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Rite of baptism trickles away

April 14, 2006

Baptism of Christ, a fresco done from 1437-45 by Fra Angelico, is in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy.


Every month there’s a cheering, weeping, air-horn-tooting celebration at First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, when the Rev. Rod Loy immerses new believers in the baptismal tank.

“This is a sign that someone understands the ideas of sin and Christ’s sacrifice and willfully chooses to be a lifelong follower of Jesus,” says the pastor. “So we celebrate it big.”

For believers, baptism is modeled on their savior, who the Bible says waded into the water to consecrate himself to God.

They may be sprinkled, washed from a flowing pitcher or immersed, as faith rituals vary. But all forms point to beliefs: rebirth in faith, salvation from sin, acceptance of God’s promises and charges.

For parents who bring a baby before their church, baptism is a pledge of their faith, a shield against evil, a wrapping of communal arms around a defenseless soul.

For Christians of all denominations, “even if they never darkened the door of a church any other time in their life … there’s a tendency to hold onto this life-cycle marker,” says the Rev. Paul Sullins, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Yet, this Easter, the holy day of resurrection, statistics find Americans slowly drifting away from the ancient baptismal ritual.

The Catholic Church has more than doubled in size in the past half-century, but its rate of infant baptism steadily has fallen, Sullins says.

Methodists and Lutherans have seen both baptisms and their membership numbers slide for years.

Even Loy’s denomination, the Assemblies of God, which has had a boom in membership since 1980, saw its annual baptism numbers peak in 1997, then inch downward.

The Southern Baptist Convention has seen a half-century decline in baptisms and stalled growth in membership.

In response, the Rev. Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is leading a national campaign to reverse the trend.

Behind the drop, experts see pressures ranging from fewer babies since the postwar boom, to increased secularization and interfaith marriage, to more “seeker churches” that downplay tradition.

Among Catholics, Sullins says, the rate of baptisms has fallen faster than the rate of decline in births.

Baptism isn’t the only source of new members. The church’s U.S. numbers — up from 31.6 million in 1954 to 67.8 million last year — also have grown through immigration. And at Saturday’s Easter vigil, the church will receive tens of thousands of adult converts.

The sociologist also links fewer infant baptisms to two trends involving marriage. Fewer Catholics are choosing to marry in the church, and Sullins says they may be less “attached to the sacraments.” And, since a change in church law in 1983, Catholics who marry non-Catholics no longer must promise to baptize and rear their children as Catholics.

Intermarriage slows baptisms

Now the church requires only “a general recognition by the couple that the Catholic partner’s faith will be respected.”

“The more you see more inter-faith marriages or couples where one partner is lukewarm or hostile to organized religion, the more you will see baptism taper off,” says the Rev. James Martin, associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of My Life with the Saints

“I know friends who themselves are strongly Catholic but who married people inimical to the church, and it’s hard to agree on what they should do with their baby. At the very least, it delays baptism. The more delayed, the less likely it is to happen at all,” he says.

All the denominations that emphasize infant baptism, such as Catholics, Methodists and Lutherans, struggle with a contemporary culture that rejects the very idea that humanity is born into sin or that parents should steer children’s spiritual development, says the Rev. Gayle Carlton Felton, author of the United Methodist Church’s statement on baptism theology and practice, This Gift of Water.

Methodists “no longer literally believe that baptism removes the burden of sin that would send a child to hell,” Felton says. But it’s still essential because “it’s God’s claim on the child’s life.

“Something real is happening in a baptism,” Felton says. “For mainline liturgical churches, the actor here is God, claiming that child for his own. It doesn’t matter if the child remembers it. God does.”

Denominations that baptize only believers — older kids and adults who profess change of heart and want to witness this with an outward sign — also are seeing a decline.

The Southern Baptist Convention has seen its rate of baptism fall about 35% from 1972 to 1985, midway through a decade when the denomination was torn by dissension over an ultra-conservative leadership takeover.

Then the rate stalled for the next 20 years, even though Baptists are pledged to heed the Bible’s “great commission” in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. …”

When religion columnist Terry Mattingly caught up with Welch’s baptism campaign bus last fall, Welch told him just 40% of Southern Baptist Convention converts were truly unchurched before. “What that means is that we’re not reaching the pagan pool. … We’re just rearranging the furniture inside the church.”

Unlike the slow-growing Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God’s number of adherents grew from nearly 1.8 million in 1980 to nearly 2.8 million in 2004. But the total number of baptisms by immersion in water or by the Holy Spirit — experiencing the gift of speaking in tongues, one of the denomination’s distinctly Pentecostal beliefs — has hovered from around 175,000 to 200,000 yearly.

If baptism is the door into a faith, where did all those people go?

Like Welch, the Rev. George Wood, general secretary of the Assemblies of God, sees Christians play musical chairs, looking for the right fit in theology, worship style and ministry services. “At the church where I pastored years ago in Orange County, we had to grow 30% every year just to stay even with the mobility in the culture,” Wood says. And, he adds, not all new or reborn faith takes root.

Today, some parents refuse to plant it at all.

There are now baptism-style ceremonies where God is never mentioned by parents seeking to initiate their children into a world of all faiths, says Ema Drouillard of San Francisco, who runs the website

She conducted such an event for Kirsten and Farnum Alston of Marin County, Calif., for their baby, Greer, in 1998. “We just wanted a larger spirit to guide our daughter, but we didn’t want to get specific. I wanted all her bases covered,” says Kirsten Alston. The couple grew up Presbyterian, but now “we just do Christianity L-I-T-E” for Greer, who “believes in angels and fairies, leprechauns and Santa Claus.”

Non-traditional paths to God

Churches in the ’90s began actively courting church-wary people. These “seeker” churches often de-emphasized strict theology and practice, and gave a less prominent role to baptisms.

“We focused so much on the personal decision, the big deal of turning your life over to Christ, that the public, external identification — baptism — was less important in practice,” says the Rev. Brian McLaren, who co-founded the non-denominational Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md.

Yet McLaren, who retired in January to write and lecture, sees change in the air, particularly when he looks at young church leaders such as the Rev. Rob Bell, 35, who Christianity Today once said “puts the hip in discipleship.”

At Bell’s non-denominational Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., where 12,000 worshipers gather weekly in a former mall, they roll in a portable tank every few weeks so baptismal candidates can witness their conversion to the whole congregation. “We are baptizing more people than ever,” because “people are desperate for something ancient and lasting and meaningful,” Bell says.

Even if baptisms aren’t rising in numbers, they’re on the rise in significance, McLaren says.

Baptism is “a commitment to a lifelong spiritual practice, a discipleship, not a one-time event.”

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