During my Christian life, I’ve been a member of four different Southern Baptist churches. I’ve also served in short-term interim positions in five other SBC-related congregations. Each of these churches could be characterized as theologically conservative, more or less (often officially) affirming the confessional consensus of the current Baptist Faith and Message. Each of these churches cared very much about reaching lost people with the gospel, baptizing them, and then teaching new disciples what it means to follow Jesus as Lord.
Over the course of my nineteen years as a Southern Baptist, I’ve probably witnessed a couple hundred baptisms. In most cases, the pastor administering the baptism simply introduced the baptismal candidate to the church, asked her a handful of basic questions about the gospel, then baptized her in the name of the Triune God. This was my own practice the handful of times I baptized someone on behalf of congregations I was serving as interim pastor. Yet, it always seemed like something was missing.
When Leah and I were first visiting First Baptist Church of Durham, one of the first things we noticed is that baptismal candidates share their testimonies before the congregation prior to being baptized. On the first Sunday we visited, we heard the story of a teenage boy from a strong Christian home who had recently turned from his sins and cast himself upon Christ’s mercies. As a lover of Baptist history and theology, I was elated that the church embraced what at one time was standard practice among Baptist churches. This was one of many practices that cemented our desire to join FBC Durham.
Southern Baptists are credobaptists, meaning we only baptize those who can give what appears to be a credible testimony of saving faith. But unlike some other credobaptists, Southern Baptists have historically argued that baptism is an ordinance closely tied to local churches. In fact, we have argued that it is in most cases the church itself that baptizes new converts. The individual immersing the baptismal candidate, normally a pastor, is acting as the congregation’s representative when he immerses a new follower of Jesus Christ. This emphasis on local church credobaptism is the main reason I’m such a strong proponent of every church incorporating public testimonies prior to baptism.
The church should hear the salvation testimony of the person whom they are about to baptize. This testimony serves at least three functions. Theologically, the testimony helps ensure that the congregation is actually practicing credobaptism by immersing someone who claims to have trusted in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Ministerially, the testimony is an encouragement to the whole congregation as it hears about what God has done in saving a sinner and bringing him to the point of publicly identifying with the body of Christ through believer’s baptism. Evangelistically, the testimony provides a clear gospel witness to unbelievers who might observe the baptism.
Some churches might be hesitant to require public testimonies prior to baptism. What if the baptismal candidate is scared of public speaking and/or isn’t a very good speaker? I know plenty of seasoned Christians who would be scared to death to share a public testimony before the whole church. What if the testimony isn’t clear or it’s heterodox and brings confusion? We’ve all heard sketchy testimonies at one time or another. What if including testimonies adds too much time to a worship service? It’s always tough deciding what ought to be “cut” out of a corporate worship gathering when something special is added to the mix.
First, I’d recommend that any baptismal candidate meet with a pastor a couple of days in advance of the baptism to discuss the whole event, including the testimony. (I’m assuming she’s already met with a pastor one or more times for spiritual counsel related to conversion, baptism, church membership, etc.) I’d encourage the baptismal candidate to write out her testimony, not necessarily word for word, but at least in summary form. The combination of meeting with a pastor and writing out the material will help make the testimony clear, succinct, and orthodox. Frankly, this just seems like good shepherding on the part of pastors.
Second, if the Lord is blessing a church with numerous baptismal candidates, I’d recommend setting apart a special gathering for baptisms. This could be done in the place of a Sunday evening worship service or at another time when most of the body can gather together. A separate baptismal celebration would alleviate concerns about multiple testimonies adding too much time to a regular weekend worship gathering. I know of a few churches that hold monthly or quarterly baptismal celebrations, often in public places like a lake or the beach, in part because of this very scenario. (For what it’s worth, outdoor baptismal celebrations are another classic Baptist practice I’d love to see revived.)
Finally, in terms of public speaking concerns, both candidates and churches should be taught the importance of a public baptismal testimony. The baptismal candidate should know that he isn’t being asked to preach a sermon, but to give a three or four minute summary of his new-found faith. If he is really nervous about speaking, he could always write out the testimony verbatim. For candidates who have trouble speaking English, a translator should be secured (assuming the congregation is primarily English-speaking). The church should be encouraged to celebrate the testimony of all baptismal candidates, even if the speaker isn’t eloquent. After all, the church isn’t delighting in the words themselves so much as the spiritual realities the words are describing. I’m a proponent of live testimonies, but in a case where a baptismal candidate is deathly afraid of public speaking, a pre-recorded testimony could be played for the congregation.
At FBC Durham, we’ve baptized three women in the past month. One is a collegian who has been raised in one of our church’s families, but has only recently come to faith in Christ. Another is an Asian graduate student who was recently introduced to the gospel through our church’s outreach ministry to internationals living in Durham. The third young lady is a collegian who was converted several years ago, but who had never followed the Lord in believer’s baptism. I know all three of these stories because each of these women shared their testimonies with our church before we baptized them. I’m thankful they shared their stories with us and that our church provided them with an opportunity to do so. I’d urge your church to do the same.