It was long overdue that baptisms went the way of music and sermons in many large evangelical churches: They’ve become modernized in an effort to make them appear cooler than they really are.
The New York Times‘ Ruth Graham published a piece yesterday about how baptism is “getting a little bit wild.” Rather than using a traditional tank, some churches are going all out when it comes to the ritual:
In South Florida, members of Family Church gather on the beach for afternoon baptisms in the ocean, bracing themselves against the waves and keeping an eye out for sharks. At Walk Church in Las Vegas, leaders set up a folding tub in the courtyard of the middle school that they use for Sunday services. In Mansfield, Texas, Creekwood Church rents out the Hawaiian Falls Waterpark, where twisting slides tower over the ceremony.
… Instead of subdued hymns and murmurs, think roaring modern worship music, fist pumps, tears and boisterous cheering. There are photographers, selfie stations and hashtags for social media. One church in Texas calls its regular mass baptism event a “plunge party.”
Ultimately, none of this really matters. It’s a lot of flash and pomp for a tradition that’s purely symbolic at heart. There’s no reward for officially dedicating your life to Christ other than whatever you make of it in your own mind. But it’s telling that these church leaders feel like they need to make baptisms sexier as if doing it the traditional way is somehow not good enough anymore.
Just look at how one pastor justified the extravagance:
“We live in an age where people like experiences,” said Mark Clifton, pastor of Linwood Baptist in Kansas, which closed up its built-in baptistery last year and now uses an inflatable hot tub. “It’s not that it looks better, but it feels better. It feels more authentic, it feels more real.”
That makes as much sense as ditching your usual psychic because the one next door has better lighting. It doesn’t change the quality of the underlying product.
The implication is that a tradition symbolic ceremony isn’t “better,” “authentic,” or “real.” At least, it seems less so. Even though, in theory, the ritual should feel exactly as authentic if it were done in a birdbath. If a Christian feels more authentically Christian after a cool baptism, it’s a sign that their faith really isn’t about the beliefs.
There are some practical reasons for the changes, as the article notes. Sometimes, maintaining traditional baptisteries is more expensive. But many of the churches that do the “cool” baptisms have more than enough money to keep the old methods alive if they wanted to.
If nothing else, these modern baptisms serve as marketing campaigns for the church. After all, why just get baptized when you can get baptized while creating content? Why just get baptized when you can use a hashtag while you’re at it? Why just get baptized when the preacher can flip into the water for the sake of spectacle?
The irony is that the theologies of these churches could use an update. But that’s the one thing most of these pastors refuse to change.