Sorry this is late! I'm on the west coast this week, and so 6 pm is three hours later than usual, for me.
One of our readers wrote in with this:
I’ve got a baptism coming up for a 12-year-old boy. In preparation, we’ve been meeting to talk about what it means. Normally, I’d do a pastor’s class, but he’s the only youth considering baptism at this point. All of this has happened at his mother’s request. Yet, this family hardly ever comes to church. They’ve been only once since Christmas because the little boy plays ball. He has games out of town every weekend. I don’t know – I just don’t feel good about this baptism.
How do you approach a situation when the parents want their child to be baptized into a community of faith but they have absolutely no interest in being a part of the community? I know I’m passing judgment – and I feel guilty about that too! But, it bothers me that this child is being baptized into a faith family, and we probably won’t see him again until Christmas Eve. I don’t get the impression that church is a priority for his parents at all. Any advice? An experiences to share?
I have my own thoughts that I'm going to put in the comments later, because I'm not a matriarch and while sometimes I'm comfortable sharing advice in this column, I'm not going to go out on a theological limb in the column itself. But then the matriarch's responses came in, and we got interesting feedback from both sides.
Karen says: Do you know the whole story?
"What else do you know about the family dynamics at work here? It could be that the Mom really wishes the family were more active, but she's fighting against her husband's disinterest.
"We've got a similar situation in my congregation right now. The Mom wants the family to go to church. The Dad isn't interested and plays the "Sunday is my one day to be with the kids" card. "Be with the kids" means being heavily involved in their Sunday sports activities. Not wanting to make an already rocky marriage rockier, she doesn't fight this too hard, thus she and the kids come to church only sporadically. I'm sure when these kids reach confirmation age, she'll want them to do it. And I'd want to support her in that. You may be right on the mark that church is not a priority for this family, but just be aware that things aren't always what they seem."
Abi says: There's an opportunity here
"You know, if you are meeting with him about baptism, then you can address what being baptised means to him and what your denomination understands it to mean into the body of Christ. And when you meet with his parents you can emphasize that too. Perhaps hook them up with a family or a mentor of someone who can get them interested in coming to church and getting involved in the church.
"You say it doesn't mean much, but it must mean something that they want him baptized, so maybe find out why and what is holding them back from their own involvement? Find out if they are baptised or not. Once when I was to baptize a girl, found out that the whole family was not. In meeting with them and discussing baptism with them, was able to get them all baptized. We were able to get the children coming regularly to church, even if the parents weren't. Don't miss an opportunity here. But use your discomfort to move you to be proactive on the part of the child to the family. There is a new study out that states the impact of children attending church that was done by Mississsippi State University. You could use that with them to encourage their involvement in church."
Singing Owl says: Err on the side of inclusion
"On the one hand, I do not think you are being unduly judgmental. Even Jesus said we know a tree by its fruit. It is a very reasonable question to enquire why someone wants to be baptized into the church, into the "Body" if there is no connection. Perhaps the answer might differ depending on denomination and expectations regarding baptism, but if the boy is 12, he can express his opinions and listen to yours, even though mama requested the meetings. (I wonder why?)
"Is it possible that this boy has more understanding, or more faith, or more connection, than his parents do? We have a young lady of 16 in our congregation who was baptized a few years ago. Her family all started attending about the same time, but she was the one of the family who seemed to understand the most, the one who seemed to really want to be a 'disciple.' Her family stayed a short time, and now are pretty much C and E attendees. Except for the daughter. She is an absolute joy. She has grown in her faith, grown as a person, grown in courage...she shines. I did not
necessarily think this would be the case.
"Otherwise, maybe a conversation with mother is in order? Maybe I should mention that once this young teenager decided she was part of our church, she asked to be picked up for church, and when the family left town she often stayed behind because church was important. Not saying that will be the case with this boy, but might it? All that to say, if the boy understands what he is doing and why, I'd err on the side of inclusion."
Peripatetic Polar Bear says: Listen to the kid's reasons
"Does the boy want to be baptized? He is old enough to have a say and take some responsibility in this. At 12, I don't really care how involved his parents are in the church community. At 12, it needs to be about him—about his involvement and his desire, his faith. If he wants to worship but cannot attend due to a lack of a ride, I'd get the session or deacons or vestry or whoever involved in making that happen.
"If he doesn't really want to do this, then I'd be facilitating a nice conversation with mom about this being his decision. Yes, ball games (argh, the blessed, blessed ball games) are a problem—but they are probably not 52 weeks of the year. Is he attending youth group or any other activities that happen outside of Sunday morning during those ball game seasons?
"It is a conundrum. Twelve is not an adult, but it's not really an infant either. In infant baptism, it is the parents and the congregation making the statement of faith. With an adult, it's the individual. With a 12-year-old, it needs to be something in between that. And just because mom wants to have this 'done' doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Likewise, mom and dad's inactivity need not impact the child's potential for membership."