Like most congregational churches, the Mattapoisett church typically baptizes infants in the sanctuary during worship, using a baptismal font. A kneeler is used in addition to the font for older children or adults. This past September, however, the setting was a small beach near Ned’s Point Lighthouse off Buzzard’s Bay.
Seeds for the harbor baptisms were planted about two years ago when Rev. Lignitz Harken heard that parents of a young boy wanted him baptized out-of-doors. In the end, the family wasn’t ready for that important step, at least not then. But when another set of parents came forward last summer, things began taking shape.
“The logical time and place would be Homecoming, when the congregation worships outside, at the lighthouse,” said Rev. Amy Lignitz Harken, pastor of the church. For many years, homecoming has signaled the end of summer as the worship time returns to its usual 10 a.m., and the choir returns from its summer hiatus. People stay late for a cookout and Sunday school sign-ups. This year, everyone was invited to come early to witness the ocean baptisms, the first in living memory of the congregation.
Rev. Lignitz Harken has much experience in immersion baptisms, having been ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and having served DOC churches. The DOC practices “believer’s baptism” by immersion. Generally, infants and very young children are “dedicated,” while older children and adults are baptized by immersion when they claim belief and acceptance of Jesus as savior. DOC churches are typically constructed with baptisteries, often behind the pulpit.
“Immersion is the way I have typically baptized children and adults,” Rev. Lignitz Harken said. “It isn’t the customary way for most people in Mattapoisett, but they were eager to support and witness something a little different. Also, the fact that I had experience with immersion baptisms brought a degree of comfort to a situation which was, for many, new.”
The Mattapoisett church is composed of people of many traditions, and some had been baptized by immersion. At the beginning of the baptism service, Rev. Lignitz Harken invited those gathered to remember their own baptisms. Said one member afterward. “If you were to ask how many there had been baptized by immersion, I bet many hands would have been raised.”
Because this was a first for the church, several things had to be created. Rev. Lignitz Harken composed a brief curriculum for the boys, who are in the 2nd and 3rd grades, touching on several facets of baptism and the Christian faith. A skilled seamstress in the congregation graciously agreed to sew the boys’ robes and alter the baptism robe ordered by the minister. As the time grew near, the tide table was consulted, a solid sandy spot was staked out, town officials were notified, and a strong volunteer was chosen to be on hand if help were needed.
On baptism day, as Henry and Elliott’s proud parents helped them don their robes, and Rev. Lignitz Harken pulled on borrowed waders. Church members began arriving at the small beach. After speaking generally about baptism, and more specifically about the boys, Rev. Lignitz Harken asked questions of the boys, their parents, and their sponsors, guided by the UCC Book of Worship. As the congregation sang a simple “Amen” chorus on the shore, a deacon helped each boy out to the baptism site. After affirming the final question from the pastor, each boy took a deep breath. Rev. Lignitz Harken covered their nose and mouth with a handkerchief, and dunked them backwards.
Since the baptisms, the congregation has continued to talk about the event as something special, memorable, and meaningful.
Editor's Note: Scroll down for some tips in conducting an immersion baptism.
Rev. Amy Lignitz Harken can be contacted at the church office at 508.758.2671 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For tips on holding a successful, memorable, immersion baptism, read below. You can also discover what immersion baptisms mean to Amy in her blog article.
What You Need to Know if You are Considering an Immersion Baptism
Rev. Lignitz Harken offers the following tips for churches planning immersion baptisms in the ocean:
- Explain history and policy. The Bible and the earliest documents of the church (i.e. the Book of Acts and the Didache) indicate the first Christian baptisms occurred in natural waterways, probably by immersion. Ministers can explain this to parents, children, spiritual leaders, and the congregation, joyfully connecting a “new” ritual to our collective Biblical origins. Ministers can also familiarize themselves with the World Council of Churches 1982 document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, which discusses both immersion and sprinkling as valid forms of baptism, albeit with different emphases. The pastor and other spiritual leaders should also be aware of any church governing documents (bylaws, manuals, policies, etc.) that may address the issue.
- Create a class. Baptism is a beginning point on the Christian journey, but to appreciate the sacrament as fully as possible, children and parents may want or need some preparation. The contents will depend on the maturity of the ones being baptized. For young children, the most fruitful discussion may happen at home, guided by topics suggested by the minister. Remember:
- Preparation “classes” should not create barriers. Rather, they can a) help ministers come to know parishioners more intimately; b) foster a sense of intentionality, purpose, and importance to the sacrament; c) ensure theological integrity accompanies the process.
- Baptism “means” many things, and all facets can be explored. For example, if dad tells junior, “In baptism, your sins are washed away,” pastor can help dad and junior unpack that thought, and add to it thinking about Christian community, acceptance, adoption as children of God, etc.
- Besides the “what,” children will want to know the “how.” YouTube has videos of immersion baptisms that can be shown and discussed. A “field trip” to the baptism site may also be helpful.
- Wear appropriate attire. Baptismal robes aren’t necessary, but they do lend a sense of sacredness. They are specially designed for the purpose, made of a fabric that can be easily laundered, and constructed with weights in the hem so the robe doesn’t float.
- Robes can be ordered online or made. If you make your robes, you may use drapery weights, found in the notions section of the fabric store.
- Under the robes, those being baptized can wear swimsuits, t-shirts, or other comfortable clothing, bearing in mind robes may become transparent when wet.
- The pastor might consider full waders under his or her robe.
- Everyone should wear water shoes
- Respect the ocean. The ocean is a powerful, unpredictable force. Check the tide table to see where the tide will be at the time of the baptism, adjusting the baptism time if necessary. A day or two prior, find a good spot, i.e. a sandy patch about chest-deep for children. Solid footing is crucial. Dunking isn’t difficult, but there may be strong currents, and ministers won’t be able to use their arms for balance.
- Foster a sense of security. Plan for a deacon or other respected leader who is physically fit to join the minister in the water. This gives the minister security if he or she loses her footing. Also, children, who may be nervous, will have an escort in and out of the water. Ministers who have never immersed should practice on a friend. A sense of security and safety on baptism day will ensure everybody receives the spiritual benefits of this sacrament without worrying something might go wrong.
- Create a Service. Ministers may adapt the order of service in the UCC Book of Worship based on the personality and expectations of the congregation. For example, some congregations may benefit from Biblical and theological background, while others may like a less-formal-than-usual format.
- Allow for being outside, i.e. use a small loose-leaf binder for the liturgy so pages don’t blow away.
- Most speaking should be done from the shore, so the congregation can hear.
- Moments of transition, such as when people move in and out of the water, can be enhanced with music, i.e. a strong singer leading attendees in a simple, well-known song.
- Consider outside factors. Remember, this is a public event!
- Notify town administrators, police, or other officials of what you’ll be doing.
- People will want to take pictures. Review church policies regarding photography (in worship, of children, etc.) Consider engaging a professional photographer so everyone can witness the event without anxiety of missing a shot.
- Ensure a private place for the minister and children to change attire before and after the baptism.
- Reflect. Parents, teachers, deacons, church leaders, and others will want to reflect on the baptisms. Find opportunities to do so, such as making an item on the deacon’s agenda, or lifting it as a joy during adult education times.
Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane writes news articles for the SNEUCC website. She is also the editor of the Starting With Scripture newsletter. Contact her if: Your church has a great story to tell about an innovative ministry. You have a prayer request to ...