Thursday, April 23, 2009

Manure and Mission

Had a couple of meetings with people yesterday enquiring about baptism, one adult, one family seeking baptism for their children. In both cases it was the first time I'd met them face to face, and an image came to mind whilst all this was going on.

In our garden, stuff grows. Some of it is moss and weeds, others are things we've planted ourselves. If you want something to grow, and it's in the very early stages (seed, small shoot), then two things will kill it. One is complete neglect - no water, no soil, no sun (unless it's a mushroom). The other is overkill: drenched with a hosepipe every hour, and a couple of bags of multipurpose compost dumped on it from a great height.

Many of the baptism enquiries we get, especially for children, come from people who aren't of solid and committed Christian faith. It feels a bit like being presented with a small shoot: it has the potential to grow into something bigger, and potentially take root and start producing fruit, but that day is a long way off. Most clergy have at their disposal an entire warehouse of compost, and a sizeable lake of water - what we've learned, Bible knowledge, personal experiences, outlines of the gospel, books to lend, courses to encourage people to go on, questions to get people thinking, church groups/events which could help people make the first step towards being part of the church, how to pray & read the Bible etc. If we opened the gates on all of this stuff at once, most of the people we meet would be blown away by it. They'll probably go through with the baptism, but that will be the last we see of them.

The skill is to give the shoot enough water and nutrients to help it to grow without killing it. Not enough - a watery skim-through of the Christian faith and a bit of vicary niceness - will see it wither. Too much will overwhelm it. Then when the plant has grown a bit, it's ready for more. In a way this isn't 100 miles from Lawrence Singlehurst's model of 'Sowing, Reaping, Keeping' - of seeing the journey to faith as a series of steps, and providing regular opportunities for people to take the next step. One or two folk who came to us for baptism in the last couple of years are now looking at confirmation. The shoots are growing.

But so as not to get carried away:
1. Is this a valid image, or am I just trying to justify a fuzzy Anglican approach which compromises on personal commitment?

2. Isn't it our job to deliver the gospel, whether or not we judge that people are capable or recieving the entire package, and to trust God?

3. Do we devalue baptism by not insisting on committed Christian faith in those who seek it for their children?


  1. I think that is a very good analogy, and matches up pretty well with what we do at St James'.

    The bar is deliberately set very low, as we see Baptism as the first step on the road, not something for which we need to stick a load of obstacles in the way of those asking for it.

    Quite a few of the requests come via our toddler group, where the Christian element consists of a bible story section that is primarily run by the Mums in the group, with only occasional participation from our clergy.

    From there quite a few ask for baptism, and after that are invited along to our family service, where again the bar is set pretty low, and it is currently pulling in our largest congregations at about 150 people every two weeks.

    From there families start to find their commitment growing such that we have several who have progressed on and come to our main Parish Communion at 11am, taking their children to our Sunday Club.

    Hitting people who are very much on the periphery doesn't work, and as you suggest, ultimately just scares them off.

    It is our job to deliver the gospel so people hear it, and that involves delivering it in different ways to different groups of people. What many people need is to be nurtured, and guided through the steps.

  2. I have recently changed my practice on this and for the most part I now baptise the children of people who have become regular church attenders and are willing to either attend a Christian Basics course or go through the material privately with me.

    I believe that in the New Testament baptism is the sacrament of commitment, not the sacrament of inquiry. If we're going to treat it as the sacrament of inquiry we need to change the language of the promises (not to mention a few texts in the New Testament).