Baptism should be on the radar of every worship leader because baptism is an act of God amidst the gathered, worshiping church. And if we all had perfect eyes of faith, baptism would feel every bit as communally euphoric as the most epic, heart-wrenching worship song we know. Here’s why.
Whether we baptize babies or baptize those mature enough to profess faith, we tend to feel baptism as a communally pleasant experience. And it is. We have the opportunity to witness a sign and seal of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ, and as we do so, God whispers to every one of us, “Don’t you remember? I’ve promised to love you…forever.” But baptism is at least as morbid as it is pleasant.
In our sensational age, most of us have seen, either in real life or in vivid color on the big screen, acts of violence and murder that turn our stomach and take our breath away. The knife scene in Saving Private Ryan and the ending of Braveheart (not to mention every episode of The Walking Dead) are those kinds of moments for me. I watch, I wince, and, overwhelmed by the brutality, my heart says, “This is too much!”
This kind of feeling should at least dawn on us as we experience baptism, whether we are the one being baptized or the onlooking church. Paul describes baptism, not merely as a symbol of, but a bona fide experience of, death: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death” (Rom 6:3-4).
Martin Luther (in keeping with Paul) describes faith as “a living, busy, active, mighty thing”–a gift from God, an alien invader graciously planted within us to hunt and to slay the Old Adam. In other words, faith has a bloodlust for our self-righteousness. Baptism, then, is one of faith’s first declarations of intent to drown the Old Adam. Baptism is a prelude to the torturous journey of faith’s slow, steady removal of the Old Adam’s oxygen supply, as it wraps its hands around his neck and pushes his head under the water.
This is why we might say that the Christian’s lifelong journey is a downward one, because it is a journey where God defeats our self-righteousness and replaces it with Another’s. Christian growth happens on a path where our self-righteousness is being dismembered, limb by limb. And baptism is God’s assurance that it will happen. Of course, baptism also displays “newness of life,” but that only can happen after death.
If all this is true, then worship leaders should take heed. Baptism is a deeply powerful, Spirit-filled thing. It should get chalked up there with all the most overwhelming charismatic experiences we’ve had in worship. Baptism, worship leaders, is not an invasion or interruption of your worship set. Baptism is worship, and part of the reason I’ve described it in such shocking (but hopefully biblically faithful) terms is to help us see that, if we look with the eyes of faith, it is every bit as powerful and evocative as those pinnacle moments when we’re weeping and singing our guts out. And, worship leaders, we should attempt to think about what baptism could look like in our worship services and contexts if we viewed it as part of our job to provide music and a liturgical flow that appropriately surround this holy moment.
(I might finally say that all this was inspired by a re-reading of a German Lutheran theologian, Oswald Bayer, so if these ideas of faith-as-gift, Old Adam, and baptism are new or intriguing, check out this rather dense book.)