Saturday, January 12, 2008

Baptism Reaffirmation and Need-Oriented Evangelism

This Sunday the lectionary takes us to Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus. We started a few years ago having in the service the Congregation Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant on this Sunday. At the close of the service, people are invited to come to the font, and place their hands in the water to reaffirm their baptism. They can also take one of the smooth stones from the font, to carry with them as a reminder of the gift of God's covenant.

Last year I had two or three people come to me after the service saying how meaningful it was. A couple of them asked why we haven't done this before, and I'm pretty sure they had been at previous reaffirmations. My point is, it's all in God's timing. Previously they weren't at a point in their journey where baptismal reaffirmation meant something to them. But that year, the message of God's love, the symbolism of cleansing and rebirth, or the significance of forgiveness and a covenantal life touched their point of need and yearning.

We all need to remember this, so we don't grow weary in well doing. The best apple pie ever cooked means little to someone with no appetite. The best gift of all, a relationship with Christ, will go untouched by those so full of this life that there's no room for anything else.

Tomorrow after the worship services I'll drive to Clover to lead a workshop on Need-Oriented Evangelism (N-OE). People have needs. How do we identify and connect with their needs as a portal for a) demonstrating God's love through our service, b) establishing a relationship, and c), introducing them to a life of discipleship in Christ? (There's my workshop in a nutshell!)

The bias of N-OE, which basically comes out of Natural Church Development, is programmatic. The quick fix is to do some sort of survey of the community to discover the dominant common need (child care? after-school programs? divorce recovery? etc.?) and then to create a program administered by the church which will lure the targeted population in.

The idea is that those who respond to the program will thus appreciate what the church does, and join. (I've noticed there is little attention given to what to do if the public responds. How will they be introduced to the life of the community of faith, and how will they learn what it means to give one's-self over to a life in relationship with Christ?)

This is a large church orientation which can be frustrating to churches with an average church worship attendance of about 200 or less. Churches of that size can muster the resources to do the necessary program, but it takes a significant commitment of the energy in the congregation to make it happen. Success is not guaranteed. Thus if it doesn't work, doesn't bring in new people, a failure mentality sets in and provides a basis for that self-defeating comment, "We've tried that before."

For a large church, the commitment to a new program calls for a much smaller percentage of their resources (people and money). So if it doesn't work out, they can more easily chalk it up to experience and move on to the next promising opportunity.

How does all this tie in with baptismal reaffirmation, you may ask? We really don't need programs to do N-OE if we are faithful to living out our baptismal covenant. Baptism commissions us to serve in Christ's name. On that basis, church members can develop a sensitivity to the needs of others and then a) respond to them by demonstrating the love of God through service, b) establish a relationship with them, and c) introduce them to a life of discipleship in Christ, with or without the church having an official program for it. Amazing, isn't it?

I sometimes wonder if the purpose of church programs is to keep us busy and give us the feeling we're doing something while we avoid personal engagement in the life of discipleship. So, to not grow weary in well-doing, I will pray that this Sunday will be God's time for another someone in the fellowship to discover their baptismal calling, and to say, this is meaningful and I want to help make a difference, and maybe there's a need God's calling me to pay attention to, and....well, guess that's why we call Him the Living Water.

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