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FIRST-PERSON: Making evangelism good news again

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–On July 17, 13 pastors from Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., baptized 117 people at Beaver Dam at Falls Lake, which is near Raleigh. Every person baptized was, as is the custom at Providence, interviewed previously by a deacon to be sure about their Christian testimony.

Some 700 church members, and numerous others, gathered at the beach that day to view the service. Why did they do this when they had a perfectly good baptismal pool in the church building? In the words of my colleague David Nelson, a member of Providence, “The point [was] to show those outside the body what God is doing to redeem the lives of sinners.”

When is the last time you attended an outdoor baptism? Have you ever? My parents were baptized outside because there was no place inside to be baptized.

Sometimes doing without can be a good thing. My family and I have been a member of Faith Baptist Church for over 10 years. Our church has been in existence for over 15 years, but we have only had our own building for less than half our existence. That means for years we not only had no building, we also had no baptismal pool.

But we did have a place for baptisms. Falls Lake, a large reservoir near our church, became a place the congregation gathered two or three times in warm weather to baptize as few as a handful to as many as more than 30 each time. There were times we borrowed other church’s facilities, but our folks, just like the church family at Providence, love the lake!

More and more lately I hear of outdoor baptisms. Several churches in the Raleigh area use Falls Lake now. From the massive celebrations at the outdoor baptismal pool Rick Warren has at Saddleback (OK — it is not fair to be in Southern California where you can do that year around), to smaller churches here in North Carolina, more churches seem to be recovering the practice of baptizing outside.

Whether this is due to a lack of facilities or choice, this is a good thing. We Baptists understand that the ordinance of baptism does not save. At the same time, we also recognize the vital place baptism has in the Christian life, given to us by the Lord Himself in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Baptism identifies the believer publicly with the Lord’s death and resurrection. It testifies to the saving work wrought by the Spirit. I would argue that the best place for baptisms would be anywhere the testimony of new followers of Jesus could be displayed before the world.

In the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s ocean baptisms were commonplace. Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., baptized hundreds in the Pacific Ocean. At the same time the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla., and others baptized scores of youthful converts in the Atlantic. From the time of the early church when there were no church buildings, and therefore obviously no baptismal pools, until now, outdoor baptisms offer the church a chance to participate in a timeless rite in a way a little more like the first believers in Acts.

Perhaps it is time for all churches to consider times to baptize new believers outdoors, with the gathered church, as a witness to the community. Too many unchurched people have little idea what we are about these days. Why not show them?

The service at Falls Lake demonstrated clearly the love of God in redeeming people. Note the breakdown of those baptized:

— Four special needs people from a remarkable ministry that has developed over the past few years at Providence Baptist Church.

— 42 youth.

— 14 children.

— Eight college students.

— 49 adults.

At least one entire family, all of whom confessed Christ, was baptized that day. Sounds a lot like Paul and the jailor’s family in Acts 16! Could it be that we can still follow more of the New Testament practice, like observing baptism out in the culture, to the glory of God? Why not begin to think of places you could have similar services for the church, those baptized, and for those in the community?

As you plan your church calendar for 2006, why not schedule an outdoor baptism — or several, as well?

Alvin Reid holds the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

    About the Author

  • Alvin L. Reid