Q&A: How Do We Accommodate Special Baptisms?
What solution(s) do you suggest when someone with a special need is ready to be baptized?
[name withheld to protect the privacy of the baptizee]
Disclaimer #1: I’m answering this question from the perspective of a staff member at a Baptist church…meaning, we practice baptism by immersion. In addition, the question-asker above is a part of the same tradition, so the way they asked and the way I answer will be from that context.
Disclaimer #2: Additionally, it’s necessary to state what baptism is: it’s a public declaration of faith in Christ, it’s a symbol of a commitment you’ve already made, and as a symbol it necessarily follows salvation. Baptism isn’t a saving act, but an obedient act.
With all that said, you will eventually encounter a situation where an individual’s unique needs must be considered when it comes to going public with their faith. They might be bedridden or confined to a wheelchair. They may be a person of size or be physically unable to get into a baptistery. They may be someone who comes to faith through your prison ministry, so being baptized in your church building is not an option. So in these situations (and others like them), what do you do? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Start with a conversation.
Every baptism should begin with a conversation around who Jesus is, what sin is, and the person’s understanding of salvation. A baptismal candidate should be able to clearly articulate their understanding of the gospel, definitively say that they have placed their faith in Christ, and understand that baptism is – as stated above – a symbol of salvation, not salvation itself.
But beyond the spiritual component, there’s a physical one. And your candidate may have very real concerns about their ability to get into or out of the tank, to be fully submersed, or any number of issues related to their condition.
So start with an honest conversation around their fears, and begin to formulate a plan about how you can accommodate them. What will make them comfortable? What will protect their dignity? How can God’s grace be particularly highlighted in their celebration of new life?
2. Arrange the celebration around the circumstance.
Let’s say that your baptismal candidate will have trouble getting in and out of the baptistery, but there’s no issue around them being immersed. Depending on the placement of your baptistery, you could have them in the tank before attention is called to them, and get them out of the tank after attention has moved away from them. Lighting, curtains, and cameras can all help with this.
Again, the unique needs of the individual will factor in to this. The first person I baptized (nearly three decades ago!) was an elderly man who had recently had knee surgery, and maneuvering the steep steps behind the baptistery was a real challenge. We had extra hands that day to ensure safety. (Ironically, given the point of this illustration, things didn’t go quite as planned. But that’s another blog post for another day.)
But you can plan better than we did. Enlist even more helpers to help you preserve the candidate’s dignity while serving them in the celebration.
3. Consider a not-quite-as-public declaration.
Zero-entry pools are a great solution for people who have trouble maneuvering steps or hoisting a leg over a tank wall. The only problem is, it’s hard to get your entire congregation to a zero-entry pool. But what if you had the candidate’s family, small group, or serving team join you for the celebration? You could even record the event through photo or video, and share it with the larger congregation at a later date in a regularly-scheduled baptism service.
4. Explain the exception.
I think it is practically helpful and biblically faithful to talk about why someone wasn’t baptized in a worship service, or even why you deviated from your normal practice (in this case, immersion).
Several years ago a lady came to faith quite literally on her deathbed. She wanted to be baptized, but immersion was physically impossible at that stage. Our elders decided that baptism by sprinkling was permissible, given her circumstance. We adopted point #3 above, and as we shared her story (and the photo of her celebration), our pastor was able to very quickly and delicately explain that this was a different style of baptism and gave the reason for the limited exception. The congregation obviously understood that and was able to joyfully celebrate with a saint that some of them would never meet this side of heaven.
One final thought…you’ve seen me use the word dignity several times throughout this post, and I think that’s a key consideration in how we lead people into a public declaration. Jesus met people on an individual level…let’s follow his example and celebrate in a way that honors his saving work in the life of the individual people in your congregation!
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