Last Sunday morning I heard an excellent sermon by my pastor, Dr. Bill Cook. He was sharing a new perspective for a new year, working from Daniel 10. As usual, his exposition was great, but Dr. Cook also said some things that I and other young ministers needed to hear–namely that the ministers we should be learning and following should not necessarily be the coolest or most innovative ministers today, but rather those who have encountered God and experience him in prayer.

With his message still ringing in my ears, I was walking out the door and happened to see a display with the new Outreach magazine. As I picked it up, I looked at the cover which had in bold-faced font, “America’s Most Innovative Churches” and a quote from Craig Groeschel who said, “Our technology initiatives fan the flame . . .” I thought, “How ironic is this to pick up this magazine after hearing such a powerful sermon like that!”

Last year, I didn’t pay much attention to the church growth movement, but after glancing through some of the articles in this issue, it appears that I need to pay attention to what these “movers” and “shakers” are telling us regarding how to do church. I realize that Outreach magazine is a mixed bag of the good and bad, so maybe those of you who are more up on this movement and employ some of the practices in order to be more relevant and effective can help me understand why and how you apply the things Outreach magazine and others like it are advocating.

One of the articles I want to address is called “5 Tips for Baptism Appeal” which highlights Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX where Ed Young Jr. is pastor. The article begins by mentioning that “nearly 450 people came forward for spontaneous baptism.” In 2006 alone, “Fellowship Church saw 2,312 people spontaneously baptized–many visiting for the first time.”

Now, if I may ask, could anyone tell me what a “spontaneous baptism” is? From what this article infers, people who attend Fellowship Church the first time come forward and are baptized “spontaneously.” Does that mean that people who come forward to be baptized are immediately immersed without counsel, instruction, or commendation from the leadership of the church?

Secondly, the article states that people are spontaneously baptized in order “to start over or recommit” their lives. Is there anywhere in the Bible that says that baptism is “an extreme makeover” or recommitment? Whatever happened to repentance? Whatever happened to good ole’ confession of sin and replacing old sinful hapits with new spiritual disciplines? I guess that is not spontaneous enough. Am I wrong here?

Third, for the life of me I do not understand how a pastor who is called to shepherd his sheep can baptize people who he has no idea are regenerate or understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is evident that many who are spontaneously think that baptism somehow washes away their past and provides some spiritual catalyst for their lives (one lady interviewed said, “Being baptized gave us the opportunity to forget our past and get a fresh start.”). For the 450 who were spontaneously baptized, how many did the leadership of the church know by name? How many could articulate a personal testimony of their salvation experience? How many could bear evidence of any regenerating work of the Holy Spirit? Or does any of that matter anyway?

Finally, the title of the article is really disturbing to me. Baptism appeal? Since when does the commands of Christ have to have an appeal?  Does not the appeal to be baptized come when a sinner is riveted by the grace of God and has their affections changed through the regeneating work of the Spirit such that they desire to follow Christ without having to be enticed, coerced, or manipulated? Is not obedience a natural outworking of the new nature given whereby we live to please God and keep His Word?

Could it be that we have to write articles that speak of “baptism appeal” because we have preached cheap grace from a watered-down gospel to Christianized pagans who know nothing more than to treat a holy ordinance as a spiritual face lift?  Could it be that we have not rightly understood how baptism relates to a confessional and covenantal community of believers and the role of shepherds with their sheep?

I ask these questions because I have recently been teaching the doctrine of believer’s baptism to some folks I had the opportunity to lead to Christ.  I have asked them about the gospel, how one becomes a Christian, the meaning of baptism (and what it does not mean), and seen evidence of God’s grace at work in their lives.  Baptism has been anything but spontaneous, and for my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, their appeal to baptism, in their own words, has been a desire to be pleasing to Christ and bear the fruit of a genuine lover of God. 

In closing, consider the words of Mark Dever who, as a pastor and shepherd of his sheep, shares his burden, concern, and accountability to God for those whom he leads.  Granted that the immediate context of Dever’s words are related to church membership, I think they are helpful in thinking through the many approaches people are taking today regarding baptism and church membership. In the same manner many churches have become flippant regarding church membership, current attitudes towards baptism will likely have the same result.

[W]hen we do, according to Hebrews 13, we pastors will give an account to God for the souls in our care.  Who are they? . . . For me to allow my local congregation to continue on, with people in membership regularly forsaking assembling together is to be in sin, to lead my congregation into sin, confuse what it means to be a member, and confuse what it means to be a Christian.   . . . All of them will die, many of them without returning to church.  Some of those will be our brothers and sisters in Christ who were in sin.  I fear that many of them will not have been our brothers and sisters in Christ, and so they will slip into a Christ-less eternity, face a good and just God while they are still pleading their own merits for salvation, and fall under God’s deserved penalty forever. . . . Of course there are hypocrites in the church, but they shouldn’t be there with our approval.  We should ourselves be constant repenters and trusters in Christ.  We should not aid unrepenting sinners in their own delusions of being saved.