Looking Up

Baptism: Before and beyond

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Avondale-led study reveals challenges but affirms commitment to church

Seventh-day Adventists could do better to prepare and care for those who choose to join the church through baptism, a new study shows.

Almost 1500 Adventists aged 18 years and over participated in Before and Beyond Baptism, which the church in the South Pacific sponsored to investigate the relationship between the church’s baptismal practices and its membership, Christian maturity and commitment to core Adventist beliefs. The findings of the preliminary report reveal more than half of the participants were baptised before age 16. However, one in three aged 11-14 indicated their parents told them they were too young. One in five accepted Jesus as their Saviour before, or by, age nine.

Many participants commented that the decision and request of a child to be baptised must be taken seriously. “I wondered whether I needed to be re-baptised because I was baptised so young and began to understand and develop a loving and passionate relationship with God only a year or so later,” wrote a young woman aged 20-25. “Since then, I’ve decided God used my early baptism as the beginning of my journey. If we were baptised only when we understand everything, we’d never get baptised.”

These findings are, on the whole, encouraging, and a reminder of why the church funds children’s ministries and Adventist education. The next findings are more concerning, though.

One in four of the participants had no intentional post-baptism mentoring. Eight per cent indicated they had no pre-baptism instruction; four per cent because “the person baptising me considered I needed no special instruction because I was brought up in the church.” Twelve per cent indicated they had been re-baptised. And many participants expressed concern about the use of the term “baptised into the Seventh-day Adventist Church” compared to “baptised into Christ.”

The research team includes academics from Avondale College of Higher Education and Andrews University and administrators from the church’s conference, division and General Conference levels. It distributed a 38-item questionnaire at the church’s conference camp meetings and regional meetings throughout Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific in 2014 and 2015. Of those who participated, 55 per cent were women and 45 per cent were men.

The questionnaire incorporated items about the participants’ background with one question asking about baptised Adventist relatives. Some 95 per cent indicated their close family included at least one baptised member. The most influential member of the family, and the one most likely to be baptised: the mother. It appears the church gains most of its membership from within its ranks with less than 10 per cent of its members coming from outside the church family.

Open-ended questions provided the opportunity for participants to include personal experiences and comments, such as this: “My aunty and uncle were having Bible studies with a minister every week. After a time, the minister asked my relatives if they’d like to get baptised. They replied with an emphatic ‘No.’ I was so embarrassed, I stepped in and said, ‘I’ll be baptised.’ I felt sorry for the minister because he’d gone out of his way to regularly visit my relatives.”

A section of the questionnaire asked participants about their past relationship with the church. Seventeen per cent indicated they had been disassociated for a time—a third between six and more than 10 years.

The final section asked about the participant’s faith and relationship with the church. It showed most respondents attend church once a week and would continue to do so even if they moved to a different location. Significantly, eight out of 10 participants, when asked if they could see themselves as a member of the church in 10 years, responded “Definitely.”

Barbara Fisher

Barbara Fisher

Barbara is principal researcher for the Before and Beyond Baptism study and a retired senior lecturer in education religion and literacy at Avondale College of Higher Education.