Another sign of the problem is the deep fear some evangelicals have of baptism. I attended an independent church in Dallas, Texas, on a Sunday on which they were having a mass baptism for some 400 people. This speaks well of the effectiveness of their outreach and their desire to obey the commands of their Lord. As part of the service, four or five people came on stage and were interviewed by the pastor to help them give their testimony. At the end of each testimony, the last question the pastor asked each was this: “But you don’t believe that baptism saves you, right?” It wasn’t just the question, but the leading way in which it was asked time and again that suggested to me that the pastor was deeply afraid of the power of the sacrament. And the fact that he also asked this right before each person was baptized went a long way into ensuring that the sacrament did not become a means by which God broke in and blessed the recipient but became all about the horizontal: an act of the person’s faith.
The state of the Lord’s Supper is in a worse state. I’ve lost track of the number of startup evangelical churches—again, who are sincerely seeking to reach the world for Christ—whose practice of Communion is frankly a sacrilege. One has to give them credit for, yes, seeking out the lost and taking down unnecessary cultural/religious barriers. And one has to also praise them for at least offering Communion. But in many churches, it is something that is presented during the offering, at a small table holding crackers and juice on the side aisles for those who feel so led to partake. Sometimes this is accompanied by the words of institution, but sometimes it is not.
The idea of Communion—of the body of Christ participating with one another in an ordinance of their Lord—is completely lost. Not to mention the loss of any concerted effort by worship leaders to highlight why the sacrament is a central feature of Christian life.
In contrast to the evangelical churches of the late 1700s/early 1800s, it almost goes without saying that few if any evangelical congregations today would dedicate a whole weekend to preparing and then participating in Communion. It would not only be perceived as a turnoff to unbelievers but a meaningless rite to members. And yet it was at Communions that thousands upon thousands came to know Christ intimately for the first time.
To be sure, today one can find evangelical churches, high church and low, Anglican and Baptist, who take the Lord’s Supper with utmost seriousness. They—no matter their theology of the sacrament—will say it remains a means by which they are drawn out of themselves to remember the One outside of themselves, who didn’t just come to give them affirming spiritual feelings but to die on a Cross for their sins and to rise again for the dead for their salvation.
We do well to recall the emphasis that our Baptist brothers and sisters insist on: that these are practices ordained by our Lord: “Go … baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and “Do this in remembrance of me.” I do not believe evangelicalism will recover from its spiritual stupor, its fascination with the horizontal, until it once again practices regularly and respectfully, with earnestness and devotion, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Until, that is, it obeys the clear commands of its Lord.
First, I don’t think any sophisticated theology of Communion would make it an individualistic act as it has become in some churches. Simply refusing to offer Communion unless it is a part of the service in which every member or believer is invited—that’s a start.
Against all odds, a church might very well offer a weekend retreat in which the focus is Communion—with teaching and times of prayer to prepare oneself—and the climax being the receiving of the bread and cup.
As for baptism: Let’s insist that as soon as possible, as infants or after conversion (whatever your theology), that we obey the plain command of our Lord to baptize. And then when we do baptize, let’s not get in the way of the act by explaining it away, that is, saying what it is not. We might just say what we believe it is, and do so simply. There is a time and place to teach a church’s theology of baptism, but during the baptism, we should let the visual power of the sacrament, and a few well-chosen words, to the work. You can believe that baptism as such has no ultimate efficacy and still recognize that it is a powerful symbol, and as a powerful symbol, it speaks volumes.
In the context of this series, one reason I advocate the regular and reverential participation in the sacraments is because, as noted above, they require us to look at what is happening at the altar/Communion table or in the waters of baptism. We are required to look outside ourselves, to the physical means by which Christ blesses his people. Rather than encouraging us to ponder the feelings that are going on inside us, the sacraments require us, however briefly, to focus on God and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.