I came to know Christ in the fall of 1974 and I, along with many others who had done likewise that winter, waited to be baptized when the weather was sufficiently warm enough to permit us the opportunity . Then one chilly Sunday early in the month of April, I along with the others were baptized in a cold mountain stream here in mountains of southwestern Virginia. I can vividly remember the church members gathered on the banks of the stream, the hymns being sung, the pastor exhorting us from the Scriptures, telling us of the joy of following Christ and what our baptism pictured. He then prayed for us and along with the help of two other men of the church performed the baptisms. In addition to the church, there were family members, friends and neighbors present who watched the entire proceedings intently and received us warmly as we exited the stream. These are wonderful memories that are engraved upon our minds and hearts.
This was a common scene in those days, for on any given Sunday you might see churches gathered on the banks of streams and rivers while baptism was administered. But almost unnoticed that type of scene has quickly become a thing of the past for a number of reasons.
As we look through the Scriptures outdoor baptisms are readily seen in the opening chapters of the Gospels, the Book of Acts and referenced throughout the New Testament. Nevertheless, I am not particularly aware of any merit of performing baptisms outdoors or indoors. I am not condemning the indoor practice, as a matter of fact I have done them in both places in over 25 years of ministry. I realize that baptizing in streams, rivers, lakes and ponds was done primarily out of necessity in earlier times and that now we have become accustomed to more modern facilities. However, that facet of church life has all but fallen out of vogue in one generation within contemporary American evangelicalism.
A recent article in USA Today that dealt with this very subject caught my eye and although the theology was very poor the title of the article grabbed my attention: Outdoor Baptisms Dwindling. Here is the section that I found most interesting and gives three reasons for the change.
“Outdoor baptisms are rapidly disappearing in America. Once prevalent in the rivers and deltas of the South, the ritual has been nearly extinguished by indoor pools, mega-churches and modernization, researchers and ministers say. Only a handful of churches keep it alive. “It’s a feature of American Protestantism that is vanishing,” says David Daniels, professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.”
The article continues by saying:
“No one keeps statistics on outdoor baptisms, which are performed predominately by Baptists and Pentecostals. But officials at the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest grouping of Baptist churches in the USA, say of the 342,000 baptisms performed last year by its member churches, the majority were done indoors. “Most churches, even small ones, have indoor baptisteries,” says Rob Phillips, a spokesman for LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing and research arm. “That’s culturally the way folks do it these days.“
Gradually those little gatherings that I spoke of earlier began to vanish almost unnoticed and as the article states have been “nearly extinguished by indoor pools, mega-churches and modernization“. This shift in trends is summed up very well in one paragraph.
“In the 1950s, churches modernized to draw more parishioners and began constructing indoor pools for baptisms, Lee says. Later, as thousand-seat mega-churches began replacing smaller, rural churches, outdoor baptisms further dwindled, he says. “We now have a whole generation of churchgoers who grew up in mega-churches, where indoor baptisms are the norm,” Lee says. “Outdoor baptisms just don’t resonate anymore.” Shayne Lee – assistant professor of Sociology and African Diaspora Studies at Tulane University
So, supposing the article is correct, the churches 50 to 60 years ago saw modernization as a means of gaining a larger congregation and consequently began to build indoor baptisteries to accommodate their swelling numbers. Thus the smaller congregations who could not afford various modernizations began to diminish, but in addition the practice of outdoor baptisms gradually vanished as well.
Here are seven reasons we might want to consider outdoor baptisms a viable option when the weather is permissible. This list is not extensive but it may give way to some other considerations about the subject.
1. Let’s face it most people in our communities don’t associate the word “church” with real people, they associate “church” with a building. Outdoor baptisms allow the public to actually see a physical manifestation of a group of people who call themselves Christians outside of the confines of the four walls of a “church building” and gathered as a body.
2. “A picture is worth a thousand words”- performing baptism outdoors allows the public to see a physical manifestation of the gospel pictured in baptism. An outdoor baptism brings the gospel to focus and clearly sets forth the picture of the death, burial and resurrection. It attests to Christ work for us and also His work in us as believers. It opens doors for questions and opportunity to share the gospel of Christ.
3. Baptizing outdoors allows people to see that the church is not ashamed of the gospel it says it believes and that it places an emphasis on following Christ in baptism. I have been to many churches where baptism was hurried through or pushed to the end of the service. For those people who are submitting themselves to be baptised it is a very important day and should serve as a milepost in their walk with Christ and as a church we should make it an important issue as well.
4. Baptizing out-of-doors sends a message that being a Christian necessitates a public identification with Christ, the gospel and the local assembly. Many people have the idea that just going to church makes them a Christian, a baptism done in a public place reveals that to follow Christ is more than simply warming a pew.
5. Those people submitting to baptism in this way have an opportunity to publicly profess Christ before the church and before the world. They can invite friends and relatives who would not normally attend a church services.
6. Performing baptisms in this way enables the church to take their Christianity out in the open and publicly open the Scriptures, sing hymns, pray and administer baptism outside of the confines of the church building. This may give some of your members a whole new perspective on what it means to be a Christian. Members can invite those who would not normally attend a regular church service to come to see and listen.
7. When a church participates corporately in an act of public obedience to Christ and His word it allows them to bear the reproach of Christ and the gospel as a corporate body, thus creating unity and fellowship. This kind of “fellowship in the gospel” allows them to understand in a more vivid way that they are called out of this world and the reality that this calling creates.
If indeed “We now have a whole generation of churchgoers who grew up in mega-churches, where indoor baptisms are the norm,”. Then it is also very possible that most of the unbelievers that we come in contact with every day have never seen a baptism nor viewed the gospel, the church and the Christian in the ways that I have described above.TWalters, Pastor Wilderness Road Baptist Assembly Dublin, VA