Listening and Following Up: South Pacific Baptism Study Survey Finds Room for Improvement

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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7384

On a personal note, Ms Fisher was my first ever school teacher. I have very fond memories of the year I spent at Palmerston North (New Zealand) Adventist school, at age 7 (that would have been 1972).

Kudos to Ms Fisher for doing some serious study on a real issue that really impacts the lives of Adventist young people. Unfortunately too many Masters and PHD research projects are wasted on issues of no real significance. Of course there is a very real risk in undertaking this type of study - the results may find that the SDA Church is ineffectual in its existing programs. (My father, Dr Allen Sonter, completed a PHD research project in the late 80s, which demonstrated that Adventist education in Australasia was not as successful as the leaders hoped, in retaining students as members of the Adventist Church. The results of that study were effectively brushed under the carpet.)

It is pleasing to see that the North New South Wales Conference, and it’s president Justin Lawman, are listening. Let’s hope that other leaders also pay attention and learn what they can, from this excellent research.

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Allow me to refer to a success story.

Just last Sabbath morning two teenagers from a solo father family were baptized into Christ and became fully fledged members of the Adventist family at a family worship service totally designed around their baptism and the affirmation of them as young Christians. I have watched over a number of years as these two young people have travelled from curiosity about God and his Word toward full commitment to their Saviour. I have noted with joy their father’s enthusiasm to provide them both with helpful materials for the enrichment of their experience with the Lord. I have heard occasional reports of their Bible Studies with a retired pastor in our congregation in Australia. And I have been happy to see the role of the local Adventist school in helping these teenagers toward their commitment.

My own spiritual experience was formed in the crucible of my Christian family and augmented in the environment of the local Adventist school. It was great that my family’s God could become my own Lord and Saviour. Both my parents and teachers imparted the Bible Study tools and encouraged the beginnings of life sustaining devotional habits. This is exactly what Baptismal Preparation should be all about.

Baptismal preparation for Adventist young people is designed to be an aid toward leaving the old life of immaturity and moving in the wake of one’s parents and their spiritual experience, and beginning to nurture one’s own new spiritual life through the righteousness of Christ and his words of life. For Adventist young people the public declaration of such an advance move with the Lord and Saviour is an essential on the path of salvation. Baptism is not an optional extra! I fear that many times baptism is beginning to be regarded as an optional extra.

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Interesting article. Richard Rohr’s comment seems apropos: “We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.” A side bar: The corporate structure is fixated with numbers; increasing them. We should be concerned about the number of men, throughout the world, who are baptized into the corporateness, with nary a concern for their ignorant beliefs in the superiority of their physical characteristic.

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Christian baptism is one of two ordinances that Jesus instituted for the church. Just before His ascension, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20). These instructions specify that the church is responsible to teach Jesus’ word, make disciples, and baptize those disciples. These things are to be done everywhere (“all nations”) until “the very end of the age.” So, if for no other reason, baptism has importance because Jesus commanded it.

Christian baptism illustrates, in dramatic style, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. At the same time, it also illustrates our death to sin and new life in Christ. As the sinner confesses the Lord Jesus, he dies to sin (Romans 6:11) and is raised to a brand-new life (Colossians 2:12). Being submerged in the water represents death to sin, and emerging from the water represents the cleansed, holy life that follows salvation. Romans 6:4 puts it this way: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Baptism was practiced before the founding of the church. The Jews of ancient times would baptize proselytes to signify the converts’ “cleansed” nature. John the Baptist used baptism to prepare the way of the Lord, requiring everyone, not just Gentiles, to be baptized because everyone needs repentance. However, John’s baptism, signifying repentance, is not the same as Christian baptism, as seen in Acts 18:24–26 and 19:1–7. Christian baptism has a deeper significance.

Baptism is to be done in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit—this is what makes it “Christian” baptism. It is through this ordinance that a person is admitted into the fellowship of the church. When we are saved, we are “baptized” by the Spirit into the Body of Christ, which is the church. First Corinthians 12:13 says, “We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” Baptism by water is a “reenactment” of the baptism by the Spirit.

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Baptism is still part of the ritual of becoming a Jew, if not born into Judaism. A friend of mine, son of non-practicing Jewish parents recently was baptized in Atlanta.

There must not be much emphasis on baptisms in some churches in the Junior age Sabbath School classes. When I was in Juniors and Teen Age Sabbath School classes we had some of these Bible Study Courses that we went through and filled out. Did that several times. Some of us in the classes went to Church School some went to public school. So it gave those going to public school to be informed about what SDAs believe. And prepared for baptism.
It would seem like at least Juniors, Teens, and Young Adult classes would be good places to do Bible Study Course materials and initiate Baptismal Studies.
Baptist statistics have shown that if a person is NOT baptized by age 13 the percentage of Baptism later goes down. And if reach young adult age, it really goes way down as to those who would be baptized then.
They showed that even if a person dropped out of church after being baptized by age 13, there was a good chance they would return sometime again as an adult. The idea of having been baptized once brought them back in to church.
I like the Episcopalian way of Baptism. Baptism into Christ ceremony. Then a Ceremony of being Received into the Church Body. Each event is recognized separately.

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Sam or anyone who has not yet responded- I would be interested in hearing your take on the story of Paul baptizing the Phillipian jailer and his family shortly after an earthquake opened the prison doors. Do you suppose that this could be a Biblical example of infant baptism? How do you account for the children “accepting Christ” as a result of this incident? Was the baptism their decision or a decision of their parents who were deeply indebted to Paul for not escaping? It has always been difficult for me to fit this story into the usual church narrative about baptism.

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We all are attracted to ritual - probably because it’s hard to live spiritually. We need concrete structures to define our life stages, be it birthdays, marriage, death - all the biggies. We seem to need sensory verification of the major changes in our lives. The Christian rituals are based on this need. Giving our “heart” to Jesus needs a physical manifestation - baptism. It doesn’t seem to be enough that we can, in the quiet of our place of prayer, determine our change of heart. The Bible, however, seems to recognize the difference between outward manifestations from the spiritual “aha” moments, as all four Gospels record the words of John the Baptist: I baptize you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. In another place (Matt.3:11) John indicates the water baptism is a concrete act to memorialize REPENTANCE, while Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. There doesn’t seem to be a concrete ritual for that - maybe because this happens in private - in that quiet place of prayer; or maybe even in the midst of a traffic jam - anywhere we come to the realization that we need that baptism.

We would think that Paul, of all people, would have been most qualified (ordained) to baptize as he spread the Gospel around the Mediterranean; but he declares that wasn’t his job ICor.1:17. Maybe because only Christ can baptize - with the Holy Spirit and the water baptism is, at this point, irrelevant. Whether it is, or isn’t, the church has hijacked it to build membership on the back of a spiritual experience.

Once the Gospel has been clarified, who is going to be able to separate that experience from physical membership to the organization that made that possible… Thus we end up signing on the dotted line of “membership” while we are responding to spiritual manifestation - maybe even a holy one. As it is now, baptism is seen as an initiation exercise, giving us membership, and responsibilities in an organization.

I was baptized after a month-long series of meetings at the local church, where all the beliefs and doctrines of the SDA church were laid out. The one thing that stood out for me was the need to “obey all the ten commandments”, of which the fourth was particularly important since no one else was paying attention to it. It was decades later, that my focus was directed from all the “thou must’s” to the actual meaning of the Gospel. At baptism, my intention was good, but my focus was misdirected on the organization. I think there might be something wrong about that. As a result of this experience, I’ve trod a long road to recovery, and trying to keep the pendulum from swinging too far in the opposite direction.

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Pardon my ignorance, but will someone please explain the picture which accompanies this article. I can’t make out the shape of the human whose features are being dipped into the water. What position is he/she in, here??