I was curious, as often is the case, so I asked the five local pastors in my hometown how they knew someone was ready to be baptized. The answers varied widely from simple profession of faith in Jesus, to more pronounced statements of allegiance to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, with one answer calling for an outright creed of believing in the true God and Ellen White as His prophet. Besides this attempted Adventist version of the Islamic Shahada, I left worried but established in what I have read and known before: we as Adventist have no real church wide, researched informed, approach to preparing someone for baptism, i.e., catechism. I’ve written on the human-relational involvement needed for helping people successfully see our church as home. Here, I want to bring out an idea for a better way of understanding baptismal preparation.
We know many people leave the church. We know that pastors are overworked. But do we know the starting issue? Culturally speaking, Adventism tends to lean into the idea that, to be a “true” or even the “best” Christian, one needs to be Adventist. For example, an Alliance pastor once shared that when his former church in Montana rented a Seventh-day Adventist church building, he was passively told by the pastor that if he were to take his faith seriously, he would become an Adventist. This Alliance pastor called me a “peculiar Adventist” after I affirmed him in his identity as a Christian. This sets up the first part needed in any baptismal study: to become an Adventist (or any denomination) you first must become Christian, not the other way around.
In the aforementioned article I described how baptismal studies are often rushed and lead to newcomers feeling lost after baptism. I borrowed my former science teacher’s phrase “baptisms as a form of vaccine.” The phrase emphasizes the point that once a person is baptized, there’s often little in the way of supporting them in the life-now-lived in faith. To overcome that will take a societal shift in Adventism whereby church members become more active in mentorship roles. Towards that end, I know there’s massive room for improvement in methodology for our own style of Adventist catechism, from my experience in secondary and adult education. To this point, one of my pastor friends once shared he “…wish more pastors had that kind of training.”
Knowing that one needs to first build a relationship with Jesus, and then become a member of the faith-community, our first part in baptismal studies is Christianity itself. As I shared before, C.S. Lewis envisioned this as simply getting people into the foyer of the mansion of Christianity, and then onto the hallways/rooms of a peculiar denomination. This allows people to not confuse Adventism with Christianity itself. So, in the first stage of baptismal study, the focus is on Christianity as a whole, on its 2,000+ year history, on theology beyond our own little haystack slice.
This honest and open approach might be too hard for some people that want to prove their view as right in every subject of the faith. This will be our biggest challenge, to help people explore beyond ourselves. When a person falls in love with Christ, we know it is for the right reasons.
To answer my own question, I would know someone is ready to be baptized based on three areas: intake, service, and expression. Intake means, what is someone taking in to support their faith? Think more than just Bible studies, I mean music, social groups, thoughtful literature and so on. In teaching terms, we say “curriculum,” which means all things used for learning: what is your curriculum of/for spirituality? Second is service, how is someone new becoming involved in the church? The challenge here is having a church open and inviting enough for people to want to help out as they learn/make mistakes in their new faith community. I was given this chance to rise above my station and give a sermon which changed my view on church.
Lastly, expression, which I will be writing a whole article onto itself. But for this purpose, it means, how is someone articulating their faith in more than statements? Whereas service is action, expression best comes through art, think of painting, poetry, music, and so on. The expressive arts are how we digest truths, and on a whole, we need more of it. These ideas will set up a newcomer to faith as a lifelong learner as they foster a continual cycle of experiencing faith, to then go on and share it in a heartfelt way. Some great resource for this stage would be C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and N. T. Wright’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.
After baptism we get to stage two: becoming a member of the Adventist community. The example I saw for this involved newcomers attending four informational sessions after church services which explained the denomination's specific history and doctrine. For us, this part would be the exploration of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, Adventist history and understanding Ellen White. Teaching our doctrinal context from the lens of Christianity from the beginning will truly ground new believers in what is means to be part of our community. Another added bonus, is having this “inlet” for people who are already baptized from another denomination as a pathway for joining our church without any hidden surprises. Great resources to use for this stage would be George Knight’s books A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists and Reading Ellen White…
These two stages follow the educational principle of scaffolding – of building up knowledge – and not, as often the case in baptismal studies, starting from the top. The now new-believer, knowing their God-personal relationship to be a relation in-of-itself (i.e., priesthood of all believers), they can decide if Adventism is the community they wish to join. This framework separates baptism and church membership.
When we place Adventism before faith or posture it as the only “true faith”, we get church members who know almost nothing of Christianity beyond our denomination. Either they remain ignorant – like a church member telling my student he’s not a real Christian for being baptized as a baby – or people realize the narrow breadth of such thinking and leave, as is the case with many young adults. Worst of all, when we place Adventism before faith, people confuse Yahweh, God of Abraham with the god of Adventist culture, and mistakenly, but understandably, get angry at both.
Thankfully, when we teach Christian faith before Adventism and truly live it, we can contextualize the church as imperfect people being called by God in a certain time and place. We can then fall in love with people as true image bearers, without association to whether-or-not they believe the right “stuff” or not. Personally, this has removed so much guilt in my life and I no longer worry if I’m a good enough Adventist because I’ve become focused on discipleship while then choosing my Seventh-day Adventist membership.
Remember, we baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, not in the name of Ellen White or Spirit of Prophecy. Instead of a Spirit of Prophecy Writings Coordinator, we should have something more attuned to Spiritual Education Coordinators. We love saying “to keep God first in all that we do,” and may we be reminded that this includes baptismal study too.
Previous Articles On This Subject:
If Age Is Just A Number, May, 18, 2022
A Risk Worth Taking: The Story Of My First Sermon, July 28, 2021
Mentorship: The Missing Link, June 5, 2021
C. S. Lewis’ Mansion As A Lens For Faith Education, February 22, 2021
Kevin R. McCarty is an Adventist teacher and local church board member in beautiful British Columbia. He studied secondary and adult education at Trinity Western University and is a graduate student at the Vancouver School of Theology.
Title image by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash
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