By T.R. Robertson
How do we determine that a young child is ready to be baptized? There are many answers, and several of them are explained in this article.
“It’s almost like I’m talking them out of it, because I really want to see if their decision is real.”
Trent Schake, senior minister at Blue Ridge Christian Church in Columbia, Missouri, is one of several ministers who talked with me about their experiences shepherding parents and children through the decision to be baptized.
“I don’t want to put someone in the baptistery if they’re not really ready,” Schake continues, “but I also don’t want to hold them back if they really need to be there.”
Most Christian churches and churches of Christ affirm some version of the doctrine of innocence at birth. And most parents and ministers in those churches struggle with integrating their doctrine with a practical approach to determining when a child is ready to be baptized
More than one minister told a story of parents bringing their children to the preacher at a certain age, insisting it was time for them to be baptized. They understood the church doesn’t baptize babies, but when the child reached what the parents considered to be the appropriate age, they wanted it done, regardless of what the child knew, believed, or felt. They assume the child is a believer since he or she grew up in the church
For any other seeker, we would assume hearing the gospel would be the result of some form of evangelistic effort. Why is it we don’t assume the same should be the norm for a young person who has grown up in the church? They’re virtually drowning in a flood of information, but may have never been discipled, never actually been presented with the gospel message.
“I have lots of apprehension about baptizing children, and am not quick to encourage that decision,” says Jack Sumption, minister at First Christian Church in Memphis, Missouri. “I am more interested in ‘making disciples’ than baptizing candidates.”
Instead of teaching them how to be good little church kids, their preachers, teachers, and parents should be focusing on instilling an attitude of humility, awareness of personal sin, and the need for a conscious decision for Christ.
Every teacher of children who are around age 10 or older should schedule opportunities to teach about the importance of making an informed decision. I once brought up the topic to my class of 10- to 12-year-old boys and saw one of them baptized a week later. At the baptism, his father, who was a staff member at the church, thanked me for teaching about it in the class. He knew his son had been thinking about baptism, but he was hesitant to push him into it. Our class discussion provided the impetus the boy needed to take the next steps.
It’s important to remember that people aren’t saved by how much they know, whether children or adults. Thousands in the book of Acts were baptized immediately after hearing a basic gospel sermon, with no questionnaire to fill out, no interview with the preacher about their understanding of doctrinal fine points.
Children who grow up in the church will tend to parrot the beliefs they’ve been taught, often without any personal investment in those beliefs. Discerning the point where their belief has become both mature and personal can be difficult. It can easily become a subjective judgment, not much rooted in theology.
The key for young seekers is to determine whether they are able to connect what they believe to their personal life. Isolating and focusing on specific aspects of their beliefs can be helpful.
Tyler Russell, student minister at Highland Church of Christ in Robinson, Illinois, says, “I think the biggest thing to determine is whether the child understands death. Until a child is mature enough to understand death, I don’t know if there is much validity to their decision. If we truly believe that sin leads to death from a biblical standpoint, but if you don’t understand death, then what are you being saved from? I’m not sure if it is an age thing or more of whether they understand the concept of Jesus’ dying and defeating death.”
Steve Hagemeyer, a missionary and father of four, told me about the conversation he had with one of his daughters.
“She talked about her bad attitude about changes going on, the difficulties our family was going through. She recognized that as sin. And she understood that by following Christ, God would forgive her, but also she would have that help to overcome temptation. That’s the best place to start, to realize you are incapable of overcoming your sins on your own and need divine help.”
In 2 Corinthians 7:11, Paul lists seven actions that demonstrate the presence of true repentance: “What earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.”
Trent Schake looks for evidence of those qualities when he’s trying to determine the sincerity of a young person’s repentance.
“They freely talk about their sins and they know they need to be forgiven,” Schake says. “They talk about just feeling guilty all these years. The tears are coming, or almost coming, not from the eyes but from the heart. They maybe repeat that they love Jesus over and over and over again. They never mention ‘my parents said this’ or ‘my best friend did this.’ It’s just, ‘I’ve blown it,’ ‘I’m a sinner,’ ‘I know I need God.’ Those are the types of things in the discussion that I think point to genuine repentance. No pressure from anyone at all, it’s just coming from the heart.”
Confession is too often trivialized in our salvation theology. It should be more than just a “repeat-after-me” statement elicited after the invitation hymn.
True confession is an ongoing act originating in a self-examined heart. Before anyone can confess to God, there must be a willingness to objectively examine your own heart and confess to yourself the truth of who you are.
For children, this means a level of self-awareness and an awareness of the individuality of other people. This occurs at a wide range of ages. Some young people come awake to the world at an early age, while others may be into their teens before they step out of the fog of childhood.
Jack Sumption uses an unexpected, outside-the-box question to measure a child’s awareness. He asks the parents, “Are you confident and comfortable with your child taking sole responsibility for a pet?”
“Seems to me,” Sumption says, “if there is any concern that Johnny cannot follow through with a commitment to caring for an animal on a daily basis, he is probably not ready to accept personal responsibility for his spiritual life.”
“I also ask parents,” Sumption says, “if they are ready to have a new baby in the family. Are they ready to give the attention needed to help their child become a disciple of Jesus?”
Because of our emphasis on the role of baptism in salvation, it’s easy to make the mistake of viewing it as the final step. A newborn Christian should be treated like a newborn child, an infant who will need help and training for the new life ahead.
When my own son was baptized, my wife and I wrote up notes about the process we went through to verify his readiness. We still have that record of his questions and comments and of our observations, in case he ever doubts the validity of his childhood decision.
Another father in our church took that idea one step further and asks his children to journal about their studies, their sins, and their thought process as they consider the decision to be baptized, creating a record of their own.
What is often called rebaptism is not always a bad thing. Tim Worstell, who was youth minister for nearly four decades at Crossroads Christian Church in Macon, Missouri, was himself “rebaptized” as a teenager.
“The first time, when I was a kid, the preacher asked a few quick questions and just baptized me right then and there,” he says. “Later, at a church revival, I became convicted in my heart for the first time. I knew the only reason I had gone forward before was because I wanted to take Communion. This time Lowell McCoy, the preacher, asked me a lot about my beliefs and my sins.”
Learning from his own experience, Worstell developed the practice of responding to a young person’s interest in baptism by handing them a pamphlet about the relevant scriptural teachings and the process of making a decision. A few days later they sit together and go through the pamphlet together.
Children in the church or at church camp are seekers, in need of discipleship. The church’s challenge is to anchor both their future and the church’s practice in sound doctrine.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.