A Case of Compromise
The second (but no less important) goal was to have 100 people baptized during the Wembley service. This went against the grain of what we’d always taught: baptism as a matter of salvation, and a deeply personal decision. Like the newly- instructed converts in the book of Acts, new believers should be baptized as soon as they understand, repent, and desire to follow Jesus. We taught that baptizing someone before they are ready is as misguided as making a ready individual wait for a future date.
Since the early days, our churches around the world have baptized new believers at all hours of the day and night, wherever there is water: in lakes, rivers, oceans, horse troughs, swimming pools, barrels, bathtubs, hot tubs, and no doubt other found vessels with deep-enough water. (I would love to hear some personal examples of more unconventional containers of water that have been used over the years — please add them to my comments section below! I was baptized as a sincere seeker the night I understood the purpose and importance of baptism, in a bathtub at around 7:00 pm, on the second Sunday of October 1980.) We used all these places and vessels of water so that the mechanics of baptism would never be a complicating factor in someone’s decision to be baptized. Some chose to be baptized right away; others might wait until they could invite family and friends to be there. But the timing was never based on making the baptism a public event, unless someone wanted to be baptized in front of the church. (Even then, it would likely take place within a week or less.) What mattered most was baptizing upon readiness, not according to any kind of ‘schedule’.
The directive to get 100 people ready for that day violated many of the staff’s consciences. Some of us chose to disregard the goal and continued to baptize individuals upon their readiness. Others wanted to participate in reaching the goal, and tried to ‘pace’ their teaching. But the goal raised uncomfortable questions about motives and integrity: exactly why were we striving to have 100 baptisms that day? Who were we trying to please? Was this supposed to impress our visitors (who’d probably be underwhelmed or even restless during the logistics of 100 baptisms), or was it to impress other churches in our fellowship? Neither seemed like a good enough reason to bend our convictions into compromise.
We knew from personal experience that it was risky and potentially damaging to baptize the ‘almost converted’, for their sake and ours. I had done it in the past, and it troubled my conscience long afterward. Learning to give each seeker the time they need and helping them count the cost thoroughly were hard-won lessons that still lodge deep in my heart.
Questioning our individual and collective goal-setting, motives, integrity, and people-pleasing tendencies brings up knotty issues that are difficult to discern, especially up- close and under pressure. This wasn’t the first time these issues had raised their entangled heads, but in this case, the size of the goal and the questions it stirred were impossible to ignore. As Paul wrote, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10)
In the end, the goal was realized, and we witnessed 100+ baptisms at the arena. Obviously, many individuals were prepared and ready for the auspicious date, and I hope that every person baptized that day is still grateful to God and continuing in their faith. However, this was not the day of Pentecost – a harvest ordained by God, unplanned by people – but rather the promotion of a man-made goal for public display and recognition. This doesn’t invalidate anyone’s sincere “pledge to God for a clear conscience” on that occasion. . But the essence of the directive troubled many of us, long after the day was over. It was an unfortunate case of mixed messages and conflicted messengers: another heavy brick on the already teetering wall.