A guest post by ObstacleChick
One of the important things about growing up Southern Baptist is the concept of “believer Baptism.” This means that unlike other Christian sects which practice infant baptism, members of the Baptist faith choose their own timing for Baptism, based on when they feel they are ready. Many of my peers did this when they were around the ages of 8-14 (I was 12), often after a youth retreat or some other special service directed toward youth. There was no small amount of peer pressure and/or family pressure involved. The family pressure existed because (a) parents want to make sure their kids “get saved” so that they can enjoy eternity in heaven not go to hell and (b) parents often viewed it as a personal failure if their kid didn’t make a profession of faith; no one needed their Christian parental skills to be judged by the Smiths and Joneses in the congregation. Peer pressure played a role because (a) it was easier to make a profession of faith en masse with other youth rather than being the center of attention and going it alone, and (b) kids didn’t want to be gossiped about any more than usual by their peers as being “lost” or “unsaved” or “worldly.” There were some who may have chosen baptism as adults, particularly people who did not grow up in a church or who never had experienced baptism, or perhaps someone who had been baptized as an infant but wanted to have his or her own believer baptism experience. A lot of Baptist churches don’t consider baptism in other churches to be “Real Baptism.”
As children in the Baptist church, we would attend Sunday school on Sunday mornings, followed by the church service. Wealthier churches that could afford staff or could recruit volunteers would have a separate Children’s Church for the under-12 crowd. There was a time when our church had a Children’s Church, and I much preferred that to being in Big Church with the adults. Big Church was really boring. I liked the music, but once the sermon started, I was bored out of my mind and had to find ways to occupy myself while the preacher was giving his sermon. I was supposed to look interested or at least to behave and not fidget, but it was really hard. I would occupy myself by counting the chandeliers, counting the windows, counting window panes, counting the number of boards on the ceiling, or counting pews. Sometimes I would count how many people were wearing a certain color, then move on to the next color. Sometimes I’d try to read the words of the songs in the hymnal or less often would try to read the Bible, but the language of King James’ English was cumbersome. Big Church was just torture.
At the end of each service, there would always be the Altar Call. A mood-setting song was sung by the choir and congregation (often “Just As I Am”), and the preacher would stand at congregation level in front of the altar so that any who felt called could go down front and profess their faith in front of the entire congregation. Occasionally someone would go, but there were far more people who “rededicated their lives to Christ” or went to pray to confess some sin. Those who went forward to “get saved” or to rededicate their lives to Christ would shake the preacher’s hand, and then one of the deacons would take the person aside to ask questions and fill out a card with their information. The questions were generally about whether the person recognized that they were a sinner in need of God’s saving grace, and did they accept that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for their sins. Then when the song was over, the preacher would pray and thank God that a new believer had come forward, and after the prayer everyone would file forward to shake the hand of the new believer. Then we would all go home. At a later service, there would be a Baptism. The church usually tried to schedule several people together because performing the Baptism took a lot of work.
Because my grandfather worked afternoons and evenings, he had mornings free to do other things. When I wasn’t in school, he’d take me along with him on whatever errands he was doing. A lot of times we would go to the church so he could work on the air conditioning or refrigeration equipment that needed tending. He did this pro bono as a member of the church. He was a deacon and for a while was on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, so he took responsibility for making sure the church was taken care of in whatever way he could.
Going along with Grandpa meant that I got to explore the church on my own. Sometimes I’d hide items or notes around the church so I could find them later or to see if other people found them. One Monday morning we went to the church while Mr. Hall, the janitor, was cleaning out the baptistry. For those unfamiliar with the term, a baptistry in our church was a special “room” behind the choir loft in the Baptist church. Ours had a tall window with a short panel of glass, and the tall window reached to the top of the peaked ceiling. Long red velvet curtains were closed when the baptistry was not in use, but when it was in use the curtains were pulled back to expose the huge backlit cross, lights were turned on, and one could see the water sloshing along the surface of the glass. When Mr. Hall cleaned the baptistry, he emptied the water through the drain in the floor, and he had hoses and a bucket of soapy water so he could scrub the surface. He showed me how he mopped the floor and walls and rinsed the area with a hose, and the water went down the drain. There were concrete steps leading down into the baptistry from the women’s changing room on the left and the men’s changing room on the right. He let me look at the white robes hanging in the women’s changing room. They had special weights sewn into the hem so the robes wouldn’t float up in the water. When men were baptized they usually wore their pants and a white t-shirt. Mr. Hall showed me the white robe and fishing waders that the preacher wore. The robe was just like the choir robes except white instead of red, and it also had weights sewn into the hem. I was surprised that the preacher wore fishing waders – that’s how he was always able to be finished so quickly after the baptism, because he never got wet! Mr. Hall told me that one time someone accidentally filled the baptistry with too much water which spilled into the fishing waders, wetting the preacher’s pants, and the preacher had to send his wife home to get him a pair of pants so they could conclude the service.
When you are baptized in the Baptist church, the practice is full immersion. Before your baptism service, there is a rehearsal with the preacher. You practice walking down into the dry baptistry, turning to face a certain direction, and the preacher shows you how to hold your nose. He will put one hand on your neck or back and one hand over your nose, and after he says “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” you have to be ready to hold your breath and to bend backward while he lowers you into the water. The pastor is well versed in bringing people back up really quickly so they don’t have to be scared of drowning. Then you walk up the steps into the changing room where your mom or another lady in the church is waiting to help you out of the wet robes, dry off with towels, and get dressed again. Some ladies use a hair dryer (the sound of which can be faintly heard in the sanctuary) to dry their hair while others just towel-dry it. At the end of the service, you go back out so that the church members can file by and shake your hand to congratulate you. After your baptism, you are presented with a certificate signed by the preacher and the chairman of the deacons, and you get some other religious gift as well such as a Bible or a devotional book. After your profession of faith and baptism, you are considered a full member of the church and can take part in communion with the other members. You can be gossiped about and judged, but you can’t lose your salvation because, once saved always saved!