Moist & Methodist: Baptism in the UMC

Of the researchstudies on spiritual practices in The United Methodist Church that were suspended when my job got eliminated at the General Board of Discipleship the one I was most disappointed by was our look at baptism.  Following twelve years after the adoption of “By Water and the Spirit” by our General Conference, this research offers both a snapshot of how United Methodist leaders view and understand baptism, as well as a way of seeing what impact our denominational study in the 1990s has had.

baptismOur initial survey included 471 United Methodist pastors, divided into three categories:  pastors having served for more than 20 years (212), pastors having served 7-19 years (141), and pastors serving less than 7 years (118).  This arbitrary division was set in place to see if thinking and/or practices about baptism have shifted in the past two generations.  Interestingly, a few distinct differences do emerge, though no firm conclusions can be drawn based on what we learned.  Also, we kept track of pastors who came from a faith tradition other than United Methodist or its antecedents to track theological differences.  These were less pronounced and virtually inconsequential.

Additionally, a survey was conducted of 1,655 laity leaders across the denomination concerning their understanding of baptism.  Special effort was made to create a diverse response pool, and if anything we erred on the side of both racial/ethnic and age minorities.  The percentages of African Americans (14%), Hispanic/Latino (13%) and under the age of 40 (58% — we especially wanted to talk to people who have had children baptized more recently) are all much higher than either church or national demographic ratios.  Based on the consistency of responses across all ages and races, we believe there is negligible bias.

That said, the fundamental conclusions are dramatic and simple.  98.3% of the total sample — both clergy and laity — believe that baptism is an essential and non-negotiable aspect of the Christian life.  Baptism is a must for anyone wanting to be Christian.  No pastors and only 36 lay people say that baptism is not necessary in order to be a Christian.  However, why it is important varies greatly among clergy and laity.

Clergy are almost evenly divided into three main understandings of Christian baptism:

  1. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on the individual as God’s blessing, and once offered can never be rescinded. (165, or 35%)
  2. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on individuals by a faith community which receives the person into fellowship and promises nurture and support for the Christian journey.  (160, or 33.9%)
  3. it is a form of “spiritual Scotch-garding” that protects the individual/infant from evil and sanctifies the person as a child of God.  (146, or 30.9%)

Both 1. and 3. above define baptism as an act done for an individual (65.9%), not fundamentally as a sacrament of a community of faith (33.9%).

On the laity side, #3 shifts to the top spot by a huge margin.  The basic understanding of baptism is as spiritual protection for infants.

  1. it is a form of “spiritual Scotch-garding” that protects the individual/infant from evil and sanctifies the person as a child of God.  (1,175, or 70.9%)
  2. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on the individual as God’s blessing, and once offered can never be rescinded. (345, or 20.8%)
  3. it is a rite of initiation into the Christian life conferred on individuals by a faith community which receives the person into fellowship and promises nurture and support for the Christian journey.  (135, or 8.1%)

What does it mean when only one-in-twelve of our lay leaders see the sacrament of baptism as a corporate (rather than an individual) experience?  Our baptismal services are very clear that there is a mutual vow made before God and with one another.  Both the newly baptized and the community of faith bear responsibility, each to the other.  The lack of understanding appears simply explained:  less than ten percent (159, or 9.6%) of active church members remember any teaching being offered to the congregation about the sacrament of baptism.  (Compare this to the 131, or 27.8% of clergy who claim that they teach the congregation about baptism on a regular basis.)

shellFurther confusion and lack of clarity may rest in some of our general approaches to baptism:

  • while 80% of pastors require a meeting with a family prior to infant baptism, only 46% do a sit-down orientation and explanation of what baptism is and means.
  • 76% of pastors report that they will baptize any child, whether the family has ties to the church or not; 96% will baptize any child related to an existing church member (though the child and his or her family may have no direct ties); only 14% place any kind of expectation on the family of the child to be baptized that they should become active or involved in the community of faith.
  • 44% of pastors say they will do a baptism outside of the church; 51% say they will do a baptism apart from a normally scheduled service of worship; and 57% say they will do a baptism without any other member or representative of the congregation present.
  • 79% of pastors do not differentiate between “baptism,” “christening,” and “dedication.”  60% of pastors will receive gifts, payments, or “donations” for baptisms (though three-quarters of those report that this only applies to people/families not affiliated with the congregation).
  • There is a clean 50/50 split between pastors who fully explain baptism to adults, and those who will baptize and receive into membership “anyone who responds to an open invitation.”
  • 97% of clergy and laity were baptized as infants or children; 95% do not remember receiving any instruction about baptism at any time in their life.  Clergy learn about it in church and seminary as part of their training; laity learn what they know by participating in baptisms over the years.
  • The concept of “spiritual Scotch-garding is pervasive.  9-out-of-10 clergy and laity confess that they worry about the souls of the unbaptized, and they believe baptism affords some measure of spiritual protection.
  • Interestingly, older and younger clergy are least likely to carefully explain the meaning of baptism or to require any kind of involvement in the community of faith by the family of the infants.  The clergy serving 7-19 years take the most time explaining baptism, and they are the most likely to tell a family that they cannot “do” their child for them when the family has no real interest in providing Christian nurture and support for their child.  The longer a clergyperson has served in ministry, the stronger the sense of baptism as “spiritual Scotch-garding” (as you can tell, I love this term…)

How is it, a decade after our denomination adopted a very clear, concise and theologically balanced statement on baptism that a large majority of our Christian leaders hold views that are starkly at odds with our core beliefs?  How is it that one of our two sacraments is primarily viewed as a personal, private, and individual act (or a family act) instead of a celebration of the community of faith?  Let me be clear: United Methodists love baptisms.  They love babies, they love the symbolism, many go to great lengths to make the experience memorable and “meaningful,” but for the vast majority it is a one-time, single event — done, then over.  A significant number of infant baptisms are conducted where the child and family are never seen again.  Only 10 percent of our churches have a structured, intentional process of follow-up for baptized infants and their families.  More than half of the pastors do not even print baptismal certificates any longer (though 70% offer a token gift to the family, usually a flower) and only half keep a registry of baptized infants in the church records.  Most do not keep contact information updated on families of baptized infants after the baptism occurs.  Everyone says it is important — vital, even — but how important can it be when it is conducted in such an off-hand manner?  Sadly, almost 5% of the clergy responded that they were speaking in general terms — they hadn’t conducted a single baptism in 5 years or more.

This is a study I would have loved to continue.  The brief, initial responses were surprising and raised more questions than they answered.  I was able to do almost no follow-up by phone, working only with survey data and open-ended written answers to a series of questions.  I initially thought what we found was too bleak and unrepresentative — until I started sharing the results with leadership groups around the church and found that people in the midwest, southeast and northeast all agree that it’s pretty accurate.  A few folks have vehemently argued that this isn’t true of them, that baptism is one of the most important things they do and they take it very seriously.  I applaud them, but I am afraid they are a silent minority.  Very few like them appeared in the initial response.  Some have claimed that we should have limited our research to “worship leaders” or “Christian educators,” but these are small segments in the church, and all this would accomplish is to skew the findings in the other direction.  No, this provides some evidence that baptism is a beloved, but deeply misunderstood, practice in The United Methodist Church, providing us with yet one more sterling opportunity to educate, inform, and inspire our members and those we serve.

Within the next couple weeks, I will attempt to post a short series of articles pulling all the pieces of research together — on worship, prayer, the sacraments, Christian education, evangelism, and stewardship — and see what the composite looks like.  At first glance, it isn’t pretty, but on deeper analysis, there are some pretty clear directions and challenges that emerge that any United Methodist congregation can begin to address.  As always, your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated.

25 replies

  1. Kairos has come for us Methodists, not just United Methodists to be inclusive, to rethink the true essence of baptism. As a church historian and ethicist, never did i come across the belief that Early Christians practiced infant baptism. What’s clear are only household baptism and mass baptism particularly those who believed and accepted Christ. Infant baptism is nowhere in the bible. Debates on it cleared the way that it has no explicit texts. In simple manner of speaking, it has no clear scriptural basis. Church tradition would tell that we got it from the idea of Saint Augustine who claimed that children should be baptized to get rid of original sin. From that idea, we went on modifying and justifying it, such as “children should not be deprived of baptism.” Regrettably, this doctrine of original sin joins the fray of precarious beliefs in Christian circles. Early church theologian Tertullian, way before Augustine, advocated that children are no longer in need of baptism because the kingdom of God belongs to them. (Mark 10:14) Infant baptism also eclipses repentance and evangelism. Let’s continue to converse for the sake of quality growth in our faith community.

    • I agree with you. I understand the concept of original sin, but I thought children were not held accountable until a certain age.

    • Fascinating – right there in the open on the web, a United Methodist congregation offering infant baptism AND dedication (interesting choice of pictures, showing an adult baptism only). Living Waters on its website seems to minimize, but not hide, its UM affiliation. If the website is an extension of church’s general culture, then I am not surprised to see this (of course I think there is nothing wrong with it).

  2. Look this is one of the many reasons why i left the UMC for confessional Lutheranism. In my first appointment I found most of the children were dedicated instead of baptized. By the way this was a former ME church. I was attacked for teaching a sacramental understanding of baptism. The bottom line: Baptism has little meaning for Untied Methodists. I would suggest that it is the subjective “born again” experience that is most important. Ask any group of Methodists when they became a Christian, my guess is that most would say on so and so date when I answered an altar call at camp.
    As much as I loved “By Water and Spirit” most of the pastors I knew had never heard of it, and those that did could have cared less. The UMC has a good official doctrine of baptism. On the ground most UMC folks could care less and practice is reflects this. Thanks.

    • Sadly, I think the evidence borne out by my limited research confirms the opinion that most people don’t understand — and therefore do not fully value — baptism. Almost everyone feels it is important, but few can articulate why they think it’s important. And I also agree that about twenty times as many pastors own a copy of “By Water and the Spirit” than have actually read it. This is merely a statement of what is — though my personal opinion is that it is unfortunate.

  3. Lars,

    I think we’ve worn out the “reply” function. I cannot post this under your last response.

    I agree that our thinking about baptism is pretty sloppy – which makes it difficult to insist on anything at all. Neglect and sloppiness have made it de facto a nearly meaningless ritual. Baptism used to be the entrance into full membership of the church.

    The GBOD has written about the EUB history of child dedication. Here’s a link:,31

    As for what happens with an infant, I have no reason to think what happens with an infant is any different than what happens with an adult. God’s Spirit – through water – gives new birth. We are born from above into a new life as God’s chosen people. Whether we are 65 years old or 65 days old, we are grafted into a new family.

    I have a feeling my saying that does not help because we may have different ideas about what “new life” means. For me, baptism is a signal moment in a lifetime journey of salvation and sanctification.

    Traditionally, the church placed a high emphasis on the importance of baptism as a sign of entrance and full membership in the church. The non-baptized in some traditions could not come to the Lord’s table.

    I’m not saying we should go that far – as I am committed to following the denomination’s teaching on the sacraments – but I think our failure to treat baptism as a significant threshold event has led to the present state of affairs where people think of it as a nice family photo album event.

    This is already too long, so I’ll stop there.

    I appreciate your friendliness, Lars. I suspect I have not addressed any of your questions or changed your mind. But the conversation is good.

    • John,

      Thanks again for your response! I especially appreciated the link to the GBOD site – very interesting history.

      I suspect you are right about somewhat different understandings of new life. I very much like what you said, and if we said in the liturgy that baptism was a signal moment in a lifetime journey journey of salvation and sanctification, or words to that effect that clarified the notion, I would be much more at ease. The way it stands now does not make that idea very clear (to me – maybe others don’t need the clarification).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s