When it comes to baptism, Seventh-day Adventists have a lot to say and, thanks to a new study, now have a place to say it.
Almost 1500 Adventists aged 18 years and over participated in Before and Beyond Baptism, which the church in the South Pacific sponsored to investigate the relationship between the church’s baptismal practices and its membership, Christian maturity and commitment to core Adventist beliefs.
How they responded surprised Barbara Fisher, a retired senior lecturer in education religion and literacy at Avondale College of Higher Education and the study’s lead researcher. She used a 38-item questionnaire as her survey tool. It is 18 pages yet almost a third of the participants wrote additional comments—some up to two pages—on the back of the questionnaire.
“Thanks for the opportunity,” one participant wrote. “It was slightly cathartic. No one’s ever asked me before.”
The questionnaire asked about background, ideal baptism age, re-baptism and the participant’s past and current relationship with the church. The findings of the preliminary report, announced in August this past year, were, on the whole, encouraging. Eight out of 10 participants indicated they could “definitely” see themselves as a member of the church in 10 years; one in five had accepted Jesus as their Saviour before or by age nine.
The findings of the final report reveal strong affirmation of Adventist core beliefs across all age groups but confusion about the use of terms—is baptism “into Christ” or “into the church”? Some participants felt baptism should be separate from church membership while others felt it should not. One commented that “wanting to be baptised without becoming part of the church is like wanting to get married without having a spouse.”
Participants listed both pre- and post-baptism mentoring as areas needing improvement, with many suggesting ways mentoring could be implemented in local churches. But despite most saying they had not received the mentoring they believed necessary, 95 per cent of participants indicated they were attending an Adventist church. “Baptism was an important turning point in my life, perhaps the most important day of my life,” one said. “Baptism itself was a mark that sealed my commitment to Christ.”
Many participants emphasised the need to take requests for baptism seriously, regardless of the individual’s age. They cited lack of follow up on requests for pre-baptism study as a reason why many church attenders, particularly young adults, had not yet been baptised. “I put up my hand a number of times at Big Camp,” a young adult participant said. “They took my name but never followed up.”
One participant aged 20-25 had attended Adventist schools for 12 years but let his church attendance wane when requests for pre-baptism study were not followed up. “I know others in my generation with exactly the same reason who have now left the church to pursue other things,” he said. “I’m not comfortable claiming a prize that so many of my mates probably never will.”
“It’s heartbreaking to know that, for some young adults, the biggest obstacle to baptism is follow through,” says Fisher. “To me, this epitomises the saddest reason for not being baptised. There hasn’t been a forum to address issues like this before, so I hope the study will be a good first step.”
It appears it has been. Since announcing the findings of the preliminary report, Fisher has noted that presidents of the church’s conferences have been highlighting the importance of follow through with their ministers and implementing methods to ensure requests are taken seriously. Take the North New South Wales Conference, for example. It has even developed an app called For The One that logs all incoming requests for baptism study.
“Barbara’s research has been very helpful in making us aware of this issue,” says Pr Justin Lawman, the president of the conference. “We’ve got to be faithful in following through with the requests we do have before we solicit new ones.”
For The One establishes an accountability system that places initial responsibility with the local church minister. If the request is not followed up within two weeks, responsibility moves to an area mentor and then to the conference. The app is being trialled this year. “It’s early on, but we think For The One has the potential to be a game changer for our church,” Lawman says.
For Fisher, the knowledge her research has helped bring change is pleasing. “If one young adult has been listened to as a result of this study, then it’s all been worth it,” she says. “I hope there’ll be many, many more.”
Sara Bolst is Assistant Public Relations Officer, Avondale College of Higher Education.
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