Baptism and Catechesis as Spiritual Formation

Alan Kreider


What can be new about baptism?  Christians in many traditions are asking this question.   They are looking at baptism with fresh eyes, with new intentionality and with biblical seriousness.  And when Christians rediscover baptism, they also discover that it can’t be done lightly.  Somehow, they realize, baptism must relate to a process of spiritual formation which the ancient Christian traditions called teaching – catechesis.  Indeed, the renewal of baptism and catechesis is a part of a movement today that some people call a quest for “baptismal integrity.”[1]

This quest is taking place at a time when wider cultural patterns in the West are unfavorable.  Western culture today is impatient, addicted to instant gratification.  Some organizations that have long emphasized careful, deliberate initiation are wondering whether this repels potential members.  In the United States the Masons, for example, used to require an eight-month process of instruction as candidates progressed through thirty-two degrees of membership.  But their membership has been declining, so they recently streamlined their initiatory procedures, compressing eight months of instruction into eight hours.  Jocularly this is known as “all the way in one day”.[2] 

Some Christian groups, on the other hand, are going in the opposite direction.  They are solidifying their initiatory processes, planning them carefully and making them serious and unhurried. As they do this, they are discovering that many people respond with joy and expectancy.  I believe that the approaches to baptism and catechesis of Christians in the West have often been “shallow church.”  This shallowness has truncated Christian life and impeded Christian witness.  On the other hand, where Christians – in conversation with the Christians of the early centuries – discover the “deep church” practices of baptism and catechesis, new life breaks forth which is good news, full of hope and winsome power.


I will begin by looking briefly at New Testament visions of baptism.  These visions are immense. In order to talk about baptism the New Testament writers chose images of primal potency.  What is more primal than being born, or dying?  What is more drastic than being buried, or being crucified? Other images are also powerful:  being washed, being immersed in a bath, receiving pouring from above, being anointed with oil, being stripped of old clothes and, in nakedness, being reclad in a completely new wardrobe. All of these images – primal and potent – are ways of indicating the change that God effects through baptism. 

The texts are familiar and include Matthew 3.13-17, John 3.3-5, Romans 6.3-11, Galatians 2.19-20; 3.27-28, Colossians 1.13-14; 2.12-15; 3.1-12, Titus 3.4-7.  To these texts I would add 1 Corinthians 10.2 that was precious to many Christians of the early centuries:  they thought that when Paul alludes to “passing through the sea and being baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea” he was talking about baptism.  Their baptism was thus an Exodus experience; it was liberation, an escape from slavery – another primal image.

Baptism is a powerful act of God.  In these New Testament baptismal texts, God is the primary actor, and humans participate.  David Wright has recently contended that in the New Testament “there is not a single passage which prima facie ascribes to baptism only a symbolical or representational or significatory function”; further, there is no passage which presents baptism as something that humans do on their own.[3]  This is the voice of the great Western sacramental tradition, and it is vital.  Increasingly it has spoken to me.

But there is another voice – the Anabaptist voice – which also has shaped me.  This voice, beginning in the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century, was silenced by centuries of persecution and neglect, but it is now re-emerging as a resource to all Christians.  The Anabaptist tradition, like the sacramental tradition, emphasizes New Testament baptismal texts.  The Anabaptists were deeply drawn to the Pauline texts which emphasized dying to self and the world and rising to new life in Christ in which they would be “yielded” to him and “walk in the resurrection.”  The Markan Great Commission (“He who believes and is baptized will be saved”) was central to the Anabaptists; notably this text links believing with baptism.  Also important to the Anabaptists was 1 Peter 3.21, which asserts that baptism is “the appeal to God of a good conscience;” humans, in baptism, reflect back upon a work which God has already done in their lives.  And recurrently the Anabaptists appealed to 1 John 5.6-12 and its threefold baptism – of the Spirit, water and blood. They were gratefully aware that God’s Spirit was active in their lives before their water baptism.  This was the baptism of the Spirit.  They were convinced that in the baptismal event the divine action was accompanied by human activity – in which the newly baptized believers committed themselves to following Jesus and to being accountable participants in the body of Christ.  This was the baptism of water.  They were aware that Jesus had warned his followers of the consequences of baptism – that they, in baptism, were taking a stance which was socially unacceptable and could lead to their suffering and death (Mark 10.39; Luke 12.50ff).  This was the baptism of blood. In all this, the Anabaptists were concerned to emphasize both divine action and human assent and collaboration.[4]

Both the sacramental and Anabaptist traditions, of course, can be distorted.  The sacramental tradition, when it is unfaithful, can over-emphasize the divine element, as a result of which baptism is unrelated to conversion and becomes ritually atrophied.[5] The Anabaptist tradition, when it is unfaithful, can lose sight of the converting power of God, either before or during the baptismal rite, and can degenerate into moribund moralism.  But both of these traditions can be faithful when they are open to the presence and work of God who transforms the lives of those who are being baptized so that they will be “conformed to Christ.”  And when they are moving in this way, both traditions have agreed that catechesis and baptism are both necessary.  “Teaching the gospel must precede baptism” – that is an Anabaptist voice.[6]  The sacramental voice, shaped by the centuries-old practice of baptizing babies, says, “Catechesis, yes, either before or after baptism.”  But both traditions join in affirming that unless baptism and catechesis are somehow conjoined, there will not be a deep, resilient church.

How can this happen?  How can we appropriate this huge biblical vision?  In two ways:  by means of baptismal formation (catechesis); and by means of a baptismal rite that does justice to the spiritual magnitude of what is happening.


But first, let me hazard a few general comments about baptism throughout two Christian millennia.

•  Baptism plays a central role in the Christian church when it is under pressure.  In the pre-Christendom centuries of Christianity, before imperial power made Christianity advantageous and compulsory, when Christian theologians wrote about the “great sacrament” they referred not to the eucharist but to baptism.  Baptism was the boundary ritual through which one entered the world of excitement and hope and risk that was the Christian church.  Similarly, in the Reformation era, among the Radical Reformers baptism was a central, liminal rite through which one came into the world of countercultural Anabaptist Christianity.   And around the world today, where Christianity is under pressure, as in China, the central question of those interested in Christianity is, “Have you been baptized?”  When the church is unpopular and in danger, baptism is important, a matter of risk and excitement.

•  Baptism withers both theologically and practically when Christianity is socially acceptable and comfortable.  In Christendom – in which Christianity came to be associated with the state and dominant social values – baptism ceased to be dangerous; indeed, under Christian rulers it was dangerous not to be baptized. So in many Christendom cultures, baptism has been routine, a social and religious obligation.

•  When baptism becomes routine it withers ritually.  The Christians of the early centuries wrote extensively about the baptismal ritual.  This ritual was designed for the baptism of adults who could speak for themselves. For four centuries Christian baptism was ritually expressive and, from our vantage point, perhaps “over the top”. But in the fifth and sixth centuries the baptismal ritual began to weaken.  One can chart the weakening of baptismal ritual across the centuries; a schematic prepared by the Catholic liturgical scholar A. Khatchatrian schematizes this:  the fonts become smaller and the baptismal liturgy contracts.[7] Central to the withering of the baptismal ritual is the almost complete disappearance of water.

•  Under these circumstances, preparations for baptism become truncated.  Catechesis withers.  It becomes short, quick, and superficial, and it concentrates on doctrine rather than on discipleship.  Why?  Because in a society in which Christianity is the social norm becoming a Christian is easy, uncontroversial.  It’s the done thing.  The baptismal candidates, like everyone else, know how a Christians ought to live.  Catechetical sessions concentrate on giving a brief overview of Christian teaching and impart a few basic Christian texts – the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments.

•  Baptismal renewal is taking place today.  In the West, in Europe and the United States, Christians no longer assume that society is Christian; we no longer take for granted that our children will be Christian; in respectable circles, Christians are aware of being politically defiled, intellectually disrespected. Twenty years ago the American Roman Catholic bishops wrote:

It is clear today, perhaps more than in previous generations, that convinced Christians are a minority in nearly every country of the world . . . As believers we can identify rather easily with the early Church as a company of witnesses engaged in a difficult mission.  To be disciples of Jesus requires that we continually go beyond where we now are . . . We must regard as normal even the path of persecution and the possibility of martyrdom . . . One must take a resolute stand against many commonly accepted axioms of the world.”[8]

These bishops are Catholics, but they sound like Anabaptists!  In the West, many Christians have left the world of Christendom; they have entered Post-Christendom.  This is an inhospitable place for the church to be, but it can be a hopeful place.  The church will survive to the extent that it discovers itself to be “a creative minority” that is involved in God’s mission.[9]  Indeed, in these circumstances it can flourish.

So in post-Christendom Christians are experimenting.  They are trying new ways of catechizing people that take the church’s missional situation seriously, either before or after baptism.  They are experimenting with new ways of baptizing, inventing new rites based on old rites, building or renting deep new fonts, and discovering that in baptism God is graciously present and at work.  Baptism is becoming exciting again.  It is getting wetter, messier, more like birth!  In baptism something primal, drastic, earthshaking is taking place; something of ultimate seriousness and of divine empowering.  It is also something interesting – children crowd round to watch.  It is anything but routinized.[10] 

People in many traditions are engaged in this quest for “baptismal integrity.”  It’s fascinating to observe.  Some years ago, in a parish church in Manchester, we saw a large, green fiberglass tub.  We looked up.  Was there a leak in the roof?  “What’s that?” we asked the vicar.  “Oh,” he informed us, “that’s a baptismal font; we rent it from the Pentecostals.”

This, the moment of post-Christendom, is a hopeful time.  Now is the time, I believe, for us to experience baptismal renewal.  I believe that it’s happening, in many places, and that it’s going to flourish and grow.  But for this to happen, I believe we must discover baptism not just as an event but as a journey – a journey in which three requisites work together: 

•  A baptismal vision of biblical potency

•  Serious, disciplined catechesis

•  Rituals of baptism that are commensurate to the significance of baptism

I have already glanced briefly at the first of these requisites.  Let us look at the second and third with greater leisure.  I shall treat catechesis in its classical form, as preparation for baptism; but I also believe that the catechesis which I describe can be useful to churches which practice either the baptism of infants or baptism immediately upon a conversion experience.  In my conclusion I shall comment on each of these.


In our quest for baptismal integrity we must have, as an integral part, a renewal of catechesis.  Why?

In baptism, Christ sets us free from the power of sin.  The particular shape of sin varies with each potential Christian.  Catechesis isn’t a quick thing; in its classical form, it’s a journey towards baptism.  It is an interactive time, in which relationships are built and candidates are enabled to experience change, to own, understand and confess their bondages – and then to bring them to Christ who can set them free.  It is a time of learning, but learning that happens as much by practice as by study.  It is a time of formation, as Christ is formed in them and as their reflexes are re-reflexed to be Christlike.  The early North African theologian Tertullian understood this.  He said, “Christians are not born but made.”[11]  

But the process of making Christians cannot be quick.  According to the Apostolic Tradition, a third-century church order, “Catechumens shall continue to hear the word for three years.”[12]  Of course, just because some early churches did something is no reason that twenty-first century Christians in England should do it.  “Deep church” doesn’t mean “patristic fundamentalism.”[13]

But I insist.  As we prepare candidates for baptism today, let the preparations last not six weeks but sixty weeks, or even ninety weeks, which is only half of what the Apostolic Tradition specifies. These are of course round numbers.  When I ask a Catholic friend of mine, who is active in catechesis, “How long should catechesis last?” He answers, “As long as it takes.”  It can be shorter, depending on the candidate – but it can last a year and a half, as it does in some congregations today, or longer.  And baptismal preparations should involve not only the baptismal candidate but also the candidate’s mentor or sponsor and, if possible, a group of baptismal pilgrims, traveling together towards initiation.  Baptismal preparation is done in relationship!

But why should baptismal preparations take so long?  Think for a moment about the culture that surrounds us.  Think how advertising catechises us.  Think of the peer pressure in our social, school, and work environments.  Think of the reflex-shaping power of television, the internet, video games.  An English youth from a Christian home may have gone to Sunday School; he may have attended a Crusaders Group.  By age of 18 he may have been in Sunday School and Crusaders for 750 hours.  But he will have spent 11,000 hours in school and 15,000 hours watching television.  In these circumstances, where is catechesis really happening?  What chance does the church have of shaping its young people – their convictions and identities. their ambitions and drives, their ideas of what it is to be successful and fulfilled?  Another statistic that illustrates the problem:  in 2002 the US advertising industry, whose business is evangelizing us, spent $237 billion; how much in comparison did the church spend in shaping the views and longings of its members?  The advertisers are experts; they prey without ceasing on our insecurities and desires.  If the church is to evaluate the spiritual realities that evangelize us, and if the church is to enable Christians to live creatively in the midst of these realities, it has got to ask:  what kinds of teaching, what alternative means of socialization, can the churches use to form people who want to be Christians? “I am in the pains of childbirth,” says Paul, “until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4.19). We don’t want to baptize Christo-pagans. We don’t want to allow the world to squeeze us into its mould.  So what forms of catechetical formation can we use?

I believe that a journey of baptismal preparation – catechesis – which culminates in baptism, is the best type of formation that we’ve got.  The journey should be relatively leisurely.  It trains people to think and live as Christians; and it looks forward to baptism as a time of joyful arrival.  So, the church will not baptize people because they grew up in Christian families or because they have a good conversion story; it will not baptize them because they are nice, or hardworking, or conforming, or pleasing to parents, peers or neighbors.  But the church will baptize people who have taken part in a journey with others and have demonstrated that they are willing to say “Jesus is Lord” and mean it; they have come to know Jesus and are willing to think and live his disciples.  They have taken part in a process in which they have learned to understand their culture, the problems and opportunities postmodernity and post-Christendom present to disciples of Jesus.  In this process they have learned about themselves – what their besetting sins are.  They have learned what the gospel is – that God in Christ has graciously forgiven them, and is setting them free, liberating them from addictions, filling them with the power of the Holy Spirit to be disciples of Jesus and to participate in God’s mission in a world in which it is hard to be Christian but which God loves passionately.  On this journey culminating in baptism they have come to a watershed; from now on, they, incorporate “in Christ”, will be walking as Jesus people!

The Journey of Baptismal Preparation – Twelve Steps

What takes place during this journey of catechesis?  Drawing on my own experience, and on my reading of early Christian sources, I have proposed twelve steps. These steps do not take place in an obvious sequence, but all are important.

  1. Experiences of God.  The baptismal candidates must know that God is real, that God loves them and calls them by name, that God is gracious.  These are experiences that the Anabaptists called the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”  The candidates must know that even if their human fathers cannot express their blessing properly, that God through Jesus Christ blesses them – knows them, forgives them, wants their worship and their life.  This work of the Holy Spirit can happen anywhere:  in a youth group, at a camp, at Taizé or Soul Survivor. Or a neighbor, attracted by our hope and our lifestyle, becomes a friend who through us experiences the reality of God and God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness. These times of encounter with God are precious and should be a part of every catechetical journey.
  1. The story of God.  Our values are shaped by the stories we tell.  Our identities grow more out of stories than principles.  We have personal stories, of our own hard work, or failure, or exclusion.  We have family stories, of a mother who was healed of blood poisoning or a father who lost his job.  We also have national stories.  As a child in an American elementary school I was told the story of Nathan Hale, a heroic spy during America’s War of Independence, who, when captured by the British and about to be executed spoke a final sentence:  “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  Stories like this shape Americans profoundly, and other countries have their equivalents.  But as Christians prepare candidates for baptism we teach them a different story.  The candidates have to unlearn their national stories in order to learn the story of the Bible – of God with Israel, of God in Jesus Christ, of the New Testament church, of the church across the centuries and in many nations.  They learn the story of God’s mission, which is to reconcile all things in Christ, to bring about cosmic, impossible reconciliation, with God, with other people, with creation (Col 1.20; Eph 1.10).

Learning this is not easy, because the Bible’s story is odd.

It is upside-down:  God, the Bible tells us, is at work on the margins, “filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich empty away” (Luke 1.53). 

•  It assumes that God is real and intervenes in human experience.

•  It makes a claim on our lives; if we tell this story we cannot be indifferent or unchanged.

•  In a time of despair and cynicism, it has a deviant hope – towards a reconciled new creation in which “wolves dwell with lambs” (Isaiah 11.7).

The sheer oddity of this story makes it difficult for us.  The story we learn in church is different from the stories we see on TV:  is it really on the margins that God prefers to work?  We live in tension – at the intersection of the Bible’s story, which is the story of Christian testimony, and the story of our newspapers.  Walter Brueggemann invites us to “switch stories”, to switch our preoccupation and allegiance from dominant narratives to the Biblical narrative.[14]  In catechesis we will learn to perceive the stories of our news sources in light of a bigger narrative that can make us unconventional and free.

  1. Missional issues in the congregation:  these become issues in catechesis as candidates prepare for baptism.   A sample of this from the New Testament is Galatians 3.27-8, a Pauline baptismal text:

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Why were these issues baptismal issues for Paul?  In Galatia they were current; they were controverted; and they were basic to the Early Church’s mission.  Jew/Greek – is God at work in the outsider?  Slave/free – does God honor all people equally and relativize social distinctions?  Male/female – does God use the spiritual gifts of all members of the community?  For Paul these were baptismal issues because he was convinced that God’s mission is to restore all people and all things in Christ. So catechesis functioned to prepare people to participate in the mission of God in these areas of alienation which God in Christ was overcoming.  What analogous issues today might our baptismal candidates think through?  In my home church in Indiana, our congregation is asking how we can live missionally in our inner-city neighborhood.  What are the spiritual and socio-economic realities of our locality?  What does the Bible say about trust, hospitality, immigrants, race, poor people?  How can our church – and its new members – live in light of these realities?  Every congregation will have equivalents of Paul’s baptismal issues in Galatians for which good catechesis can prepare its candidates.

  1.  Classic issues of addiction: In Rome, in around AD 150, the catechist Justin, who shortly thereafter was martyred, wrote the following about conversion:

[The demons] struggle to have you as their slaves and servants, and . . . they get hold of all who do not struggle to their utmost for their own salvation — as we do who, after being persuaded by the Word, renounced them and now follow the only unbegotten God through his Son.  Those who once rejoiced in fornication now delight in self-control alone; those who made use of magic arts have dedicated themselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of [their different] customs, now after the manifestation of Christ live together and pray for our enemies and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us, so that they, living according to the fair commands of Christ, may share with us the good hope of receiving the same things.[15]

In this text, Justin points to the classic issues of money, sex and violence; to these he adds the occult.  Justin recognized that these four issues are areas of seduction in which the Evil One hooks us and draws us into lives of addiction and compulsion.  These besetting sins recur in culture after culture.  Justin speaks about the “means of increasing our wealth and property”; a century earlier Paul had put it more pithily: “Covetousness is idolatry” (Eph 5.5; Col 3.5).  In catechesis, the baptismal candidates will learn to observe these classic issues in society today.  They will look at their own lives, and at the experience of their friends, their families and their communities.  Individual candidates will have opportunity to face into specific areas of addiction from which Christ wants to set them free.  And they will not ignore the last two areas that Justin mentions.  “The means of increasing our wealth”:  how, the candidates may wonder, can they live as worshippers of God and disciples of Jesus Christ in a society of perpetual discontent? In catechesis the candidates will explore what it means for them, as people tempted by “the consuming passion”, that Christ has defeated the principalities and powers and can set them free.[16]  And “hating and killing”: how, the candidates may wonder, can they live in a world in which there is racism, xenophobia, and never-ending war against terrorism?  If they are mugged or subject to personal attack, how should they respond?  Is violence redemptive; is it compatible with “the fair commands of Christ”?  In catechesis, the candidates will explore the two historic Christian approaches to violence – non-violent peacemaking and the just war – as means of finding ways to be free disciples of Jesus Christ.[17]

  1. Personal problem areas:  all baptismal candidates have coping mechanisms, areas of strength and gift which they, when under pressure, use to get their way.  One has intellectual quickness, which she uses to manipulate others; another has a strong body, or charisma, or physical beauty, or an ingratiating personality.  As people are being catechized they must look at who they really are, and at their coping mechanisms.  These can be blessings, tools in God’s hands; or they can be sources of pride, of self-promotion, and ultimately of destruction.  If the candidates do not face these issues they can find themselves in real trouble.
  1. Christian cultural critique.  How today, in the United Kingdom, can Christians live as “resident aliens”? Resident aliens – this is how the early Christians described themselves, in 1 Peter 2.11 (“resident aliens and exiles”) and in countless early writings. A sample of these is the second-century Epistle to Diognetus: “They [the Christians] live in their own countries, but only as resident aliens.  They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure every thing as foreigners.  Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.”[18]  Resident, at home in the UK or any other country, willing to love the UK and see the good in it; but also aliens – not at home in the UK, concerned about its idolatry, the syncretism of life, its injustice and misuse of power. John Francis Kavenaugh has observed that for Christians American culture is both graced and disgraced.[19]  Is this true of England?  What aspects of life in England are graced – wholesome, shalom-ful, to be welcomed?  What are disgraced – destructive, dangerous, to be resisted? Catechesis is a time to discuss the specific challenges of being disciples of Christ Jesus in our society.  Candidates might access this issue by doing an exercise, based on the Epistle to Diognetus:

“We wear clothes, like everybody else, and yet we . . .

We eat food, like everybody else, and yet we . . .”

We watch television . . . spend money . . . drive cars . . .and yet we” 

7.  Prayer:  it’s important to pray for baptismal candidates, and to teach them to pray.   At the end of every teaching session, according to the Apostolic Tradition (19), teachers laid hands on the candidates and prayed for them.  Today, in this tradition, teachers and mentors will pray that the candidates may be freed from the power of the Evil One and find joy and freedom in Christ. So also, every Sunday, the entire congregation, in its congregational prayers, will pray for the people undergoing catechesis. It is also important to teach the candidates how to pray.  If they don’t learn to pray they will “flounder or die.”[20]  The types of prayer that are most helpful will vary from candidate to candidate:  some will be drawn to free prayer; others will learn to pray imaginatively, or in silence, or using prayer books like the new Anabaptist Daily Office.[21]  The catechists will introduce them to the spiritual disciplines – for example, why and how to fast, and what it means to observe the Sabbath.  The catechist will also introduce them to the gifts of the Holy Spirit – God is at work, through the Spirit, to equip God’s people, in difficult situations, to follow Jesus and to experience the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom.  At the heart of the prayer that the candidates are taught will be the Lord’s Prayer.  This was the center of the prayer of the Early Church; the first three Christian treatises about prayer were about how to pray the Lord’s Prayer, which is after all the very center of Jesus’ Sermon of the Mount.[22]  So today, apprentice Christians will learn what the Lord’s Prayer means, line by line; and they will learn to use it in prayer as an outline prayer.  This is vital.  Why?  Because the Lord’s Prayer is “the piety of Jesus.”  It distills his concerns, his prayer life. 

  1. Basic Bible passages:  Catechists will encourage each baptismal candidate to memorize their own “motto texts” from the Bible.  A sample of these might be Philippians 4.4ff: “Rejoice in the Lord always . . . Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” This wonderful passage fits things together:  not worrying; rejoicing; giving thanks; God giving us his peace.  In addition to texts that individual candidates choose to memorize, there will also be passages which catechists will choose for all candidates to memorize.  Origen, writing early in the third century, assumed that this was happening:

For who of all believers does not know the words in Isaiah?  ‘And in the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be manifest, and the house of the Lord on the top of the mountains . . . and all nations shall come unto it . . . and he will teach us his way, and we will walk in it . . . and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks:  nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’[23]

What if all believers in our congregations, like the Christians in Origen’s world, memorized this “swords into ploughshares” text and made it central to their lives?  Children who grow up in evangelical congregations memorize John 3.16, and they are right to do this.  What if our baptismal candidates also memorized the Beatitudes, or the entire Sermon on the Mount?  Further, catechists may choose texts to teach to baptismal candidates which they sense have special resonance to our situation.  A sample of this is: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Ps 56.3).  Our societies today are fearful; and fear is both immobilizing and a means of manipulation, equally useful to advertisers and politicians.  Bible passages, memorized during catechesis, are deep wells from which Christians can drink when under pressure. 

  1. Fundamental beliefs:  The people undergoing catechesis will learn to think like Christians; they will learn the core convictions of the Church.  They will learn to know what they do not believe, and what they do believe.  The catechists and sponsors will encourage the candidates to be real – to bring their questions and their doubts.  What do the candidates think?  What are their reservations about the Christian faith as they understand it?  The catechumens will have lots of views, and serious questions.  A recent study in the United States has discovered that the religious views of Americans take a predictable shape, which the authors of the study, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, have called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.  In their view this “Benign Whateverism” has acquired the authority of both unassailable orthodoxy and civil religion.[24] It is important for teachers to enable the candidates to express their views and to examine them seriously in light of the faith of the church.  The teachers will impart this by scripture, story and creed – the Apostles Creed, for example. The aim is to enable the candidates to develop the skill to detect the deadly heresies of our time, which are destructive of life and which destroy the church.  The aim also is to enable the candidates to stand together with believers of other Christian traditions, selectively appropriating the wisdom of Christian history while rejecting the triumphalism and conformism of Christendom.
  1. Christian articulacy:  some Christians are reticent, and have problems talking about their faith; other Christians are insensitive and off-putting.  People being prepared for baptism need to talk about talking.  So – you’re going to die to your old self, and be reborn to real life which is in Christ:  how do you tell other people about this?  Without boring or pressuring them?  Catechesis is a time for role-play.  Our culture is worried about its future, but you have hope in Christ:  are you prepared to “give account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3.15)?  Why do you have hope?  How can you talk about it in such a way that others will listen?  How has following Jesus turned your life around and given you hope?  In baptismal preparation we need to learn to live, listen and speak in such a way that other people will want to become what we are – disciples of Jesus.  Talk goes best when it grows out of interesting behavior – a project to raise money for genocide victims in Darfur, or weekly volunteering in a soup kitchen, can lead to questioning and genuine conversation.
  1. Personal questions:  all baptismal candidates have questions; some candidates have innumerable questions.  Sensitive catechists will elicit these. What about people of other faiths, who adhere to other world religions?  Is it really true that there is “only one road to the top of the mountain”?  If I am baptized, am I putting down non-Christians, expressing disrespect for them?  How can I, as someone committed to Jesus as Lord, engage in principled, non-defensive, non-offensive, dialogue with people of other faiths; or with thoughtful or thoughtless secular people, or with Christians with whom I disagree?[25]
  1. The church’s practices:  by the third and fourth centuries, Christian teachers imparted teaching about Christian worship practices and about other distinctive practices of the Christian communities that I have called “folkways.”[26] Today the candidates need to look at the worship practices of our congregations – the peace greeting, the offering, the praise, the petition, as well as baptism, communion and possibly footwashing.  The candidates also must learn how the church makes decisions, how it receives visitors and serves its neighbors, how it shares meals and possessions, how it handles conflict and makes mutual accountability a reality.  The candidates need to learn how to live Jesus’ vision – important to the Anabaptists and to all Christians – of communal life based on direct speech and good listening (Matt 18.15-20). The candidates will grow in understanding not only of the strange things that the church does, but why it does them.

These are twelve steps:  there could be others – learning about the global church (perhaps a field trip, if not abroad then to one of the numerous immigrant churches in any English city); learning about one’s denomination’s history; listening to people of another world religion.  The aim of all of them is to prepare the candidate to confess, with gratitude growing out of deep awareness, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  This confession, then, will enable the candidate to live distinctively, having “the mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2.5, 11).

How are these steps taught?

Methods:  teaching the baptismal candidates

•  Teaching sessions:  these sessions, which impart information as well as incorporating discussions and role-play, can seize the imagination and loyalty of the candidates. A study of the work of Anthony Jones, youth minister of a Congregational Church in Minnesota, reports the following about his confirmation classes:

“Over the course of the next fourteen months, these high school freshmen [14 year-olds] learn about the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments and the sacraments.  They learn how to read the Bible and how to pray, and they learn all about the history of the church and the history of Congregationalism and the history of Colonial Church.  They learn how the church is governed and how sermons are prepared and how the worship service is put together.  And they learn the meaning of words like heresy, invocation, orthodox, and Maundy.  Conventional wisdom might say that this is a great way to drive kids away from the church.  On the contrary, Jones has found it to be a highly effective outreach tool.  Although he works hard to make confirmation fun, interactive, and dialogical, at its core the strength of . . . the Church’s confirmation attendance isn’t about the programmatic elements.  Rather, it is about the power of what the ancients called catechesis.  Jones admits that every year a few kids drop out.  But in his experience, the dropouts are vastly outnumbered by kids . . . for whom God becomes real through confirmation.”[27]

Catechesis, Jones believes, goes best when the teachers take it seriously, are enthusiastic, and live lives that the candidates can respect.

•  Practical action:  when I lived in Oxford, for five years I went every Tuesday evening to “the Porch”, the soup kitchen run by a local convent.  I soon noted that among the regular workers were people preparing for ordination in the Church of England.  This was an important part of their training, for at the Porch we met the underside of Oxford – poor people, drug users, people who were mentally ill.  I quickly saw the importance of this in ministerial training, and I gradually came to appreciate its potential for the formation of baptismal candidates.  Catechumens will learn most profoundly when they not only study, but when they do things.  In one church, catechumens take out the church’s trash and make the coffee; in another they tutor children in a nearby primary school.  Why this emphasis on doing things?  Because doing is how we change: “Christians do not think their way into a new life; they live their way into a new kind of thinking.”[28] The authors of the third-century Apostolic Tradition knew that practical action was an important part of catechesis.  And they recognized that the candidates’ behavior was the best indicator of how well they grasped the Christian message: 

And when those who are to receive baptism are chosen let their life be examined:  have they honored the widows?  Have they visited the sick?  Have they done every kind of good work?[29] 

If the answer their mentors to each of these questions was “he has”, then the candidate was to receive final catechesis and be baptized.

•  Mentors and Fellow Pilgrims:  the baptismal candidates will not go through catechesis alone.  Spiritual formation takes place in community. As William Abraham has observed,[30] “if . . . we are shaped and formed by the communities to which we belong, then it is utterly unrealistic to think that we will be created anew without the support and backing of a community that provides deep sustenance and spiritual nourishment.”  We are formed as Christians as we share life accountably with others.

Mentors:  These are central to formation in community.  The Christian tradition from the early centuries had “sponsors”, “godparents”.  They were “those who brought” the candidates and vouched for their life and faith; they attended teaching sessions with the candidates, and stayed in close connection with them throughout the process.  At the time of the candidates’ baptism they would “pray and fast along with them.”[31] 

In the catechetical process today, we need mentors, for two reasons.  First, the mentor/mentee relationship enables the mentor to teach by friendship and example.  The mentors are role models, and the candidates are apprentices relating to experienced practitioners. Candidates and mentors wherever possible attend teaching together; they engage in common work projects. As they do these things, bonding occurs, relationships become natural, conversations take place about what it’s really like to think and act as a Christian. The learning of the mentees happens in community.  Second, in the mentor/mentee relationship, the mentors learn along with mentees.  They learn from the teaching sessions; they learn from the common work; they learn from the conversations with young people who ask honest questions. The mentor/mentee relationship keeps the mentor spiritually alive and relationally accountable.  The mentee may even help rescue the mentor from the “functional agnosticism” that afflicts many Western Christians in mid-life.[32]

Fellow pilgrims:  The relationship between those being formed for baptism is important. Candidates will grow towards baptism along with other people.  They will study together, pray together, do acts of service together.  Some churches will have baptismal (or confirmation) classes in which bonding occurs.  In one church that I know, the participants in the baptismal class continue their conversations about faith by email.  Together they look forward to the memorable baptismal event that they will share.  As the candidates prepare for baptism (or confirmation), they are shaped by mentors and by community.

•  Exorcism:  as the candidates are being formed for baptism they deal with areas of addiction and compulsion – the occult, sex, wealth and violence.  These things need to be discerned, discussed, and prayed about.  The ancient church had frequent prayers for candidates on their journey to baptism.  These were prayers that God would free the candidates from the addictive power of Satan who wants people to be his “slaves and servants”.  How can we pray today?  The well-known American preacher (and now Methodist bishop)  William Willimon has proposed that baptismal preparation include exorcistic prayers; he calls these prayers of “detoxification of the dominant order.”[33] Whether or not we call these prayers exorcistic, it is vital that prayers for the candidates address areas of bondage and blockage in their lives and culture.

•  Baptismal preparation is a journey – towards a wonderful destination. The early church was convinced that the journey should be a leisurely one.  So it did not hasten the candidates’ arrival at the destination; they did not enjoy the benefits of arrival until they arrived.  I believe that we, learning from the early Christians, should withhold participation in some things until baptism.  I know that ours is an impatient culture, a culture of instant gratification, a culture of inclusion, a culture of credit cards which invite us to acquire today and pay later.  We don’t need to wait!  But I propose that our churches resist this by a thoughtful policy of selective inclusion.  We will want to include the candidates in a most aspects of our life, for we love them, and we recognize that a sense of belonging often precedes believing and behaving.  So we will view the candidates as members of the church community who will be present at services, at many common meals, in small groups and in service projects. What will the unbaptized not participate in?  Possibly not in the meetings in which the church makes decisions about its communal life; the candidates haven’t committed themselves to the community yet and so will not be affected by the consequences of the decisions.  Possibly the candidates should not take part in evangelistic outreach:  they still haven’t been baptized and as such are not full Christians.  Further, a point that is controverted today:  our churches, in keeping with ancient Christian tradition, will reserve communion for the baptized.[34]  Until their baptism, the candidates will anticipate communion.  They will long for it.  Of course, this presupposes that the communion services will be spiritually potent, ritually expressive and aesthetically delectable – worth waiting for!


Catechesis is a journey.  Metaphorically it takes the candidate to the Red Sea, but it stops at the shore.  In baptism the candidates go through the sea.  In baptism they leave behind the old world of Egypt.  In baptism the journey comes to a crossing of boundaries, a watershed, in which the candidates enter a new world of freedom.  For the baptized the journey won’t be over; indeed, they will be on a new stage of the journey, in which they will go on growing as disciples of Jesus – “from one degree of glory to another”, says Paul (2 Cor 3.18).  But in the entire life journey baptism is significant.  It’s like getting out of prison.  While still in prison you can prepare for freedom; and you can know that once you are out of prison the challenges will continue, but the conditions are different. Baptism is like that; spiritually, it’s like getting out of jail!

For the early Christians, as for the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, baptism was definitional.  Baptism was something they could prepare for, but they knew that it changed them.  It altered their legal status; every baptized person was a candidate for death. In Christendom Europe, on the other hand, baptism came to be expectable, unavoidable and quick; understandably, it became ritually slight. Now that we are in post-Christendom, baptism is again becoming serious business.

What are the components of baptism in post-Christendom?

•  Testimony:  the baptismal candidates will confess their repentance, their faith, and their desire for baptism.  The candidates may express their faith journeys in their own language.  They also will express their assent to the faith of the church.

•  Baptismal interrogatories:  The person leading the baptismal service will ask the candidate strong questions.  In the classic Christian tradition, the questions will be two-fold:  does the candidate renounce the Evil One; and does the candidate affirm belief in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  A North American Mennonite resource, the Minister’s Manual (1998), rephrases these two ancient questions and – reflecting Anabaptist concerns – adds questions in three more areas.[35]

  • Renouncing evil: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world and turn to Jesus Christ as your savior?  Do you put your trust in his grace and love and promise to obey him as your Lord?”
    • Assenting to the faith of the church: “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life?”
    • Accepting the authority of the Bible: “Do you accept the Word of God as guide and authority for your life?”
    • Expressing accountability to sisters and brothers: “Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?” 
    • Affirming commitment to mission: “Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church?”

The entire process of baptismal preparation – of catechesis – is to prepare the candidate to be able to say “I do” and “I am”, with a clear conscience, to these strong questions.

•  Water:  the heart of the baptismal ritual is water.  Does the mode of baptism matter?  Recent scholarship has indicated that the Christians of the early centuries practiced four modes:  submersion (the baptizands are dipped completely); immersion (the baptizands stand in water, and water is liberally poured over their bodies); affusion (pouring); and aspersion (sprinkling).[36] The earliest Christian church order, the Didache, is flexible; it expresses preference for submersion but if there is not enough water, “then pour water on the head three times.”[37] Early frescoes from the Roman catacombs depict baptism by “immersion”, in which water is poured over candidates who are standing in calf-deep water. To me the mode of baptism is worth debating, but it is not the main question.  Far more important is the integrity of the baptism. Are the baptizands dying to old options? Are they being reborn?  Are they entering a new world in which they will seek to walk in the resurrection?  Are they asking God to empower them with the Holy Spirit to live the life of Christ in our times? If the baptizands, by God’s grace and power, emerge from the baptism as new creatures in Christ, committed to be resident aliens, I am content. I know that it is even possible for this to happen in communities which baptize infants – where the parents and the faith community as a whole are committed to raising their children and youths as countercultural disciples of Jesus.[38]

Let me express my preference about age and mode.  I favor baptizing willing, answerable people in a ritual that is elaborate, wet, and memorable. I prefer baptism by submersion. If pouring is your tradition, even if you are baptizing babies, pour lots and lots of water.  Give the candidates a real dousing.  The last thing we want is a dry church!

•  Symbolism and Beauty:  give thought to the details and aesthetics of the service.  In the Apostolic Tradition, the new believers were anointed with fragrant oil; they were given milk and honey to drink (they had entered the promised land!); and they were reclad in white clothes.  So also today, the gestures of embrace and welcome are very important.  By the fourth century, the early Christians habitually baptized on Easter or Pentecost – I believe they were wise in doing so. 

•  God’s action. God does what the ritual says.  God washes the baptizand, making her clean.  As the old person dies in the water, God brings new birth to the baptizand.  Old problems and hang-ups appear in a new light. In third-century Carthage, the Catechumen Cyprian – bishop to be, martyr to be – had been struggling with his addiction to “sumptuous feasts . . . and costly attire” which contrasted with the simple lifestyle lived by the Christians.  “I was disposed to acquiesce in my clinging vices, and . . . I despaired of better things . . . But . . . by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years was washed away and a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart . . . the agency of the Holy Spirit breathed . . . a second birth, restoring me to a new man; then, in a wondrous manner, what had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment; what I thought impossible to achieve”.[39] The early Christians differed about the precise moment in the baptismal service at which the Holy Spirit descended.  In Cyprian’s North African community, the Christians believed that within the baptismal rite, after the water baptism, God baptized with the Holy Spirit; they claimed gifts of the Spirit which they asked God to give them in baptism.  Early Anabaptists like Hans Schlaffer also saw baptism with the Holy Spirit as the heart of baptism.[40]  And so today, we may pray: “I baptize you with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  May God baptize you with the Holy Spirit from above.  Amen.”[41]  And we pray this, full of faith, asking God to bestow new gifts of the Spirit upon those being baptized, and to make them newly willing to suffer for the sake of God’s reign.

•  The believers’ experience: no one can predict what this will be.  But I believe God wants the baptismal experience to be powerful, expressive, empowering – something that moves the candidates beyond where they are and that makes the impossible seem possible. Certainly this will be the prayer of those performing the baptismal rite.

•  Participation in the Lord’s Supper.  The newly baptized believers are welcomed at the Lord’s Table.  There is joy at their arrival.  The newly baptized rejoice to commune with the Lord Jesus, who is as present in the communion service as he is present in their baptism.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are all those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34.8).  The congregation also rejoices.  The family has grown bigger; new brothers and sisters – accountable members of Christ’s body the church, involved in God’s mission – have gathered around the bountifully spread table.  At the table of the Kingdom there is joy, joy.

•  Attracting outsiders:  baptism is an odd activity; but its joyous oddity can be attractive.  So baptism is an obvious occasion for those being baptized to invite guests – family, friends from other churches, especially friends who are not Christians. It is exciting to have a church crowded with non-Christians who may get a sense of God’s Kingdom breaking into our time.  But in many parts of the world today, as in the early church, there is persecution and outsiders cannot be present at the services.  So it is important to remember that the baptismal services are ritually expressive not to impress the outsiders but because of the spiritual significance of what is going on.

•  Renewing insiders:  the baptismal service calls those being baptized to commit themselves to renounce the evil powers of this world and to turn to Jesus Christ as savior and Lord; but it does more than this – it calls all the baptized to recommit themselves.  Believers can do this in inward prayer.  They can also do this physically after the baptisms, by coming forward and dipping their hands into the baptismal water.  What they say as they pray can vary, but it can include: “I believe in you, God; I’m ready to participate in your mission in the world.  I praise you, God; you have forgiven me and cleaned me and given me liberty by baptism. I want to follow Jesus more faithfully.”  And so the believers go forward, dip their hands in the baptismal tub or a bowl of water.  With wet hands the believers may touch their foreheads or their hearts, cross themselves, wash their faces. Somebody may be there to bless them – “Alan, you have been baptized into Christ; now walk in the resurrection” – and to give them a towel to dry their hands or their head.  And the believer prays, with exultation, “God, you have made me new; keep making me new.” In a baptismal service, all Christians can renew their baptisms.

•  Celebrating baptismal anniversaries:  of course, on birthdays we have celebrations and presents.  Often we recall the anniversaries of deaths of people who are important to us.  Why not celebrate our spiritual birthdays, our birthdays into eternal life?  Each year, on July 29, I celebrate my baptism.  In our congregation, on the first Sunday of the month the pastor invites all those who that month will have birthdays, wedding anniversaries and baptismal birthdays to come forward for prayers of thanksgiving and blessing. To include baptisms in that list is an understated way of reminding us that baptism is very important!

Final questions

In this chapter, I have presented catechesis and baptism in the classical form in which they appeared in the early church prior to the advent of Christendom; I have presented catechesis as the prelude to baptism.  However, I recognize that many Christians today will differ with this.  Their approaches are of two sorts, both of which involve baptizing people before catechizing them.  I want to comment on these alternatives, confident that they do not necessarily preclude taking “deep church” approaches to catechesis.  And I want to conclude by noting the challenges that we all face – whatever our approaches to baptism and catechesis – in a technological society.

  1. Baptism immediately upon conversion:  In the book of Acts Christians baptized people immediately upon their confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord (Acts 8.37-38; 10.47-48; 16.33).  Many Christians today want to do the same.  This is partly because of the authority of the New Testament precedents that I have cited.  It is also for missional reasons.  Stuart Murray has recently argued that a lengthy pre-baptismal catechesis may have a limited appeal, attracting primarily middle-class people and those who are naturally drawn to self-examination.  Such an approach may, on the other hand, repel people “whose lives are chaotic and whose addictions and behaviours are deep-seated; these people will not only not last the course but will regard this process as an imposition and an indication that salvation really is by works rather than grace.”  Baptism, in his view, should happen soon after a conversion experience, and it should be followed by a post-baptismal process of catechetical formation for those whom the community has received as members, and not for those who are waiting on the community’s edge.[42]

I respect the missional experience and theological insight which underlie this approach.   I understand its logic and its commitment which to form disciples within the Christian community.  In some settings it may be right.  But I have reservations.  I wonder, for example, whether baptism quickly administered diminishes the power of the baptismal rite and the baptizand’s experience of it.  I wonder further whether it is difficult, in situations where people’s lives are chaotic, to persuade them to participate in post-baptismal catechetical formation.

But my main reservation, and the primary reason that I prefer a classic approach in which catechesis precedes baptism, has to do with a missional strategy that I think can be as characteristic of a post-Christendom society as it was of pre-Christendom.  According to Joseph Lynch, the quick baptisms of the first-century church were generally of people who already had been Jews or God-fearers, for whom the stories and ethics of the Messianic movement would have been familiar.  But when the Christian movement entered the Greco-Roman world – in which people knew stories of pagan deities but not the story of the God with Israel, in which people’s ethics were shaped by conventional values and not by Jesus and the Bible – the church began to require pre-baptismal catechesis.[43]  Why?  Because the church’s leaders knew, and repeatedly said, that church’s witness grew out of the behaviour of believers.  “We do not preach great things,” an early Christian wrote, “but we live them.”[44]  Christian writers were aware that the church’s verbal witness had no impact if the Christians were simply pagans who had gone through the rite of baptism. If, on the other hand, Christian communities and their individual members were intriguingly different from the norms of the wider society, then there was hope for the life and growth of the church.  Careful catechesis prior to baptism was not a matter of getting the liturgy right.  It was the early church’s means of forming the distinctive life and witness of the church in a hostile, missionary environment. I believe that our environment in the post-Christendom West is in some ways similar to that in the ancient Roman empire.  Today, as then, Christian words are persuasive to the extent that Christians behave distinctively.  I believe that one potent means which forms distinctive Christians is catechesis.  To make catechesis effective today we will need to foster new attitudes and commitments.  In the past, Evangelical Protestant churches have been more interested in getting people baptized (“saved”) than catechized.  In the Matthean Great Commission (Matt 28.16-20) they have emphasized “going” and “baptizing”, but given less attention to “making disciples” and “teaching them to do everything that I have commanded you.” 

However, today some Christians are catching a different vision.  This vision can take a variety of forms.  Recently I attended a Pentecostal church in the U.S. which invited everybody to a picnic in a local park.  All kinds of activities were advertised: “Water baptisms, great fellowship, delicious food, games (horseshoe, volleyball, badminton, etc)!  Hamburgers and hotdogs provided.” It added: “If you would like to be water baptized, mark the water baptism box on your green sheet!”  Does this congregation’s apparently casual approach to baptism preclude catechesis?  Not necessarily.  In its literature I also noted that, beginning in autumn, the congregation will have a ten-month course called “The Foundation.”  I hope that this is a sign that this congregation and others that for whatever reason practice baptism immediately upon confession of faith will also, with joy and determination, practice serious catechesis.  All of us must keep the main point in mind.  The point is not getting the sequential order of baptism and catechesis right.  The point is rather that the church’s rites and practices must foster its members’ life in Christ, and equip them to be disciples and witnesses in the bracing and demanding atmosphere of post-Christendom.  The quick practice of baptism followed by serious and extended catechesis is not in my view the best way to accomplish this; but it is certainly preferable to the approaches of many churches today whose pre-baptismal catechetical offerings are dry and shallow. 

  1. Infant Baptism:  is this a vision only for churches that practice believers’ baptism?  How about the vast traditions in the Christian family that practice infant baptism?  A quick answer, which I would like to nuance somewhat, is that serious catechesis can be practiced by Christians in all traditions – both pedobaptistic and baptistic.  My emphasis on catechesis is the product both of personal experience and historical scholarship, and most of the latter is written by scholars in traditions that have historically baptized infants. In the past half century theologians in the Christendom traditions have rediscovered the catechetical traditions of the late ancient church; and they have written a lot about the catecheses of Cyril, Chrysostom, and Augustine, all of whom were preparing for baptism converts who could speak for themselves.  The theologians in the Christendom traditions have also, in light of the realities of post-Christendom and Vatican II, debated infant baptism.[45]  Some of these writers have come to see believers baptism as theologically normative; a goodly number of them have argued for a “dual practice” approach to baptism in which the church will practice both believers baptism and infant baptism, which a leading Catholic liturgical scholar says can be “a benign abnormality.”[46]  As to baptismal practices of the early centuries, the historians continue to debate.  Tony Lane, in a recent article, has argued for “a diversity of practice” – with churches baptizing both infants and adult converts.[47]  I recognize this diversity.  But as I read the sources, I see a shift in the early fifth century, from a pre-Christendom church which normally practiced the baptism of people who could speak for themselves (with the exception of sickly children and, in some places, infants) to a Christendom church which invariably baptized newly born infants.[48]  This was a shift from one socio-religious matrix to another.  In the pre-Christendom matrix, baptism was normally voluntary, the result of a costly decision to join a counterculture; in the Christendom matrix, baptism was unavoidable, an obligation imposed on all parents – and all the newborn – by both theology and law.  Paul Bradshaw expresses this shift of matrix in a chapter of his Early Christian Worship entitled “From Adult to Infant Baptism.”[49]  Signs of this shift are the emergence, in the late fifth century, of confirmation, and the much later appearance of baptismal liturgies specifically crafted for the baptism of infants.

This historical debate about baptism is worthy and will continue.  But its outcome is not of ultimate significance for the deep church in our era.  What really matters is the extent to which the practices of baptism and catechesis form – or do not form – churches whose members are disciples of Jesus Christ who embody his way and live his teachings.  As to catechesis, practices vary from tradition to tradition; but as a whole, I observe that, in the US at least, Catholics have been more effective than most Protestants in introducing catechesis into their church life.  The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is evidence, not only of learning from the practice of the ancient church, but also of a missionary engagement with post-Christendom culture.[50]  My own commitments, as an Anabaptist who has learned much from the ancient church, remain to believers baptism; to me, as Aidan Kavanagh has argued, it makes sense of a sequence, evident in the New Testament as well as the early church, which prepares new believers for “full and robust engagement in the Church itself:  a whole new ethic and way of life.”[51]  Infant baptism I believe makes this more difficult.  But what matters to me is not getting baptism right; it is forming Christians who will be imaginative and radical disciples of Jesus Christ, who will follow him as well as worship him.  I observe that many Catholics and Anglicans are more faithful in following Jesus than many anti-pedobaptist Protestants.  I recognize that there is no necessary connection between believers’ baptism and faithful Christian discipleship.  A Catholic theologian recently told of his childhood experience in South Carolina, in which being baptized as a Southern Baptist at age 13 was as expectable, and as unrelated to significant catechesis, as being baptized as a Catholic infant in County Cork.[52]  I believe that as Christendom wanes believers baptism will increasingly become normal practice for most Christian traditions.  But what matters, urgently, is less the mode and time of baptism than the discipleship and witness that result from it.

  1. Is the vision of serious catechesis attainable in our culture?  Does catechesis – whether we practice it before or after baptism – simply require too much time? Life today is highly pressured, as teenagers and parents and people in employment know all too well.  Will the candidates, and their mentors, be able to find the time for the catechetical disciplines that the early church practiced and that I have attempted to contemporize – teaching sessions, relationship-building, and involvement in soup kitchens?  Further, is the vision that I have suggested in this paper impossibly countercultural?  As the Masons, with whom I began this paper, have recognized, our Western culture promises instant gratification; it has banished longing.

Put starkly, is the practice of catechesis whether before or after baptism thinkable in a culture in which most people have Visa cards?  Philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann has argued that in our Western culture technological “devices” have squeezed out “focal practices”.[53]  A device, such as an iPod, is easy to use; it requires little effort, skill and discipline to acquire a device; a device is unobtrusive. And, crucially, a device produces immediate results – Mozart without practice.  A focal practice, such as playing the piano, in contrast is demanding, participatory and community-forming; a focal practice requires time, thought, and discipline; a focal practice, such as playing Mozart with one’s own fingers, requires one to collaborate with teachers, to acquire skills by patient practice, and to say no to alternative ways of using one’s time.

Can we, in our culture, become disciples of Jesus easily, quickly, without mentors, without sacrifice?  Of course, all of us in our contemporary Western culture need some devices; we cannot all walk to work or get up every morning to light a fire to boil the kettle.  But all of us also (whether we know it or not) need to acquire and exercise focal practices.  Our churches, in their cultural captivity, have often turned catechesis, baptism and communion into devices.  We have practiced “quick church.”  We have made baptism lite and neglected catechesis, perhaps because we have intuited that these focal practices are unacceptably costly.  In a world of quick-result devices, will we Christians be content to conform?  I hope not.  I believe baptism and catechesis are potent means of spiritual formation.   When, by God’s grace, we appropriate them expectantly and enable them to synergize as focal practices, then God will renew our churches and make them deep.

[1]  For a sample of this, see David Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism?  Milton Keynes:  Paternoster Press, 2005, 102; also, within the Church of England, the movement called Baptism Integrity:

[2] John Tierney, “Secrets of the Temple,” New York Times, June 13, 2006, A23.

[3] Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism? 91.

[4] C. Arnold Snyder, Following in the Footsteps of Christ:  The Anabaptist Tradition. London:  Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004, chap 4, presents an insightful discussion of Anabaptist baptism.

[5] For a discussion of how this happened in the fourth century, in which the baptismal rites became awesome “in the hope of bringing about the conversion” of the baptizands, see Paul Bradshaw, “The Effects of the Coming of Christendom on Early Christian Worship,” in Alan Kreider, ed., The Origins of Christendom in the West.  Edinburgh:  T and T Clark, 2001, 275-277.

[6] Dirk Philips, “Christian Baptism,” in Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline.  Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1981, 184.

[7] A. Khatchatrian, Origine et typologie des baptistères paléochrétiennes.  Mulhouse:  Centre de culture chrétienne, 1982, 122.

[8] US Roman Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, The Challenge of Peace [1983], 78-79.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in New York Times, July 10, 2006, A4.

[10] S. Anita Stauffer, On Baptismal Fonts:  Ancient and Modern. Alcuin/GROW Liturgical Study, 29-30.  Bramcote, Notts:  Grove Books, 1994; see also the video, “This is the Night”, Chicago:  Liturgy Training Publications, 1992.

[11] Tertullian, Apology 18.

[12] Apostolic Tradition 17.  Maxwell E. Johnson (The Rites of Christian Initiation:  Their Evolution and Interpretation.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1999, 91) doubts that anything as long as a three-year catechumenate was normal practice prior to the fourth century; various bits of evidence lead me to disagree – I think of the catechetical work of Origen in Caesarea, which presupposed an extensive period of catechesis, or of the 11th canon of the early fourth-century synod of Elvira which had provision for a five-year catechumenate.

[13] I first encountered this provocative term in Joan M. Peterson, “House Churches in Rome,” Vigiliae Christianae 23 (1969), 264.

[14] W. Brueggemann, “Counterscript:  Living with the Elusive God,” Christian Century, Nov 29, 2005, 27.

[15] Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 14.

[16] Rodney Clapp, The Consuming Passion:  Christianity and the Consumer Culture.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1998.

[17] Alan Kreider, Eleanor Kreider, and Paulus Widjaja, A Culture of Peace:  God’s Vision for the Church.  Intercourse, PA:  Good Books, 2005, 146-152.

[18] Epistle to Diognetus 5.

[19] John Francis Kavenaugh, S.J.  Following Christ in a Consumer Society.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1981, 16-17.

[20] William J. Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2989, 161.

[21] Arthur Paul Boers, Eleanor Kreider, et al., eds., Take Our Moments: A Prayer Book in the Anabaptist Tradition, vol 1, Ordinary Time.  Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 2007.  Vol 2, The Seasons, to follow.

[22] Tertullian, On Prayer; Origen, On Prayer; Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer.

[23] Origen, Letter to Julius Africanus 15.

[24] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  New York, Oxford University Press, 2005. 162-3.  The tenets that Smith and Denton ascribe to “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” include:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

[25] For a helpful discussion of the importance of dialogue with people whose functional religion is secularist materialism, see J. Andrew Kirk, Mission under Scrutiny:  Confronting Current Challenges.  London:  Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006, 30-44.

[26] Alan Kreider, Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom, Alcuin/GROW Joint Liturgical Studies, 32. Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd, 1995, 24-25.

[27] Brad Kallenberg, Live to Tell:  Evangelism for a Postmodern Age.  Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2002, 84-85.

[28] Richard Rohr, Simplicity:  the Art of Living.  New York:  Crossroad, 1991, 59.

[29] Apostolic Tradition 20.

[30] William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism, 128-129.

[31] Justin, 1 Apology 61.

[32] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak:  Listening for the Voice of Vocation.  San Francisco:  Jossey Bass, 2000, 64.

[33] William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech:  Preaching to the Baptized.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992, 59.

[34] James Farwell, “Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus:  On the Practice of ‘Open Communion’.” Anglican Theological Review 86,2 (2004), 215-238.

[35] John Rempel, ed., Minister’s Manual (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1998), 48.  These questions go beyond the early Christian interrogatories which asked the candidates only about their renunciation of evil and their assent to the Trinitarian faith of the church.

[36] Stauffer, On Baptismal Fonts:  Ancient and Modern, 9-11.

[37] Didache 7.3.

[38] Origen and John Chrysostom speak of the church which baptizes “even infants” (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 8.3; John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions 3.6).

[39] Cyprian, Ad Donatum 4.

[40] Snyder, Following in the Footsteps of Christ, 70-71.

[41]  Rempel, Ministers Manual, 49.

[42]  Email from Stuart Murray to Alan Kreider, September 8, 2006.

[43]  Joseph H.  Lynch, Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, 86-87; Alan Kreider, “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity.” Tyndale Bulletin 47/2 (1996): 315-348.

[44] Minucius Felix, Octavius 38.6. 

[45] Paul F.X. Covino.  “The Postconciliar Infant Baptism Debate in the American Catholic Church.” Worship 56 (1982): 327-332.

[46] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism:  The Rite of Christian Initiation.  Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1978, 110; Wright, What Has Infant Baptism Done, 6.

[47] A.N.S. Lane, “Did the Apostolic Church Baptise Babies?  A Seismological Approach.” Tyndale Bulletin 55.1 (2004), 130.

[48] Everett Ferguson, “Inscriptions and the Origin of Infant Baptism.” Journal of Theological Studies n.s., 30 (1979), 37-46.

[49] Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship.  Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1996, chap 5.

[50] Websites of Catholic organizations promoting thorough catechesis include:  The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (; and The North American Forum on the Catechumenate (

[51] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 22.

[52] Frederick C. Bauerschmidt, “A Post-Dialogue Conversation II,” in Gerald W. Schlabach, ed., On Baptism:  Mennonite-Catholic Theological Colloquium, 2001-2002.  Kitchener, ON:  Pandora Press, 139.

[53] See the popularization of Borgmann’s thought in Richard R. Gaillardetz, Transforming Our Days:  Spirituality, Community and Liturgy in a Technological Culture. New York: Crossroad, 2000, chap. 1.

Related Resources