Five years ago, as 16 students of the South Lancaster Academy, who had requested baptism during that week of prayer, were about to be baptized at the fully packed Village Adventist Church in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, something unimaginable happened. Our, then 6-year-old, son Joel managed to get away from my wife Joanne and ran towards the platform, and began to climb trying to get into the baptistery.
As everyone looked on, I asked him, "Joel, what are you doing?" He replied: "I want to get baptized, I've been asking you for three years. You are already in the water, let me get in and baptize me...please Papa, I love Jesus, just do it!!!” Rather than being excited and moved by my little boy's act of faith and boldness, I was angered by his “irreverence” and mortified by the “distraction” he had just created in the midst of such a sacred ceremony. I tried to convince him to no avail to go back and sit next to his mom. As he continued to softly and bravely make his case to me, before hundreds of people who watched in awe, I stared at him in disapproval as I waited for my wife Joanne to come and retrieve him. It felt like she took forever to get there. When she finally got there, she brought him down, gave him her phone and asked him to take a photo of the baptism. After fussing and telling her that he was there to be baptized and not to take photos, he ended up taking a few photos.
Evangelism Outcome #2 - Fostering Acceptance, Access, and Spiritual Safety in all our churches
As I think of this very personal and painful story, I am reminded of our second Evangelism Outcome. As I mentioned in my last two blogs, during the last three years (2015-2018) we surveyed and discussed with thousands of pastors, members, and church leaders, resulting in Five Outcomes that could revolutionize mission and evangelism across North America. This time I would like to focus on the second one:
2. Fostering Acceptance, Access, and Spiritual Safety in all our churches: 87 percent scored this outcome 7 or higher in a 1-10 scale. The point here is to make it easy to come in and very hard to get out. Not talking about a prison system here, rather referring to a type of church, that is accessible, welcoming, loving, and empowering to such a degree that once you come in, you love it so much that you want to stay and do life together with this awesome community of believers.
If you don’t have people from all walks of life in your church, perhaps it is because they don’t feel your church is a safe place for them. If the baptism process is long and complicated, and your congregation understands baptism to be the graduation, only for those who have all the knowledge and have shown great spiritual maturity, rather than a new birth and a beginning step in the discipleship journey, your church perhaps is not accessible. Remember that in the New Testament, baptism was always the step that followed the acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, and it was to be continued by a beautiful discipleship journey of fellowship, breaking of bread together, teaching, confirmation, service, and engagement in the faith.
If your church is not intentionally giving the opportunity to children to be baptized as they accept Jesus, and the phrases “too young” and “not ready yet” are common responses to their requests for baptism, perhaps your church is not very accessible. Keep in mind that there are no age requirements for baptism in Scripture. According to the Bible, baptism is not for the perfect, it is not for those that know all the doctrines (although knowing our beliefs is important), baptism is for sinners who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Empowering members to treat people, who are different than we are, the way Jesus would. Establishing serious guidelines for children's safety, creating quality clear signage that identifies your church well around the community, an updated website, and an active social media presence also play a vital role in making sure that your church is accepting, accessible, and safe.
As I look back to my initial story, I still regret my reaction! If this would have happened today, I would have allowed Joel to climb over into the baptistery, and would have baptized him on the spot. On that day I learned a few lessons, first as a father, but also as a pastor: (1) there is no age limit to accept Jesus, (2) the decision of a child to follow Jesus needs to be celebrated and taken seriously, (3) my children and all children are more important than what people may think or say, (4) the salvation of my children and all children is more valuable than some long held views (traditions) which state an individual must be a "certain age" before he/she gets baptized - not referring to infant baptism here, (5) children are people and Jesus was and is still available to them at the time of their choosing, and finally (6) as a Pastor, I am not here to hinder a decision to follow Jesus, but to facilitate it.
Needless to say, Joel was baptized three weeks later at the age of six, together with his brother Jose who was seven, and Ralph, a friend who participated with them in the small group Bible Study for children we held weekly at our home. On several occasions, Joel, who is now 11, has told me that his baptism is the #1 highlight of his life!
Dear parent or pastor, please learn from my mistake! Don't delay your child's decision to follow Jesus because they are too young! Or for any other reason!
Please, take time to talk with your congregation about the most practical ways to make your church accepting of people, and the most accessible and spiritual safe experience in your community.
Pastor Jose Cortes Jr., is an Associate Director of the Ministerial Association and leads Evangelism, Church Planting, and Adventist/Global Mission for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.