United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 2

by Taylor Burton-Edwards

In Part I of this study, we looked at how much of our official baptismal ritual United Methodist congregations say they are using on a regular basis.

Here, in Part 2, we look at how the baptismal vows are being intentionally taught and lived into in our congregations.

Question 2:

How does your congregation actively teach and intentionally support persons to live out the vows of the baptismal covenant? (See the 2012 Book of Discipline, paragraph 217, p 153, for a complete listing of the baptismal/membership vows).   Please check all that apply.

Answer Options
Response Percent
Response Count
1. We actively teach the vows in confirmation and membership classes.
2. We regularly talk about the vows as part of worship.
3. We create additional opportunities each year to discuss the vows through Sunday School or other educational settings.
4. We have discipleship groups whose participants intentionally seek to support each other and hold each other accountable to live out these vows.
5. We do not intentionally teach these vows, other than using them in services of baptism or receiving members.
6. We do not use these vows.
Other (please specify)

The vast majority of respondents indicated they teach the vows in membership and confirmation classes (71.2%), and a majority (54.2%) indicated they regularly talk about the vows as part of worship.  Roughly 25% of the respondents indicated they offer one or more opportunities for discussion of the vows outside of a direct connection with the ritual of baptism itself, and another 15.2% indicated they do not intentionally teach the vows at all apart from the services themselves.  17.2% indicated they have small groups that help people live these vows accountably.

Once again, we may be heartened at such a high rate of teaching the vows either regularly in worship (54.2%) or as part of membership preparation classes (71.2%). Even more encouraging may be the rate of small groups that focus on helping persons live these vows (17.2%). This significantly exceeds the percentage of known accountable discipleship groups (4.5%) based on the latest GCFA reporting (2011).

Reading the comments under “Other,” however, may lead to a somewhat more chastened conclusion. It appears from a number of the comments that baptismal vows are often understood to include only “prayers, presence, service, gifts and witness” (i.e., the local church vows), rather than the entirety of the baptismal covenant. Further, the times when congregations discuss the baptismal vows in worship appear to be almost exclusively when services of the baptismal covenant (baptism, confirmation, reception into membership, reaffirmation) are offered. In other words, the teaching about the vows is directed primarily to the ritual itself and less frequently (if at all) to connections to daily discipleship on an ongoing basis.

Next, that nearly 30% (28.8%) of our congregations do not teach these vows in connection with membership classes or confirmation is a bit alarming, since the heart of the rituals of confirmation and reception into professing membership involve persons taking these very vows for themselves (¶ 217 and 225). One wonders what these congregations are teaching instead. Some of the comments indicate using resources from other denominations, believing ours are either “too institutional” or “too negative” (focused on sin) to be taught or understood well. I cannot tell from the data as we have it how many of these are also represented in the 15% who say they do not teach these vows in any way, but only use them in the ritual itself.

Further, I would like to believe we have as many as 17% of our congregations who have formed small groups whose purpose is to help people live out the vows of the baptismal covenant accountably.  However, I find myself very skeptical. First, it far exceeds the known percentage of covenant discipleship or other accountable discipleship groups in the Form 2 statistics reported annually by all local congregations and collated by GCFA (4.5% based on 2011 data, 4.05% in 2010). Second, where the comments address having such small groups, they either speak of
hoping to start such groups or of having small groups in general that are not
focused on the baptismal vows.  One might have thought, with a reported rate of baptismally accountable small groups this high, there would be at least someone describing in the comments how such groups are working in their congregations. No one did.

What the data overall, reveal, then, is a virtual segregation of the teaching of baptismal vows from the “regular” worship and teaching life of the congregation. Intentional teaching is generally limited to preparing persons or congregations for the ritual of baptism or other services of the baptismal covenant.  And in nearly 30% of our congregations, there is no intentional teaching of our vows even to persons preparing to take them for themselves.

The result is pastors and congregations whose intentional teaching of the vows of the baptismal covenant, which is to say the vows of discipleship to Jesus Christ, are limited to perhaps the minimal understanding necessary for persons and congregations to believe they can say “yes” to the questions in the ritual with some integrity. It would appear relatively little is being intentionally and regularly done to ensure persons are actually growing in their capacity to live these vows faithfully in daily life.

Looking for Best Practices of Teaching the Vows

To test what was being done intentionally to teach these vows, I included an optional third question in the survey.
Question 3: If you are willing to be contacted for further information about how you are intentionally teaching and supporting persons in living these vows, please select the Central Conference or Jurisdiction where you serve, then add your name or email address in the text box below. Thank you!

The purpose of this question was to make it possible to follow up with persons who claim to be intentionally teaching and supporting persons to live the baptismal covenant. Of these who indicated a willingness to be contacted, I selected a random sample of 10%, totaling 22. I then contacted each of these persons by email and asked for more specific information about how they were teaching and helping persons live these vows apart from preparation for or celebration of services of the baptismal covenant.  I provided a two week window for response.

I received a total of 3 responses. One person did not understand the question. Attempts to clarify the question resulted in no further replies. Another indicated offering a sermon series on the sacraments once during Lent some years ago, but then on further reflection remembered the series only
covered Holy Communion. A third indicated his congregation simply did “normal stuff,” and nothing intentionally focused on teaching the baptismal vows apart from membership classes.

The number of the responses received is too small to draw definitive conclusions. However, the lack of response in general (19/22) and the lack of relevant information from those who did respond (3/22) may be corroboration of the
the finding above that most of our clergy offer little or nothing to teach or assist persons to know how to live out the baptismal vows apart from some ability to say yes to the questions of the baptismal covenant when asked in the ritual.
Overall Conclusion
I believe The United Methodist Church is serious about our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our Discipline indicates our baptismal covenant provides the basis of evaluation for such discipleship. 

We have some foundations to build on. The work begun in the revision of our baptismal ritual in 1980 and the establishment of our teaching about the nature and practice of baptism in 1996 is bearing some fruit, at least in terms of the use of the ritual itself. It would appear the majority of our US congregations may use our established ritual and teach something about our baptismal vows in connection with preparing them or the congregation to celebrate services of the baptismal covenant. 

However, a substantial minority materially alters our ritual in ways that may misrepresent our understandings of the roles of laity, deacon, elder and pastor in the sacrament. And it appears few of our congregations or clergy intentionally teach the vows of the baptismal covenant as norms for ongoing, accountable Christian discipleship.

It is time to lead more of our congregations and other ministries to take the next steps toward fulfilling our mission. 

Part 3 of this series will offer some suggestions about what those next steps might be.