Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Expanding the Welcome

I daresay that those of you who read this blog agree with the statement that the church should be a place of extravagant welcome, where all people are invited to participate and share in the life of the community. Congregations struggle to varying degrees about how to live out that welcome when it comes to GLBT persons, people of different races or social classes, and sexual offenders - to name just a few.

But the other day I had an interesting conversation with a colleague who's struggling with welcoming another kind of family. The congregation this colleague serves takes extremely seriously the baptismal covenant it offers, and they consider themselves a congregation that doesn't do a lot of baptisms for people who are there just for the "insurance policy" but don't seem to have an honest intention of living out the baptismal promises.

In the UCC's Book of Worship, our baptismal covenant includes these questions of the candidates' parents (I've edited them to read in the singular):

  • Do you desire to have your child baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?

  • Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of evil and to receive the freedom of new life in Christ?

  • Will you teach this child that s/he may be led to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (we say "center of his/her faith")?

  • Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ's disciple(s), to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?

  • Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow with this child in the Christian faith, to help this child to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, by celebrating Christ's presence, by furthering Christ's mission in all the world, and by offering the nurture of the Christian church so that s/he may affirm his/her baptism?

Lately, my colleague's congregation has had a few families who have gone through the motions of the pre-baptism class, had their child baptized, and have disappeared. Another family, whom my colleague suspects will be doing the same thing, is due to have their child baptized this week. This colleague is struggling. How do we offer this sacrament when it seems clear that the family has no intention of following through? My colleague will, of course, do te baptism, but there's some frustration there.

This is not a unique struggle. All of us clergy who take the sacraments seriously face this question, for we've all been there. And if it's not for a baptism, then we've experienced this for a wedding. I had a mentor once who said he almost always did weddings and baptisms even if he knew he'd never see the family again because he didn't think it was right to deprive anyone of an expression of God's grace. At the time I didn't really get it, but I think I'm starting to.

Furthermore, of all the families in the church, this family probably needs the grace found in the sacrament more than most. And, without minimizing the seriousness of the covenant or our anger and frustration at those who seem to take these promises far less seriously than we do, our job is to share the grace of God and to teach people that this grace is free, but it isn't cheap. We do that in the full liturgical and educational and missional expressions of the life of the church, but we have to do both. We have to OFFER the grace freely even as we teach the costly nature of that gift.

What if we took the opinion that these "splash and dash" families (ugh - I really don't like that expression) really are taking those promises seriously, but that for a whole host of reasons they are only able, even relying on God's help and grace, to do a crap job of living up to those promises? Then the question becomes, are such people welcome in our churches?


John Chaplin said...

nice post there Liturgy's kind of the balancing act of valueing the fixed points of sacrament/scripture while also recognizing the extravagance of God' love. (The type of love that might draw the "disappearing" folks back into the community at a later point in time!)

Anonymous said...

So glad to have you back at blogging.

A senior pastor I worked with in Boston gave me a great model for this. He always baptized the first child free and easy--a meeting to explain the promises and talk about the meaning, and that was it. If the family disappeared, he would not agree to baptize the second child until they began to attend regularly (usually a month or two).

I always liked the way that balanced welcome with accountability. I have not had occasion to use it, but I have told people about it when I baptized their first child--if I suspected we might not see them again.