“Baptismal Reflux” or “Stop baptizing your kid to appease Grandma…”

Yeah, this isn’t going to be popular.

I really think the church needs to readdress our baptismal policy.  And by “the church,” I mean the wider church.  As wide as you can paint it.  Biggest brush ever.

There are issues everywhere.  And I don’t claim to have answers for them.  Trust me, if I thought I could address every nuance of the issues Christians have with baptism, I’d patent it and sell it for an unlimited supply Smithwicks.  Or fairly traded shade-grown coffee.

But there are a couple of things that run across my desk every-so-often.  Scenario 1:

“So-and-so would like to have their child baptized on March 23rd.”

First question: who is so-and-so?  I’ve never met them.  I’ve never seen them.

So I call so-and-so.  They found us on the internet.  They liked the look of the church.

“Yes, but are you going to become members?”  No.  They had not thought of that.

“Ok, what church do you currently go to?” None.  Not active in a faith community.

“Ok, so what makes you think it’s time for a baptism?” The child was born.  Grandma is getting antsy.

“Ok, so this is about grandma, right?”  Yes.

Now, I’m all for affirming the fact that baptism, as a ritual act, has an inward affect on a person. Indeed, we are introducing the baptized to a life lived in God’s Spirit.  Yes. Affirmative.

But there’s more, right?  I mean it’s not “one and done,” right?

I’m pretty sure it’s “one and never done…”  Something like that.

And I think that because I read farther in Matthew 28 than just “Go to all nations and baptize…”  It follows with, ” teach them all that I have commanded…” And finishes with “I am with you always…”

What’s the connective tissue there, then?  It seems we baptize, and then teach.  Oh, and the Christ is always with us.  I don’t get the impression that the third is a conditional.  But it seems to me that the first two are pretty connected.

Instruction is important.  Not as a prerequisite.  Not as some sort of belief that makes us “ready” for baptism.  Indeed, I don’t think our beliefs ever make us ready for anything!  After all, I believe I’d be a good sailor.  But if you stick me behind the wheel of a schooner right now and send me off to sea you’d better call the Coast Guard.  And instruct them to bring coffee and Smithwicks.

So how do we ensure that we keep the second part of Matthew 28?  We have parents and/or guardians make the promises for them.  And then as a back-up, we have sponsors (ideally sponsors from the church, who are already practicing) make them.

We can’t get around it: in baptism we make certain promises, at least on this side of the denominational church aisle.  The parents and/or guardians promise to teach the child the creed, the ten commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, take them regularly to communion, and raise them in a community of faith where they will learn to lean on the crucified and risen one.

It’s a promise.

And then we, as a community, promise to help the child in their life of faith.

But we can’t do it, see, we can’t keep the promise, if we never see the kid again.  It’s an issue.

Scenario 2:

“Pastor, so-and-so would like to have their great-grandchild baptized here next week.”


“So, what faith community do the parents of so-and-so’s great-grandchild belong to?” None.

“So, why do they want to have them baptized here?  They live out of state!” Because they were baptized here and great-grandma so-and-so comes here.


Refer to Argument One to hear the reasons why this is a bad idea.

You see, I think it’s time for faith communities all around the world to have a very difficult conversation about this sacrament.  Can we take the promises lightly, knowing that those who make promises have no intention of keeping them?  I mean, c’mon, it’s no guarantee that they’ll keep the promises if we have them join the faith community or anything, but at least its an attempt at honesty.

And for you, parents, can you honestly have your child baptized simply to appease great-grandma?  Can you not, instead, have a conversation with great-grandma about your faith or issues with organized religion?  Can you not, instead, allow great-grandma to make the promises and then take the child to the faith community?  Even that would be a great turn of events, a great step.

But, instead, we’re living in this middle ground where we don’t expect parents to live up to their promises, and parents don’t expect the church to help them keep them or hold them accountable.


The issues surrounding baptism make me a reluctant Christian.  On the one hand I have my evangelical brothers and sisters wanting to make it about “beliefs” or “understanding.”  In which case you’re actually baptizing yourself…because your beliefs make you worthy.

On the other hand we have these other folks who seem to baptize out of tradition with no intention of practicing.  Indeed, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

I’m 30.  I’m still learning how to live without seeing myself as the center of the universe…something that baptism helps me do.  I’m still learning how to live, holding the scriptures in tension with what I see around me…something that baptism reminds me to do.  I’m still learning how to live in a community of faith, asking the tough faith questions…something that baptism asks me to do.

It’s not a tradition.  It’s not a belief system.

Can we not take this seriously?  Can’t we help one another keep promises or refrain from making them if we can’t?!

My advice:I

If you are thinking about baptism but you-

a) aren’t interested in making faith a part of your life

b) aren’t interested in joining a faith community and engaging it

c) aren’t interested in seeking after God

d) can’t make the promises required of baptism

e) are doing it to get Grandma off your back

Wait.  Don’t do it now.  Wait until the child is older, then they can then decide if they want to make the promises.  Wait until you can commit to a faith community and engage it.  Wait until you feel the tug of God strongly on your heart.  Wait until Grandma and you can have a conversation about it.


Let.  Let Grandma make the promises.

However, if you-

a) are thinking that it might be time to re-engage your faith life

b) aren’t sure what you think about this whole “Jesus thing,” but are interested in it

c) aren’t sure what you think about this whole “God thing” but think a community can help you figure it out

d) are willing to make the promises and keep them

e) think Grandma might have some wisdom that you can carry yourself.

Do it.  Engage it.  Take the whole plunge.  Put a ring on it.

This a/theist finds baptism, washing, being made clean such a powerful event, such a powerful story.  But if it doesn’t get reinforced, doesn’t get explored, doesn’t get told and retold and retold…well…

I don’t know.  Just thinking about it gives me acid reflux.  I can’t make heads or tails.

All I know is that as a community who takes promises seriously, especially the promises of God, we should probably take our own promises seriously.

9 thoughts on ““Baptismal Reflux” or “Stop baptizing your kid to appease Grandma…”

  1. This is one of the places where Canon Law not only makes sense, but is helpful, in that it pretty much mandates that baptism should not be given unless it is a reasonable assumption that the child will be raised in the faith. Not, of course, that most people follow the law on this.

  2. Once upon a time, the Way of the Community entailed something emphatically separate from the city and its pedestrians. To be washed into that people was to become a new person, living a new life, newly in the service of a vigorously and vibrantly different Lord. It was full participation in God’s saving act – the inbreathing of a Spiritborne People living toward others on the audacious authority of the Crucified One Now Risen. To pass through this Rite desiring to share this community’s patterns and trust-commitments meant the same as welcoming an infant with water and an Invocation, followed by the cultivation of the community’s values and patterns and trusts within that “pre-approved” initiate.

    Later, Going to Church is what respectable folk did. ‘Religious’ ceremonies, like Romans viewing entrails and Hebrews butchering and burning animals, came to mark every part of our common, generally irreligious life. For better? For worse?

    The problem might not be that we have fouled our baptismal waters… it might be that we stand for nothing worth baptizing into. Does baptism stand for anything in our churches other than parents (or grandmothers) hoping to inculcate in these children a few motifs from a particular catechism, a few conservative ethical values, a penchant for saying “what does this mean” and then snickering? As though these notes and soon-to-be-forsaken values (or God Help Us – Viciously Held Values) are the meaning and substance of our Life in Christ?

    I won’t claim to make heads, or tails, and I think elements of this discussion will be around for a long time. I value my Baptism: it reminds me every day that though I am “pre-approved” I am not the fully fledged member of this community that I am on my way to becoming, nor do I understand the depths or the nuances of what it is to be inbreathed by the Holy Spirit of God, among other things. My journey is begun, and its conclusion is certain – I will be both dead and safe in the pierced hands of my Savior – but this middle time is littered with question marks. I don’t think the kids of non-church-going people should be doused just for good luck and to temporarily satisfy someone’s awkward conscience. But I keep wondering what it might look like if baptism were a real initiation, with relevant instruction on becoming a member of a group which was not co-incidental with society at large.

    Oh wait, we already have those groups and call them cults… and disapprove heartily. Would that we were as enthusiastic in our inhabitation of our own ethos as we are in condemning the attempts of others.

  3. Pastor Tim,
    I realize that this is an “old” post, but as I read back through your posts, this one resonates with where I am right now.
    Unlike you, I don’t, and have never, considered myself a “reluctant Christian”. I do consider myself a “reluctant church-person”. I use the term “church-person” very intentionally. It has been my experience that the organization itself and it’s name (the name that is then taken by the “church-person”) become one’s identity. (I’ve been that “person”. The Director of Fellowship [insert church name], The 4th Grade Sunday School Teacher [insert church name], The Alter Guild Director [insert church name], and the list goes on.)
    I, like many others, found myself losing sight of the world around me. (Hell, I lost sight of “me”!…”…as yourself” is an overlooked part of the second greatest commandment, but I digress.) While the church labels its mission “outreach” (“the world around”), the motivation often comes from necessity AND obligation: It is necessary to have enough members to pay the bills. We are obligated to follow Christ’s example and command to “make disciples”. (Though, I’m not sure we understand that command. “We” can’t “make” the Holy Spirit do anything. We are vessels for The Spirit to work. I can’t explain it, but I know that the falsehood that “we” can “save” the “lost” is just that: FALSE! AND it’s a very dangerous pretense!) It has been my experience that even though the “mission” is “outreach”, we become consumed with our identity. The church (the “church-persons”) always retreats to the isolated confines of their identity within that organization.
    (I’m sure you’re wondering what this has to do with baptism. Sorry. Consolidating my plethora of thoughts isn’t easy.)
    The politics, the business, and the basic relationships in the church often make it difficult to focus on our individual relationship (I use the term relationship very loosely.) with The Persons of God. This is why I’m not a “reluctant Christian”. While I don’t understand God (and I certainly can’t claim to “know” Him!), I know that The Son is the resurrected Christ, and The Spirit fills me with faith and peace that I can’t attempt to explain. That faith, the desire to learn, and my attempt to understand and try to live (by The Spirit’s power) in God’s love makes me a Christian. Being a member of a church just makes me a “church-person”.
    So, on to baptism…
    I acknowledge the ceremonial power of baptism. It is most certainly a commitment to your baby! While the water alone is nothing, God’s inexplicable power can make the ritual a blessing.
    My daughter is 15 months old. We baptized her (in her bathroom sink!) when she was three days old. We are committed to raising her in the Christian faith, but does that mean “the church”? She has not been baptized “in the church”. I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.
    On a slightly different subject (or maybe an offshoot of the subject), I’ve read many of your posts. Your words are those of a truly Spirit-filled person. (And very educated. I believe that is part of The Spirit’s work in us. We are told to search The Scriptures. Though, I joke that it isn’t followed by, “and make sense of them all”.)
    I’m not sure why, because I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a post on this subject, but something made me miss attending worship services. (The Spirit’s work, possibly.) We worshipped, yesterday, at a church that we have attended a few times. I find myself thinking, “If we go back next Sunday, and the next, and so on, will the next step be falling back into the meaninglessness of ‘Beth: The Director of Blah, Blah, Blah at So and So Church’?”. It sounds harsh and shallow. It is. That’s why it’s a fear. And, IF we “join” then do we baptize our daughter again? (My assumption being that our bathroom sink baptism “doesn’t count”.)
    I’m not asking these questions because I presume you have the answers. I’m not asking for your thoughts because I think that you have some divine understanding. I ask because I appreciate so many of your perspectives, and I’m always wanting to have a better understanding of “faith matters”. (Though I recognize that “understanding” and “faith matters” may not go hand in hand. 🙂
    I hope my ramblings make some sort of sense. Thank you for your ministry!
    God’s peace,

    • Hi Beth,
      Thanks for this post and these questions!

      You provide a lot of insight not just for me, but for anyone who reads this. Thank you for that.

      So, for your first question on baptism, I do feel that the community is important for not only the baptized individual, but the parent of the baptized. It all has to do with this central point, for me: without other people, God just ends up looking too much like me. God likes who I like, dislikes who I dislike, does what I like, and shuns what I don’t like.

      Now, do I think you baptizing your babe in the sink is real? It is so real. Absolutely real. God is so present there, and you know this.

      The life of the baptized is not just one of giving, though, and that’s what I hear in your next post. You’ve given to the point that life has slipped away. We give to the point of death all the time, but we must bear in mind that only in Jesus is there redemptive suffering, and I don’t think we are called to live in death. When my volunteers give to the point of death, I mandate their Sabbath.

      It sounds like you’re on a Sabbath…and that is so important.

      So, I would say that, if you’re desiring a faith community again, don’t look too far down the road and be consistent with “no”. No, I can’t take on spiritual education right now, but I can see that my child is there. No, I can’t be on the altar guild, but I’ll take the sacraments weekly. No, I can’t organize the food pantry, but I can see if I can make it a routine to volunteer quarterly as my spirit allows.

      In this way we honor the time it is in our life. It seems to me you’ve been in a season of reaping and harvesting. But now might be a season of sowing…at least, that’s what I hear from you.

      Sometimes we can mistake the season of sowing for a season of “letting go” (which is a season in it’s own right, btw! Sometimes we do have to let it go). And, perhaps to get out of the harvesting season, you did have to let it all go. But now I hear a stirring for sowing.

      You must stay in the sowing season as long as it takes for the fruit to grow and repair itself. No need to rush it; this, too, is God’s calling for you!

      Many blessings and peace as you discern what season this is!

  4. Thank you so much, Pastor Tim!
    (Sorry for the delayed response. Thats not indicitive of my actual reaponse. My gratitude was certainly immediate!)
    I appreciate your wisdom and your reassurance. Your point about “God looking too much like me” was excellent! (He knows I don’t want that!) You said something else that struck me as particularly powerful. As almost a side-note, you mentioned “letting go”. I think I needed to hear that the most.
    In my attempt to explain (mostly to myself!) my “fear” of being a “church-person”, I didn’t really acknowledge some of my deepest, most painful reasons.
    “Letting go” is exactly what I need to do! I’ve held on to some of the “tragedies” I’ve experienced in “church life”. (I’m NOT saying there haven’t been countless blessings, but the “bad” can hold on to the deepest part of you.) I buried the “bad”, BUT I didn’t let go of it. I needed to recognize and acknowledge that.
    Thanks again!!!
    Blessings and Peace,

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