Celebrating Baptismal Identity

Ideas for Marking the Beginning of a New Church Season

In early September, many churches begin a new season of church education classes and a host of other programs with a special “kick-off” worship service. Most often these services focus on a theme of dedication, and there never seems to be enough songs with words like “Take My Life and Let It Be.” While this is a strong theme, it can also focus a lot of attention on the enormous outpouring of busyness the new year promises.

So consider instead focusing attention on the root identity and purpose of all church programs: to form faithful disciples of Jesus, an identity given to us at our baptism.

This baptismal motif is already often present in comments we make, such as, “When we baptize children, we promise that we will nurture their faith. That’s what our church education program is all about.” But I’m suggesting giving that theme even more attention and making sure that the focus is not merely on the baptismal identity of children, but of people of all ages—including all teachers, officebearers, and parents. Here are some ideas to guide your planning for such a service:

  • Consider using “Morning Has Broken,” a song of praise for God’s work in creation, followed immediately by “Baptized in Water” (PsH 269). Both hymns use the same tune, allowing for one to flow seamlessly into the other. You might want to add an interlude between the two texts with a reading from Romans 6:3-4 about our baptismal identity with Christ.
  • If it is your practice to invite teachers and other leaders forward for a time of prayer or dedication, have them gather around the baptismal font. The pastor could introduce that time with these words: “In your baptism, God made clear the promises of the gospel for you. God embraced you and welcomed you to the body of Christ. Your work this year in our church is nothing less than a response to this welcoming embrace. You are working out the implications of your baptism, even as you are inviting our children, youth, and people of all ages to do the same.”
  • Invite all the children of the congregation to surround the font with their teachers surrounding them. The pastor might say, “Dear children, many of you have been baptized. We look forward with others of you to a time when you will be baptized. In baptism we learn that each of us belongs to God and to each other. At your baptism, this church promises to form you in faith and makes sure that you hear how much God loves each of you. These teachers who surround you are following through on that promise.”
  • Offer a sermon on Matthew 28:19, the Great Commission. That text not only establishes the mission of the church, it also makes the connection between baptism and teaching very explicit: “Go and make disciples, baptizing them . . . and teaching them. . . .”
  • Use a liturgy for the “reaffirmation of baptismal vows” (see SNC 240). This liturgy of dedication and commissioning takes all the emphasis off our busyness and focuses it squarely on our identity as Jesus’ apprentices.
  • Sing James Brumm’s stirring baptismal hymn “Sing! A New Creation” (SNC 241). Or look for other ways to use the text (with proper copyright attribution): on a bulletin cover, in an e-mail to prospective teachers, on a projection screen as people gather for worship. The hymn has many lines that inspire new ways of thinking about the church’s teaching ministries (“Go and teach, send justice flowing, quench dry souls, compose a dream. . . .”)
  • Build part of the service around the many biblical references to baptism. David Hoekema’s hymn “You Are Our God; We Are Your People” (PsH 272) refers to many of them, linking God’s promises to Noah and Abraham, God’s promises in Jesus, and God’s promises to us in baptism. In every case God announces, “I am your God, you are my people.” Prior to the service, ask four or five young children to prepare their own artistic depictions of Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and baptism. You can either project these or hold them up for the congregation to see. Introduce the song with words such as, “This year, our children will be learning many Bible stories from both the Old and New Testaments. But the message we are eager to teach them is the same, start to finish: God promises to be with us, to be our God, and to welcome us to the family of God.”

This baptismal approach to marking the beginning of a new church season promises to change the feel of the day. Rehearsing our baptismal identity is a gracious way to speak to teachers who are nervous, to parents or guardians who feel a bit overwhelmed, and to children who are marking beginnings in their lives. It is a way to start the year that is both solemn and joyful at the same time. Best of all, it focuses attention on the remarkable gift of our identity with Jesus in his death and resurrection—a theme that never, never, never grows old.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 92 © June 2009, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.