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Sacramental Theology, Baptisim, and Youth Ministry

In the letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul confidently wrote: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)” Nearly all Christians would affirm this passage as evidence that all Christians form the universal church, and nearly all Christians would agree to one God, one Lord, and one faith. However, one the final point, one baptism, there is disagreement in the body of Christ. The disagreement is not over whether Christians should baptize or not, there is near universal agreement on that. The disagreement is more over how and why Christians baptize. Baptism as a practice was instituted by Jesus himself at the great commission when he ordered his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” There is no debate of baptism’s importance to the Christian tradition.

Yet for many youth, especially those baptized as infants, the sacramental nature or its meaning has no real significance or impact on their faith. Unfortunately, the church has not done the best job at correcting this. In the official United Methodist Church confirmation curriculum it only offers a simple definition of baptism: “baptism is our entrance or initiation into the community of faith, the church. Because baptism is what God does, we never need to be baptized again.” (Zinkiewicz 37) On the surface this definition is adequate, but it does not answer any deeper questions that youth might be prone to ask about baptism. For example, the definition does not particularly say why baptism should be done, nor does it truly explain what God does in baptism in the first place. This definition is also problematic because other faith traditions, such as those that practice believer’s baptism, also believe that baptism is to be a public declaration of faith. Further more, even the most ancient traditions of baptism pair reception of the Holy Spirit with baptism. Baptism is vitally important to the Christian tradition. More over, the rite of baptism has a deep sacramental nature, where God’s grace and love becomes highly experiential through the power of the symbols and actions. Youth workers have the unique opportunity to help teenagers connect with the sacramental nature of baptism and facilitate youth in connecting the power of baptism into their active faith walks. The best way to do this is focus on what baptism has been to the universal church throughout history. It is acceptable to emphasize how one’s particular denomination treats baptism, but by reaching into the deeper tradition it is possible to connect baptism on more levels with teenagers. The traditional purpose of baptism has been four-fold: initiation into the Christian community, public declaration of accepting the sovereignty of Christ, experiencing the grace of God by symbolically participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, and recognition of the reception of the Holy Spirit.

In most mainline protestant denominations including the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Lutheran church the major emphasis on baptism has been initiation in to the faith community. Sadly, many churches from denominations that have put a strong emphasis on baptism as entrance into the community have failed their teenagers. One observer pointed has pointed out that “we live in a culture that is increasingly antichildren. Many of our teens feel alone. (Smith 21)” Far too many youth workers have valid reasons to complain that far too often the congregation does not support the youth, and there are far to many youth in the church who view the “old people” as enemies. This is hugely unfortunate because today’s teenagers crave community. In Postmodern Youth Ministry, Tony Jones points out that one of the key attributes of postmodern youth is that “they long for community more than for individually garnered spirituality. (105)” When infants or believers are baptized, they become part of that church community. Unfortunately, so many churches effectively treat youth as separate group within the church that only has the most tenuous connection to the workings of the rest of the church. This is what causes teens to feel alone, misunderstood, and disconnected from the rest of the church. Youth workers, as leaders in the church, have a responsibility to work with the church pastors to ensure that the youth are claimed and integrated as members of the community.

Using the data mined from a 2002 Gallup survey, Timothy Smith wrote The Seven Cries of Today’s Teens . The seven cries that Smith identified were a cry for trust, love, security, support, purpose, to be heard, and to be valued. Every congregation can offer a place where these seven cries are met. If church becomes a place where every member, from youngest to oldest, feels trusted, loved, secure, supported, listened to, valued, and given a sense of purpose then it is truly a reflection of how the body of Christ is suppose to function. Answering these seven cries is something that a healthy church must do. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a church to raise a disciple. If a congregation takes baptism seriously as the initiation rite into the faith community, then the congregation must ensure that the deepest needs of its entire membership are met in the context of the community. For teenagers and children that means working as a group to meet these seven cries. When a church takes practical steps to fulfill those seven cries, then it will be a place where all members have a stronger connection with baptism. This connection will come because the congregation will know that when they participate in a baptism that they are agreeing to meet and fulfill the cries of that person’s heart in koinonia, or true Christian fellowship, as Jesus intended all believers to do so when he gave us the new commandment “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love on another. (John 13:34)”

Another constant of baptism across denominational lines is an element that includes a public profession of faith. While the wording and delivery of this declaration are different from denomination to denomination the profession of faith contains several key elements. First, there is a renunciation of evil. Second, there is acceptance of Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord. In denominations that baptize infants the parents vow to teach the child these beliefs, and then the through the process of confirmation the child makes the public profession of faith themselves. Regardless of how the baptism is actually practiced the public profession of faith is a crucial element of the ritual. By pairing a statement of belief with a symbolic act, whether it is baptism or a later confirmation, this creates a rite of passage. A rite of passage “help children know they’re making progress, growing up, and continually reconnecting to their people. (West).” Rites of passage by their nature mark a change in an individual and alter their personal identity. For example, in Native American cultures boys would undertake a rite of passage called a vision quest, where they went alone into the wilderness for days at a time without food until they had a vision of an animal of spirit. When the boy returned to the tribe, he was now considered and treated by the tribe as man. (Allen) In the church, baptism should be a similar seminal event where the identity of the individual is radically altered. Just as after completing a vision quest, the boy is recognized as a man, so after baptism the individual should be treated by the community as a Christian. Also, in the vision quest the vision that is experienced becomes a foundational aspect of the man. Likewise, in baptism the confession of faith should be a foundational aspect of the Christian. In essence, through baptism the renunciation of evil and the following of Jesus as Lord and savior becomes part of how the individual views themselves. This is part of the sacramental nature of baptism, because the symbolic element of water, tied with the profession of faith, makes it so that water serves as a powerful reminder of how Christ is part of the individual’s identity.

In the Lion King, the main character Simba has run from his past and in doing so left behind foundational aspects of who he is. In a key scene of the movie, his deceased father confronts Simba because he has forgotten who he really is, and then urges Simba to remember. With the struggles that teenagers face daily, and with the numerous faith-compromising situations they find themselves in, teenagers need to be reminded regularly who they are in Christ. As a youth worker, it is near impossible to remind teenagers too often about the public profession of faith that they made in baptism or confirmation. Because baptism is a sacramental act, it is important that youth workers stress the connection of baptism to the proclamation of faith. Thus, when one says “Remember your baptism, and be thankful” they are also saying “remember who you are.”

A question that many youth may have about baptism is why baptism? Even if the teens understand the need to be initiated into community and publicly proclaim their faith, the question is still not address as to why a peculiar ritual involving water is to be used. Obviously, one reason is because Jesus was baptized in water, and the apostles in the book of Acts also baptized in water. However, the early church also addressed that baptism serves as a deeply theological act as well. In the letter to the Romans Paul wrote:

“We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Romans 6:2-7

This is the theological point that ties into what it means to have following Christ as part of a Christian’s identity. Just as Christ died and was resurrected, so to do his followers die to their selfish desires and are resurrected to a new life. John Wesley referred to this as going on to perfection. Theologically, the Christian lifestyle is one that daily mimics the death and resurrection of Christ, as Christians have to daily sacrifice their sinful nature to be more Christ-like. Baptism, especially by means of immersion, symbolically re-creates the death and resurrection of Christ. As the person is immersed they “die” only to be “resurrected” by being lifted back out of the water. Thus, baptism becomes a powerful experience for the baptized and for the participating congregation as the act itself reminds them of not only the sacrifice made by Christ but also of the call of a Christian lifestyle as expressed by Paul in Romans.

While this viewpoint has strong, ancient traditional ties with baptism, the practices of many churches have gotten away from this tradition. The symbolic participation in the death and resurrection of Christ is not strongly communicated when the primary means of baptism is sprinkling instead of immersion. However, that does not negate that the importance that participating in the death and resurrection has to the rite of baptism. For churches that do not practice immersion, it is important for the youth worker to connect this teaching with what it means to live as a Christian and be a Christian, so that when youth are called to remember their baptism and who they are as Christians, they will also remember that daily they must die to themselves and be united with Christ in resurrection.

The final traditional connection that has always been associated with baptism is the reception of the Holy Spirit. Biblically, both in the baptism of Jesus and in the baptisms recorded in the book of Acts there is defiantly a strong connection between the act of baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. The early church also kept this connection, by having a post-baptism rite where an individual would be anointed with oil as a way of signifying that the Holy Spirit was active in their lives. While many Protestant denominations still include an invocation of the Holy Spirit as part of the baptismal ceremony, the role is greatly reduced. However, in the Catholic tradition Confirmation has become the sacrament which invokes the Holy Spirit upon an individual. In charismatic traditions there is a different approach, where an individual only receives the Holy Spirit through a baptism of the Spirit. Obviously, the nature of the Holy Spirit is one of the most controversial elements that divides the various denominations today. In teaching youth about the Holy Spirit it is important to not only consult the Bible but as a responsible youth worker one should also make sure that their teachings on in line with the denomination. However, it is accepted by the vast majority of Christian beliefs that the Holy Spirit is fully a part of God which is sent to humanity. It is also accepted that in various ways the Holy Spirit strengthens, enables, and works in and through Christians. All mainline denominations include the reception of the Holy Spirit in some way in the baptism sacrament. In youth ministry, a youth worker can use this aspect to connect the Holy Spirit with the teenagers. Regardless of an individual church’s theology on the Holy Spirit, the baptized are already symbolically connected with the Holy Spirit through baptism. This can allow youth workers, in facilitating youth to remember who they are by remembering their baptism to also claim the Holy Spirit as part of their life.

Initiation into the faith community, public confession of faith, symbolic participation in the resurrection of Christ, and reception of the Holy Spirit are all ancient, traditional elements that have been associated with baptism. If youth workers purposely teach about these elements in their youth ministry curriculum, then the deeper questions that youth have about baptism will begin to be answered. More importantly, baptism will become more than just an arcane tradition that the church practices. In the eyes of teens baptism will become a vibrant sacrament where the grace of God is revealed and tangible. This will happen because the youth will have a deeper understanding of the sacramental symbolism behind baptism. This means that teenagers involved in a sacramental youth ministry, regardless of they were baptized as infants or as believers, will be able to remember their baptism and be thankful.

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Sacramental Theology, Baptisim, and Y...

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