I originally wrote this piece in June of 2009 to be published on my personal blog but never got around to doing it. It wasn’t merely because of my sloth. Pastorally, I didn’t want to unnecessarily offend members of my congregation who already struggle with the traditional “Reformed” understanding of baptism and all that baptism entails.
Yet, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last 5+ years of ministry about conversion and the significance of baptism and the Christian Church. As a pastor, you have a front row seat in this great drama. But I think that I’ve been drawn to this area in particular because I moved into a ministry context largely evangelized by your fairly typical American evangelicalism. There is a big stress on one’s personal relationship with God. This is, of course, a good stress. However, it can also come at the expense of the Christian community or “Body of Christ” as the Scriptures describe.
This reflection was born out of this ethos.
Today a very aware ministry colleague made me aware of a new book from church historian Mark Noll. I read a very interesting excerpt from some section of the manuscript. Many things surprised me about the state of my faith. At the end of several sentences I had chills running down my spine. Noll’s description of the vibrancy and advance of the global church makes me want to join a chorus of sisters and brothers in a house in Shanghai or under a tree in Rwanda.
He was making the point that conversions are being experienced in a variety of ways. The new global church is not simply praying the sinners prayer and getting a new Bible. Sometimes, he writes, whole villages and tribes are converting to Christianity. Then he relayed a piece of history from a millennium past. In that day Prince Vladmir spent time studying Judaism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. He ended up choosing Eastern Orthodoxy and, subsequently, marched the whole city of Kiev down to the river to be baptized.
Wow! No altar call. You’re Christians now. We’re getting baptized. Follow the leader.
Stories like this immediately make Western evangelicals wonder about individual peoples true feelings. It seems as though, for the Kievites, it was their leader’s feelings that mattered most. Their figurehead led them through the waters and into a new existence, with Christ as Lord. I assume that they had to own this new reality, however.
I wouldn’t suggest this as a means of North American conversion. However, I’m very aware of my own conversion. It isn’t that different, really. Sure, I remember asking Jesus into my heart when I was 5 or 6 in the basement of my best friend’s house. But there was more to the story before that. I was born into a Christian home. Hearing the Gospel, singing hymns, praying, have always been there with me. I am able to start into centuries old hymns after hearing a slice of organ notes. In my youth I said I was tired of the crusty hymns of our services. But now its those old hymns that bring tears. I’m not even 30 years old! I shouldn’t like “By the Sea of Crystal” but that last line belted out by a long suffering, pilgrim congregation absolutely rocks.
My point: I was born into the community of faith and shortly thereafter signed and sealed into it through baptism. My parents were born and baptized into the faith. My Grandparents. My Great-Grandparents. Their parents. Then it gets a bit more foggy but the likelihood is that many more generations back my kin in Frisland, working the farms or fishing the waters of the Noord Zee, were baptized into and confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. Sometime, maybe after (Boniface?) preached through the area, my tree-worshipping ancestor left his pagan ways and was baptized into Christ. And from generation to generation the Gospel of Christ was impressed upon the next. So, in some sense, I don’t think it’s too sacrilegious to say that part of me was converted back with my yet unknown ancestor. Life became saturated with Christ and I was born into that life. I was then signed and sealed into it. I grew. I professed. I’m still growing. Still professing. And now impressing too.
But isn’t this also how Scripture describes faith? We have these family stories and then we have The Family Story.
I love how ‘In Christ’ ‘through faith’ ‘through baptism’ we are joined with God’s people into his great redemption drama.