The Evangelical Free Church of America provides latitude on whether baptism should be required for church membership. Based on the denomination’s autonomy, it’s a local church matter.And some congregations believe the only requirement for church membership is simply being a born-again Christian. . . .
Some Christians, such as Quakers and members of the Salvation Army, reject baptism entirely. And recently, one Texas megachurch pastor reported that nearly a third of the people who receive Christ in his church are never baptized. One response to the multiple views of baptism is to reject or neglect it entirely. Especially in large independent churches, baptism is often relegated to relative unimportance.
If something is not essential, it is optional. If, in the estimation of nearly all Protestant churches, baptism does not impart, do, or change anything, then why do it? Apparently that is the conclusion of many who "receive Christ" but never follow through with baptism. Frankly, I would probably be one of them if I were one of those Protestants. Symbols are significant and meaningful only to those who like them, desire them, and use them. If baptism is not your "thing" then its symbolism is optional. Never mind the Scriptures or tradition -- since everything is oriented toward "me", if I judge baptism insignificant, I see no compelling reason to be baptized (that is the decision of many who live within the confines of evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America. Rules do not have the bite they once did.
In some respects, we Lutherans find ourselves in a similar predicament. Baptism has become like the wedding -- put off until all the family can attend and the celebration goes on. I do not expect that my circumstance is all that different from the average Lutheran Pastor who can no longer count on Lutheran children moving into the parish to have been baptized. I have to ask. Often the sheepish reply is that the family was waiting for a great moment that never came and suddenly finds themselves with a pre-teen or teenaged child, about ready for catechism class, who hides the deep dark secret of never having been baptized. And I am not merely speaking of families whose association with the church is tenuous. I begin my youth catechism class by asking the child to find the baptismal certificate and come back with the date, place, and sponsor information. More than I care to admit the child has come back and admitted (often to his or her horror) "I was never baptized!" Looking back on my ancestry records I find that most of my Lutheran relatives were baptized within a week or two of birth -- many as the first real trip outside the house after birth.
Like the couple who lives together as the norm until they save up enough money and can get all the family together for a perfect wedding, families are tempted to wait for the right time but that day seems never to come. Distance and schedules combine to make it hard to find a perfect Sunday when everyone can be there. So the family gradually forgets about trying for the right time and the whole thing gets pushed aside in the busyness of life. We Lutherans confess the miracle of baptism -- the water with the Word, the Spirit working through this sacrament, the old life drowned, the new life born, forgiveness given, faith imparted, the clothing of righteousness covering sin, the entrance into the community of faith (the Church)... We have the theology right but we are slipping in our practice. Baptism is not made effective by who is there from family or friends but the Word in and with the water. If family cannot make it, they will have to do with pictures. If sponsors are unable to attend, then a witness or two will have to stand in for them. But baptism is too good to postpone for less than urgent and essential reasons. Or... we run the risk of becoming just like the Protestants -- a church in which baptism is optional and not the highest priority. For the record, the Scriptures and tradition cannot conceive of a church in which baptism is optional!
For those who think about postponing, read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:26-40. After his encounter with the Word of the Lord, the first thing was baptism. "What is there to prevent me from being baptized?" When the Word of the Lord addresses the heart of the sinner and the Spirit opens that heart to faith, the first steps will be to the baptismal font to receive what God promises there. If this does not happen, something is wrong. The progression for those old enough to hear the Word is to hear it and proceed directly to baptism. For the children born to the baptized, as soon as possible those children should be brought to the family of faith (the church) to be received into God's Kingdom through baptism. Sure, there are some reasons why one might wait but are those reasons compelling enough to keep from the child what God has promised in baptism? Good food for thought!