In my denomination, infants are baptized into the congregation.
I’m not headed for a debate about the theology of baptism here and who should/shouldn’t be baptized and when – I want to talk instead about the content of the ceremony surrounding the event. Before the baptism, the pastor talks in particular about the care that God has for little children, and the duty of not just their family, but also of the congregation, to teach them the ways of the Lord. The family make a promise to the congregation to teach their children about Christ and His ways; the church makes a promise to the family to do the same.
When we share that moment as a congregation – pledging to be involved actively in raising up a child in Christ who is not biologically ours, but ‘belongs’ to us – and when that child’s family pledges to do the same, it strikes me as capturing the very spirit of the New Testament church. Together, as a congregation, we gather around a family, around a child, and say: “It is a duty given to us by God to raise you to know God, and we’re going to do that for you to the best of our ability.” It’s an acknowledgement that we’re all in this together, and that it’s our job as much as anyone’s to grow people in Christ through the warmth and guidance we offer.
I think we ought to do it for our adults and our new members, too.
At most churches I’ve attended, new membership is accompanied by a strange sort of congregation-wide introduction. The new congregant is often introduced to the church by the pastor and then everyone is told, “After the event, New Congregant will be in the lobby – go up and say hi!”
In most cases, this results in a receiving line of unfamiliar faces. During the times I participated in it as a new congregant, I found that people were both warm and friendly, but that the practice was also entirely unhelpful in getting to know anyone at all. Fifty names in I couldn’t remember who anyone was. The offers of “you should join x small group!” or “come be a part of our ministry!” jumbled together with names and faces, putting the onus on me to remember who was asking me to join what and when, and then to find the information and to go and do it myself. It’s a lot to digest.
New-member excitement also fades fairly quickly. We tend to assume that, once people are integrated – once they know where everything is and they’ve joined a few ministries and show up regularly to service – they no longer need deep and involved guidance or assistance. But that isn’t always true.
At my current job, new employees are assigned a mentor: another employee who has been with the university for a long time. Ostensibly, this is so new employees can have an outlet and a place to ask questions or clarify issues, but it’s also, as my mentor kindly put it, “So that you have someone to sit with at all the big events!” It’s nice to have someone meet you for lunch, to make sure you’re not lonely, to check in on you and how you’re doing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have during your first year at a church, too?
I’m not saying that every church needs a mentorship system or even that we ought to assign congregants to our new members. What I am saying is that the “it takes a village” attitude we apply to our children can do wonders when applied to adults, too. The church is a family not just to little ones, but to everyone who comes in the door. And if a new member can feel that not just when they join, but for a good while after as they build relationships and get comfortable, what a wonderful world that would be.