Evangelism, Baptism and Evaluating Church Health
If I've heard it once I have heard it a thousand times: Christians who are members in Reformed Churches tripping over themselves to apologize about how poorly the Reformed Church does evangelism. Related to this is the tried and true self-deprecation: "We need to see more adult baptisms." What turns my stomach most of all, however, is hearing such individuals says things like, "Evangelical churches win people to Christ and then we disciple them." Such a statement is almost entirely untrue. In this post, I wish to challenge the assertion that the Reformed Church is bad at evangelism by focusing attention on the sacrament of baptism.
It has been both my pleasure and privilege to baptize more adult converts than I ever could have imagined when I first became a pastor. However, it is probably the case that the majority of baptisms that I have performed have been those of the children of believers. For some-- even among those who gladly wear the Reformed and Confessional label--this is not a good thing. "We need more adult baptisms," they say. Generally speaking, those who talk like this seem to have embraced a scale by which they judge baptisms: Infant baptism, good; older children (in a family that has transferred from a non-Reformed Church) baptized by profession of faith, better; college students/young professionals baptized on profession of faith, even better; middle aged or senior converts, even better still. The problem with this scale is that people who unnecessarily create levels of baptism unfortunately reduce the beauty of covenantal baptism, and unwittingly undermining baptism itself. Covenantal (i.e. household and infant baptism) is baptism. We should, therefore, rejoice in the same manner and with the same passion and emotion at each and every baptism. Sadly, it is often the case that, for many, simply speaking of "infant baptism" subtly undermines baptism.
Those who have adopted a baptism scale miss what is actually taking place during the baptism of the infant of a believer. When the child of a believer is baptized we are doing evangelism and we are making disciples (Matt. 28:18). At every baptism we rejoice in the work of God in these waters as we witness another baptism, another disciple being made and another member added to Christ church. From this perspective the Reformed Church is quite good at evangelism.
One of the things that the Reformed Church universally acknowledges is that re-baptism isn't baptism. When I was 19 or 20 years old, having undergone a profoundly religious experience and a turning from sin to Christ, a group of Christians was encouraging me to be re-baptized. The ironic thing about this experience was that the group encouraging me to do this, on the one hand, absolutely insisted on it (so much so that membership was not allowed without it); while, on the other hand, they were equally clear that baptism doesn't really matter that much. They told me that baptism was about me taking a step of obedience and proclaiming my new life. The reason I was told I had to be re-baptized was because I had been baptized as an infant. To the group insisting on re-baptism, this baptism didn't count. I came to see, however, that my baptism as an infant was really baptism and my experience in the backyard pool at 19 or 20 was nothing more than a religious incantation which I was forced to undergo.
There is no such thing as re-baptism. There is only baptism. Baptism is not repeatable. There is only one baptism. One is either a baptized person or one is not a baptized person. The Reformers and the Reformed Church have consistently defended the fact that baptism cannot be undone--no matter the state of one's heart or one's church standing.
Grasping this principle helps us understand, in part, why we see fewer adult baptisms than infant baptisms in our church. Additionally, it helps allay the thesis that the Reformed Church is bad at evangelism. One very clear reason why we see fewer adults being baptized in our church is because a large number of people come to repentance and faith in Christ many years after having been baptized as infants. In that case, they join our church by reaffirmation of faith rather than re-baptism. That was my experience and it is the experience of many who live in areas where the Gospel has been at work for Centuries.
In contrast to such an approach to baptism, evangelicals of all stripes insist that those who have had a spiritual experience and have come to Christ in repentance and faith must enter their waters. By virtue of that, Evangelical churches have more adult baptisms than Reformed Churches. This is, of course, nothing new. This is the Anabaptist way. The fanatics (as Calvin called them) were doing the same during the Reformation as they are doing in our day. By the looks of things, they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Does the fact that we do not see more adult baptisms really mean that the Reformed Church is bad at evangelism? Au contraire; it may simply mean that we have a different way of evaluating and calculating effectiveness. Simply put, this difference stems from a different way of viewing baptism.