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. As a seminary student who just finished “UM Doctrine and Polity” this subject is fresh in my mind.
    A couple of key points from “By Water and the Spirit” (
    “The Christian life is a dynamic process of change and growth, marked at various points by celebrations in rituals of the saving grace of Christ. The Holy Spirit works in the lives of persons prior to their baptism, is at work in their baptism, and continues to work in their lives after their baptism. When persons recognize and accept this activity of the Holy Spirit, they respond with renewed faith and commitment

    An adult or youth preparing for baptism should be carefully instructed in its lifetransforming significance and responsibilities
    An infant who is baptized cannot make a personal profession of faith as a part of the sacrament. Therefore, as the young person is nurtured and matures so as to be able to respond to God’s grace, conscious faith and intentional commitment are necessary. Such
    a person must come to claim the faith of the Church proclaimed in baptism as her or his
    own faith.”
    To me, the most compelling scripture for defense of infant baptism is Acts 2:38-39.
    When the subject is Infant Dedication “By Water and the Spirit has this to say…”The United Methodist Book of Worship contains “An Order of Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of the Child” (pages 585-87), which may be recommended in situations where baptism is inappropriate (I have NO idea what this might be!), but parents wish to take responsibility publicly
    for the growth of the child in faith. It should be made clear that this rite is in no way equivalent to or a substitute for baptism. Neither is it an act of infant dedication. If the infant has not been baptized, the sacrament should be administered as soon as possible
    after the Order of Thanksgiving.”
    I’m certainly no expert but these points have helped me as I prepare to educate my congregation as to the sacrament.

  2. If pastors fail to use the liturgy, then how can we expect people to know what the liturgy teaches?

    • A simple, excellent point. I can’t tell you the number of baptisms I have attended in our denomination where all the questions are not asked, or where the congregation makes no commitment in response, or where (on very rare occasions) the pastor simply “wings it” (making up an informal lead in to the application of the dribbles). Baptism is too often “just one of those things we do,” without a deep connection to any theology or tradition. The litanies and services we develop and adopt are very carefully and very well designed, but people think as long as the water is applied, short cuts are acceptable. Go figure.

  3. A separate gripe I have has to do with “baptized member” versus “professing member” language in the UMC now. Why conflate the language of membership with baptism?

    My younger brother, for example, renounces the Christian faith for his life, but of course was baptized as an infant. While my parents and the congregation(s) we were a part of fulfilled those baptismal vows, he rejects every inch of Christian belief. What possible reason is there for the UMC to consider him, and those like him, any sort of “member”? (another reason from personal experience in my family that I like the idea of believers baptism, even though I willingly participate in infant baptism).

    We talk about baptism being something “God does in us,” but what do we really mean by that? What was God doing in my brother 30 years ago in his baptism? God’s offer of grace to all of us before we can even begin to attempt to earn God’s favor is a beautiful image, as are all the images and metaphors we use for this sacrament. But God extending or giving something to us (ie His grace, love, etc) is different from God doing something IN us . . . we do not accept baptismal regeneration in the UMC, so again, what exactly is God doing IN us? I am comfortable with a fair amount of my faith, but if the basic answer is just it is a mystery, then I think we need to do better (I hope someone can give a better answer than that). The UM baptismal covenants all speak of this sacrament as a means by which we are “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit,” and later in the thanksgiving over the water we pray that God would “pour out Your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away his/her sin and clothe him/her in righteousness.” Is that what we really believe God is doing in the baptism of a 5 month old? Giving an infant new birth and washing away sin? That’s what we say, if I am understanding the words properly. Sounds somewhat like a spiritual insurance policy to me . . . should we be surprised people think that is what it is all about?

    To me, the main Biblical answer to what God is doing in us in baptism is found in Romans 6:3-4, that baptism into Christ’s death leads to walking in newness of life. Exactly how to reconcile that with the practice of infant baptism, I have not figured out.

    Maybe at the end of the day I have not really bought into the contention that God is really doing anything specific in infant baptism beyond offering unconditional and prevenient grace, and that it really is in substance something we are offering to God.

    Sorry, I ended up far afield from the baptism/membership language gripe . . .

    • My own personal feeling in the matter is that God does what God wills, and all we do is enter (and sometimes exit) acknowledgment of God’s mighty acts. The act of incorporation and initiation is into the community of believers, and everyone has free will when it comes to honoring these commitments. Parents make vows on behalf of their infant children, youth and adults take the vows on their own behalf, and the congregation makes commensurate commitments. Part of the problem is that many do not follow up on these commitments, and in cases where parents make the decision on behalf of their children, it is an act of faith and hope, not a sure thing. Each person must take responsibility for their own faith at some point. But baptism, as we practice it, is an act of preparation rather than completion. Even for those who stray, we hold out hope that grace may abound, and that people may one day come back to a place where they desire the validate and affirm those vows made in their name. Also, we do not believe, in The United Methodist Church, that the absence of water baptism precludes salvation — God will do what God will do. But we do believe that baptism is the threshold event of inclusion in the body of Christ. There is more art to science in our practices here. We are a covenantal people, and baptism is the core of our covenant community.

  4. 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?

    I’ve been in an extension ministry for nearly two decades, but I doubt that By Water and the Spirit has penetrated very deeply into our churches. Even if we had done extensive education in our congregations, I don’t know that it would have mattered. For generations, we had a very amorphous, overly sentimental view of baptism. You don’t change that overnight with a few classes. We probably won’t change it at all until we have stop having such a fragmented self-understanding. Still, I keep highlighting the communal aspect of the sacrament. I have a very simple mantra that I repeat as frequently as possible.

    * Baptism is the sacrament of beginning in Jesus; communion is the sacrament of continuing in Jesus.
    * Baptism is the sacrament of incorporation into the vine; communion is the sacrament of remaining in the vine.
    * Baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the body of Christ; communion is the sacrament of participation in the body of Christ.

    Even the Baptists and the Pentecostals in my congregation seem to get that.

  5. Fascinating information. I’m surprised by the percentages of infant baptisms based on my current setting. In this rural county, baptism is thought of by virtually everyone in terms of Baptist believer’s baptism. Nearly all of the members at the church I serve were baptized as adults. (Okay, small church, but I think the experience is similar in other rural churches.)

    I have been in conversation with our current regular attenders who have never been baptized, and I had to tactfully inform one of my fellow local pastors that United Methodists do not do child dedications. (Of course, Granger Community Church has been advertisng a big child dedication service recently, so this may not be a small church issue.)

    In a year of service, I have tried to teach and/or preach about baptism two or three times during sermons or other opportunities. We have had a remembrance of baptism. I had to buy a bowl to serve as a font for that because the church did not have one. (Baptism happen in the river.)

    I’m pretty sure I “chased off” a young couple who were attending our church sporadically when on day I said I would welcome the opportunity to talk with them about baptism for their newborn baby if they wanted to learn more about it.

    Needless to say, I’m interested in more insight in how to teach and talk about baptism.

    • I would have loved to dig deeper in this research, but it was the aspect of my studies that received the least attention before my job was eliminated. The limited follow-up indicated to me (at least) that much of what happens regarding baptism is due to sloppiness rather than ignorance. Many pastors just don’t take much time with it. They know that a significant number of parents just want their kid “done” and that there isn’t fertile soil for further relationship after the event. Why waste time talking about the meaning with people who won’t stick around? (Sad, isn’t it?) I do believe your situation is unique. Adult baptisms have been the minority option for much of the latter half of the twentieth century. I think (but this is only conjecture based on what I have seen) is that there is a slight upturn in adult baptism due to the interest of those formerly unaffiliated with a church — mostly youth and young adults. Believer baptism — essentially biblical baptism — faded dramatically for Methodists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a little startling to me to hear a more historically Roman Catholic sense of “protecting the newborn soul” theology in most of the respondents to our study. Making sure that the baby was “safe” was a high motivator for about 50% of those who had their children baptized. Across the study sample, our understanding of baptism is very basic, simple, childlike, and more than a little superstitious.

    • I do not understand the level of opposition to infant dedication in the UMC leadership. My home church dedicates most infants, and it is a United Methodist Church that does not hide its affiliation. I am now an ordained elder in the church with young children (2 years old and 2 weeks old), and dedication is the route I am choosing for them. I want them raised in the Christian faith, and will pledge to do exactly that, along with a congregation to help me and my wife, but we want them to have the opportunity to make a decision regarding baptism for themselves when they are older.

      As an elder, I have had the opportunity to baptize many infants, and a handful of teens and adults – I am certainly not against the baptism of infants, but I always try to offer the parents an option with a clear explanation of the differences. Interestingly, I have never had a parent take the option of dedication.

      Why do UMs believe that infant dedication is something we should not do? I consider myself a faithful UM Christian who would rather dedicate his own children than baptize them. . . what is the problem with that? I understand how it would be problematic if a UM pastor or congregation refused flatly to baptize any infant – that is clearly counter to UM doctrine.

      • Lars, I’m going to see if one of my worship buddies can give you a better, precise, and more theologically grounded answer than I can give. My short answer is, if baptism is something we do for God, dedication fits without too much trouble. But if baptism is a sacrament, something that God does in us then we fall into the redundancy trap — if the dedication is a pre-baptism baptism, then we’re doing it and baptism/re-baptism implies that the first time didn’t “take.” This is too simplistic (and may not be entirely correct) so wait until we can get the folks who know this stuff best to weigh in. Thanks for raising the question.

      • I cannot speak for the UMC. Heck, I can barely speak for myself.

        Your chlidlren will have a choice to make when they get older. They – like you and me – will have a choice every day of their lives whether they will live in response to God’s grace or not.

        The Book of Worship has a fairly thorough discussion about baptism on pages 81-85.

        The service starts with these words:

        “Brothers and sisters in Christ:
        Through the Sacrament of Baptism
        we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.
        We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
        and given new birth through water and the Spirit.
        All this is God’s gift, offered to us without a price.”

        Baptism is God’s action bringing us into the church and his story and giving us new life in his Spirit. Does he do all that with infants?

        Why not?

        Our salvation is a task of a lifetime. Even if we are baptized as adults, we are but babes in the faith – needing to work out our salvation day by day. Why not start as a biological baby?

        My issues with child dedication include:

        1) The UMC has specific teaching on the incorporation of children into the life of the church, and I should follow it.

        2) Our children are not ours to “dedicate” to God. They are God’s children who are given to us to raise for a time.

        3) Christian parents are already obligated to raise their children with love. The promise to do so in the baptism service is only one of several affirmations the parents make – and I would argue not the most important one.

        4) Child dedication arose in direct response to infant baptism in traditions that reject the idea and see it as extra-biblical. Since the UM teaching is that infant baptism clearly is biblical, then why embrace a service designed solely to refute that teaching?

        Someone smarter than me will probably have better answers. These are mine.

      • I don’t know if this will show up where I want it to, but it is meant to respond to John Meunier’s response to me.

        I addressed this in another response, but I will ask you directly (and I mean this in a friendly way):
        in the words of the liturgy you quote regarding baptism being the means by which people are “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit,” how do you (we) mean those words in infant baptism?

        I personally think the UMC tends to end up with a kind of sloppy notion about baptism being finalized in confirmation or some such thing that is just not Biblical (and I already think the arguement for infant baptism from the NT sources is shaky, although there are other perfectly good reasons to accept it as legitimate practice for Christians).

        If the UMC wants to encourage people to baptize their children, by all means do so! Is that what you mean in your point #1 about UMC teaching for incorporating children into the church? So long as it is encouraged, not demanded or required. Why mandate baptism as the only way of incorpating children if it is not necessary for salvation? The UMC seems to always be touting its “big tent” approach to include people of diverse opinions and beliefs, so why single out the practice of infant dedication for particular scrutiny?

        As to your #2, I believe I understand your point . . . perhaps “dedication” is a poor choice of words, and has somehow come into common usage for what we’re talking about. I don’t have a better word on the tip of my tongue. Regardless, the practice could be seen as an intentional choice on the part of the parents to acknowledge the very truth of your point in that they publically relinquish any sense of the child being “theirs” over and above the child being God’s child.

        On point #3, all I can say is how we have chosen to practice the dedication ceremony. We use the same basic liturgy used for baptism as far as the vows themselves go, so everything the parents and congregation together promise to do in baptism are also promised in dedication. I do not know if this a common practice for a dedication, but that is how we have done it. Whichever of the vows you think would be the most important would be made.

        Finally, to your point #4, the modern UMC is derived from predecessor deminations with largely overlapping but not 100% identical practices. You write “Child dedication arose in direct response to infant baptism in traditions that reject the idea,” yet I understand the EUB had provisions for infant dedication at the time of merger with the Methodist Church in 1968. The “traditions that reject the idea” are one strand of our own UM heritage, albeit certainly a small or short-lived one.

      • Lars,

        My name is Dan Benedict and my friend and former colleague, Dan Dick, invited me to reply to your concern about infant dedication. So I will give it a try. I served on the UM committee that drafted “By Water and the Spirit” which the 1996 General Conference adopted as our official interpretive statement on baptism.

        Rather than write a new statement on the question of infant/child dedication, I think it would be best to refer you to a couple of web articles that address it directly:
        The first is “What about infant dedication” at,38
        in which (1) I cite By Water and the Spirit and (2) then point to Paragraph 331.1b of the 2000 Book of Discipline [Para. 340.2 b) (1) (a) in 2008 Book of Disipline] makes no provision for “infant dedication” as an alternative to the sacrament of baptism, nor for what pastors are to administer or for which pastors are to prepare parents, (3) consider the sources of attention to “dedication” in the Anabaptist tradition, and (4) finally, explore the how we approach divergent practices in a covenant and conciliar community rather than resorting to questions of legality.

        I strongly urge you to read that article and Kendall McCabe’s “The Dedication of Infants: A Ritual History” at

        I am not unsympathetic to your stance on “dedication vs baptism.” Watered down (excuse the pun) baptismal teaching and practice often result in abuse of God’s grace. But there is a better way.

        I welcome response when you have looked at these pieces on the GBOD website. I hope that they will be instructive. I welcome a reply.


      • Daniel Benedict,

        Thank you for taking the time to write such an informed response; the links were very good.

        I still need clarification around what we fundamentally believe God is doing in baptism. I admit that even as an elder in the church with very mixed feelings about this practice that 1) I have baptized many infants, while dedicating exactly 0, and 2) I am not at all clear within myself what I believe God is doing at that moment in the case of infant baptism.

        The official document on baptism indicates that
        “The sacrament is primarily a gift of divine grace. Neither parents nor infants are the chief actors; baptism is an act of God in and through the Church.”

        To me, it is one thing to say that baptism is a gift of divine grace – wonderful! Surely all grace requires that God be the chief actor. Still, I believe accepting a gift to be optional. . . or better yet, many gifts are purchased years ahead of time but saved until it is right time to give them to the loved one.

        The liturgy of baptism speaks of it as the means (or a means) by which we are incorporated into God’s savings act and we are brought into new birth by water and the Spirit. The prayer of thanksgiving over the water furthermore calls on God to cleanse the recipient of sin and clothe him or her in righteousness.

        Is what we believe God is doing in infant baptism extending grace even to one so powerless as to be unable to have anything to offer to God in turn? Extending or offering grace is one kind of action, a clear expression of unconditional love. I hope every UM believes that God extends grace to all people, including the most vulnerable and youngest among us.

        However, to me, bringing someone into God’s saving work and entering into new life by water and the Spirit is indicating that God is doing far more than extending grace. . . asking God to cleanse from sin and clothe in righteousness is language that sounds a great deal like baptismal regeneration to me, although I know that is not a Wesleyan view of the sacrament.

        If we believe that God is the chief actor in baptism, as has been reiterated several times here, then again, what do we believe God is doing in baptism? Do we believe the plain meaning of the words of the liturgy – new birth, washing of sin, clothing in righteousness, or do we mean instead that God will eventually in the future do the things that we say baptism means?

        I hope my basic question is clear – I feel like I am writing so much that I am obscuring my own question.

  6. Dan,
    thanks for your posting…I am deeply saddened by the numbers and yet not too surprised. It seems that we have a lot of explaining to do!

    Keep calling us all into accountability…your posts encourage me and challenge me!

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