The Case for Baptizing “Down by the River”
I realize that my paedobaptist brethren will likely view what I’m about to say as tom-foolery. And if you are in the habit of baptizing infants, you probably shouldn’t follow my advice. But today I’d like to gently argue why, if you are a pastor, you should strongly consider baptizing converts in natural bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes.
To clarify, I’m in no way questioning the validity of baptisms in church baptismals. I was baptized in a church baptismal and have baptized several individuals in this manner. This is a completely legitimate method of publicly confessing the faith. But having baptized both inside in churches and outside in rivers, my preference is strongly for the latter for several reasons.
First, outdoor baptisms have unique evangelistic potential. For one reason or another, many unbelievers are strongly reticent to enter church buildings with which they’re unfamiliar. This is especially the case if they’re committed followers of another religion. Outdoor baptisms eliminate this hindrance by gathering in a more familiar public place. For example, at our most recent outdoor baptism, we met at a popular local park adjacent to a river. A large Mormon family attended at the invitation of one of the individuals being baptized, something which would have been highly unlikely had the baptism been held in our church building. Moreover, in this public park I had the opportunity to proclaim the gospel to several unbelievers who simply happened to be in the vicinity. Parents sitting on benches, children playing on the nearby playground, and couples going for a walk could hear and see us proclaim the message of Christ and him crucified. For some, this could have been the first (or last) time they heard the Word of the Cross. And that’s an opportunity I never would have had if we stayed indoors.
Second, my preference for outdoor baptisms pertains to the earthiness of the context. The river in which I typically baptize is a dirty, pea-green color (see picture). As I stepped into the water last Sunday night, I scared away a small school of minnows. Fishermen fish in this river and canoes could have passed by during our service. While the water is not unusually polluted or unhealthy, nobody is going to draw the mistaken conclusion that it somehow has magical powers to wash away sins. Furthermore, being in such an earthy context strongly communicates that Christianity is an earthy religion. The religion of Jesus is not something limited to cathedrals, white robes, and stained glass, but is a religion of fields, trees, and soil, a religion of tax collectors, fishermen, and carpenters. Standing waist deep in filthy water last Sunday night, I couldn’t help being reminded of this. And I tend to think that my people also understood this point.
Again, if it’s your custom to use a church baptismal, take this as no criticism whatsoever. Believers publicly professing their faith is a joyous occasion, regardless of where it takes place. But I would encourage you to at least consider trying an outdoor baptism, a method the vast majority of Christians around the world today continue to use.
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.