On a weekend in January, with a gospel message and three baptisteries filled and ready to go, Jeff Vines, senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley (CCV) in San Dimas, California, challenged people to follow Christ’s call to be baptized. Right then, in the clothes they were wearing, 482 people responded and were immersed into Christ. The church saw another 119 baptisms the following weekend. Jeff calls himself “a missionary at heart,” having served on mission fields in Zimbabwe and New Zealand. He and his wife, Robin, moved from a teaching ministry at Savannah (Georgia) Christian Church to lead CCV one year ago. Jeff holds a master’s degree from Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.
Was there anything in particular that prompted you to think about this challenge to the church?
I love to stay around after church and talk to people. In the course of doing that I realized how many people in our church came from the Catholic church or reformed churches—and it wasn’t just a few! Combine that with numerous others who knew nothing at all about baptism and a younger generation that had not been taught the significance and the clear biblical teaching of immersion, and you have a great opportunity for teaching and mass obedience!
I kept hearing people say, “Well, I raised my hand at a Harvest Crusade,” or “I accepted Jesus two years ago,” and I thought, we have a lot of people here who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior but they’ve never been taught about baptism—or at least they don’t have a clear understanding of what it’s all about. So I thought, I need to teach what the Scripture says about baptism and see what happens.
How did you come up with the idea to take the approach you did?
My friend Brian Jobe, the teaching pastor at Savannah Christian, called me and said, “Have you heard that there’s a church in North Carolina that did a baptism service and a couple hundred people got baptized? We’re going to try that here.” He said the other church had really prepared for it. They only did baptisms once a year so they “saved up for it.” Brian said, ”We’re thinking about doing it and not announcing it—just doing it.” That’s when I thought, Man, we need to do this here!
Did you know this was going to be such a success?
Not at first. Then, the more I thought about it the more I began to anticipate something very special. There was a lot of skepticism among the staff. “This is Southern California, not the East Coast,” they said. But still, I just thought this was the right thing to do, no matter what the response. Little did I know God had been preparing the hearts of our people long before he led Brian to call me.
How do you respond to people who say this is just another gimmick?
The older I get the more I’m realizing how little real revival has to do with me and so much more to do with God. Our people needed to hear this message. We better be careful that we become so creative with all the pizzazz that we begin winning people to a way of doing church rather than to a Savior. Moreover, we had better make sure it’s the truth of God’s Word that is moving people, not just our heart-tugging stories. The Bible says, “Repent and be baptized.” That can be hard for many but it’s a real opportunity to obey perhaps one of the most fundamental commands in Scripture. Again, my biggest fear is winning people to a way of doing church rather than serving Jesus and submitting to his lordship over our lives.
When a preacher calls and asks how you did this, what will you say?
Number one: pray hard. Number two: put something visible that’s different in your auditorium. We put two pools on the stage in addition to the baptistery—we bought two, 30-inch tall “Easy Set” pools on Amazon.com. Number three: take away all excuses.
What kind of excuses?
I said, “I know some of you don’t want to get wet in front of people. Jesus leaves his throne in glory, comes down to the earth, is scourged by the Romans, stretches out his hands, and dies for you. <pause> And you don’t want to get wet?” I also took a line from Mike Breaux, “You know the greatest thing about baptism? It’s the great equalizer. Whether you’ve got a 50-dollar haircut or a 10-dollar haircut, when you come out of the water you’re all going to look the same!”
I would think, “Get baptized in the clothes I’m wearing?” would be a pretty handy excuse.
I said, “We’ll put a black T-shirt over your clothes (for modesty sake), we’ve got towels for you to dry off and a garbage bag to put in your car if you don’t want to get your car seat wet.”
Summarize that day’s sermon in 25 words or less.
Your sin separates you from God. God’s not expecting you to be perfect. Just say you’re sorry and turn and start living his way. Then trust Jesus to forgive you of your sin. And finally, be baptized.
That’s 37 words, but it pretty much sums it up.
How is it that the most simple sermon I preached since I got here had the biggest impact? I wonder if God does that to get it through our thick skulls that while study is definitely valuable, we need to spend more time in prayer than anything else. We often depend on our own ability to manipulate rather than upon God’s power to move the hearts of our people in response to simple biblical truths. I do not say that in judgment. I am the chief of all sinners in this area!
What was your ultimate objective for the sermon?
I wanted to make sure the message was the simplest possible and I used as much Scripture as possible. I had three goals in mind. One, I wanted them to see that Jesus commanded it. Repent and be baptized. Two, I wanted them to see that there are nine conversion experiences in the book of Acts and all nine began with someone making an internal commitment that Jesus is my Savior and ended with the external act of baptism. All nine. The third thing I wanted them to see was that there’s no gap. You become a believer, you repent, and then you’re baptized. The examples I used were the Philippian jailer and Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
Those stories make the point strongly.
When I got to the part where I started reading out of the book of Acts and said, “This is the history of how the early church got started,” I noticed people looked up and started listening more intently. When they heard baptism is the first thing people did and it always happened and it happened immediately, at that point, I said here’s my question, “What’s to stop you from being baptized?”
Kind of makes it hard to say no.
If Jesus is truly your Lord and Savior and he asked you to be baptized, why on earth would you say, “No.” Because it’s too hard? Because you do not want to get wet in front of people? I am confident Jesus will ask you to do harder things than this as you progress in your faith. This is perhaps the most fundamental command. I believe that it has much more to do with understanding rather than a refusal to obey.
Were you planning for this to be “spontaneous” or did you have a game plan in place with an expectation that there would be many baptisms?
Both. We had a game plan to know what to do with people. All that was planned. Did we plan for 482? No, not until after Saturday night. On Saturday night people were moving before I even said, “come.” I just said let’s go, let’s get it done. We had 32 people on Saturday night.
With this response, which was beyond your expectation, how did you handle the logistics?
We had to send people to Target and Big Lots to buy extra towels—we cleaned them out! When people saw what was happening, everybody wanted to be part of it, so we had no shortage of volunteers—they flocked to meet the need. For example, we had one lady who stayed through all three Sunday morning services mopping up water with towels and wringing them into buckets.
How long does it take to baptize 482 people?
It probably takes around 120 minutes with three baptisteries. We did three songs, I preached, and we had 25 minutes left in each service. Since we do six services every weekend, we had to tell people to leave so the next crowd could come in!
Were you able to make it a personal event for each individual?
With each person, I wanted to greet them and I wanted to say their name. I would say, “Thank you for your courage and your example. I know this is hard and it’s the right thing to do.” They would often say, “This isn’t hard.” The decision counselor would get them ready for the baptism and encourage them and take them to the person who was doing the baptism.
How is the church following up with these people to help them grow in their faith?
We’ve had Eric Chiampa, our discipleship pastor, and Ron Hall, our pastor of counseling, make contact with people within 24 hours with congratulations on their baptism. We also put a page on our Web site of what to do if you were baptized—a sort of a next steps instruction (www.CCVnow.com).
The emotions of that day must have been flowing strong.
There was an old guy—he had to be close to 80—he comes up to me after the third service on Sunday. He’s kind of shaky—he looks at me and says, “I’ve been going to church all my life and I’ve never experienced this before. All these people . . .” He had a tear running down his cheek. I said, “It does the heart of an old warrior real good, doesn’t it.” He said, “Indeed it does,” and went away as if he were Simeon, who said, “Now I have seen the consolation of Israel, I can die in peace.”
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.