followed by Confirmation). As a confirmed Episcopalian, I hadn’t seen an adult baptism in a liturgical setting (plenty of baptisms when I’m visiting my Pentecostal family members every year for Easter), until recently.

    Because the credobaptist practice, particularly among “free” evangelicals, is quite varied, and often highly informal, I’ve seen it done well occasionally and most of the time, not. However, in my Episcopal parish three or four weeks ago, we had a young adult baptized according to the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for Holy Baptism, and I had to say that I’d finally seen it done right.

    Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces
    of wickedness that rebel against God?
    Answer I renounce them.

    Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
    which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
    Answer I renounce them.

    Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you
    from the love of God?
    Answer I renounce them.

    Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your
    Answer I do.

    Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
    Answer I do.

    Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your
    Answer I do.

    I was blown away, and the service for baptism had just begun (the full baptismal liturgy is available at http://www.bcponline.org, by clicking the link at the left for “Holy Baptism”).

    The part I miss the most, when among the nonliturgical crowd, is

    Then the Bishop or Priest places a hand on the person’s head, marking
    on the forehead the sign of the cross [using Chrism if desired] and saying to
    each one

    N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked
    as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.

    Liturgically, I am in full agreement with the Lutheran and Anglican placement of baptism after the sermon, in the place normally occupied by the Creed and Prayers of the People, as the baptismal liturgy includes those “confession of faith” elements, and the offertory following gives the participants plenty of time to get into position for the Eucharistic liturgy which follows.

  12. IN our practice, we incorporate one service each month which center on the Lord’s Supper and the
    expression of baptism. While we practice baptism occasionally on Sunday mornings, the Sunday
    evening events are very powerful expressions of these traditions of our faith. I was afraid for some
    time that the repetition would “dull the edge” of the experience…it has done just the opposite.

  13. “It is important that, in the credobaptist tradition, the one being baptized make a confession of faith prior to being baptized. Many churches have found these testimonies to be some of the most powerful moments of worship throughout the year.”

    Although it only take a few seconds, I thought the baptismal scene in the movie Tender Mercies was one of the most powerful moments of the worship service and of the movie.

    In my church, there have been times during an infant baptism where the whole church recites the creed in answer to the questions asked of the parents (do you believe in God, etc..). I always thought it worked and flowed very nicely.

  14. Christiane says

    Michael, you wrote this: “Most formal worship spaces, even simple ones, will have a baptistry or baptismal font. In those churches where the baptistry/font is a permanent part of worship architecture, there is a constant reminder of the place of baptism in the Christian life.”

    Yep. The ‘holy water’ font as we enter my Church is a baptismal font.
    We dip our fingers in and make the sign of the Cross.
    Even before we sit down and then kneel to pray, we have already honored our baptism into Christ, and, in making the Sign of the Cross, we have acknowledged the Trinity and the Redemption in an ancient symbolic prayer and gesture. Not bad for the first two minutes inside of Church.
    Very ‘Christo-centric’, I think.

  15. In background I’m an unreconstructed Campbellite (meaning my views are closer to old Alec’s than most of his other modern-day followers), but I spent 10 years in the original Vineyard church in Cincinnati. (They grew from 37 people to 6000, and planted over 20 other churches in two decades.) Baptisms there were more of a celebration than liturgy: often done on a Wednesday night in what they called a “Hosanna” service–singing, baptisms, and maybe a 5-minute message at the end. Having started the church in the years of the Bakker/Swaggert scandals, the senior pastor wanted no part of any personality cult, so he did not perform any baptisms or weddings. And since Vineyard practice does not require “clergy” to perform baptisms, many were immersed by those who had led them to Christ. Children were often baptized by their parents. Sometimes there might be half a dozen people in the water to baptize two. There wasn’t time for testimonies; they usually were baptizing two dozen or more, a few times 90 to 100 in one evening. The singing kept on during the baptisms, punctuated by cheering whenever anyone came up out of the water. And not all waited for the next Wednesday session; I knew one couple there who had baptized more people in the swimming pool and hot tub at their home than most of the churches I’ve known could claim in a year or two. Why didn’t they do baptizing on Sundays? They couldn’t take the time then; at one point they were running 7 services–two on Saturday evening, four on Sunday morning, and one on Sunday evening–and were forced to keep a tight schedule to prevent colossal traffic tieups. And if anyone is wondering, they got to be a megachurch, not by marketing ploys or slick packaging, but by doing a bunch of small things well.

    No, it wasn’t majestic or solemn, or aesthetically beautiful. But I’ve seen some beautiful services that did not manifest nearly as much of the power and glory of God.

  16. I was first baptised in a standard church baptistry at age nine, and I can remember my baptism being followed by a couple of half-hearted “amens” and, of course, the hand-shaking line people had to pass through in order to get out and beat the Methodists to the Chinese buffet.
    My second baptism in an industrial-size cattle trough at age 28 — which I felt was needed after the sewer of sin and nihilism I had just been pulled up out of — was greeted with a chorus of cheers, whoops, hollers, whistles, and a gigantic group hug (while I was still wet). This unabashed and unanimous show of joy and love from my church family meant a great deal to me, and it still means a great deal to me 11 years later.
    I’m certainly no liturgist, but I think some sort of corporate expression of joy and thanksgiving following a baptism is both proper and important– whether it’s of the more spontaneous variety or scheduled in as part of the liturgy (or both).

    • This response really spoke to me, RonP. My daughter’s baptism was really a non-event except for our family and the other family of the kid who wanted his father to baptise him. We celebrated together at Friendly’s. 🙂

      Sunday night’s baptism service moved straight into Youth Group, so not a lot of hanging out afterward.

      • That a baptism can be treated as a “non-event” in a church context really speaks to how relationally and emotionally detached much of Western Churchianity has become. How is it that we can just sit and observe in stoic silence while the Spirit that supposedly dwells within us is cheering?

  17. After all this, I am reminded that I was baptised in our university’s olympic-sized pool. It was a public setting with about 50-60 of my friends from the campus ministry I attended.

    The church we attended in Texas had some members with a creek running through their acreage. Beginning and end of summer was when we all headed down to the creek with our buckets of KFC and other picnicky foods for a few hours of fellowship and baptisms.

    Oh, I’m reminded also. Do NOT put a microphone in or above or around the baptismal pool. Not a good idea.

  18. My Presbyterian Church, and my Methodist Church before that, practiced infant and adult baptism right in the middle of the service. As for the Baptists I know here in Northern Illinois, it seems that most have a seperate service for baptism, usually a Saturday evening. My problem with the testimony is this. I was baptized as an adult. I always believed the gospel, as far as I can remember, but was too afraid to get up in front of the congregation and “testify”. To this day, my best friend is an unbaptized Christian in the baptist tradition. He is terrified of “testifying” to the congregation. Ask him what he believes and he’ll tell you. Ask him to be dunked in front of the congregation as a testimony to what he believes..fine! Ask him to articulate his faith to 100+ people before dunking…forgetaboutit.

    • Jesus said that we must be willing to confess Him before men — but, then again, He didn’t specify a number. And, according to the book of Acts, the Ethiopian eunoch confessed his faith and was baptised before an audience of just one.
      I guess what I’m saying here is that if your friend would really like to be baptised, and if there are no doctrinal hangups about it having to be done in a church building by a professional clergy member, then (in my opinion) there is no reason why your friend can’t be baptised before a more intimate gathering of close Christian friends and family. After all, swimming pools work just as well as baptistries.