This morning, Park Community Church in Chicago held a public baptism of 103 of its members in the waters of Lake Michigan. The event drew perhaps 500 spectators, mostly church congregants, at 7:00 a.m. to North Avenue Beach, a long swath of sand beside Lincoln Park, Lake Shore Drive and with a view to the city and Navy Pier. It is, to say the least, exposed.
The throng of spectators decked in sandals and sundresses spread out along the shore and adjacent pier. We watched as friends and church family waded into the lake toward one of five stations, each with a pair of pastors or elders, and were spoken to, dunked and embraced. Despite the somewhat unceremonious nature of it (it was hard to hear anything, and there were several submersions going on at once), it was a striking thing. Lots of hugs, lots of kind words, expressions of joy, transformation, and almost ubiquitous smiles. Small groups and families huddled on the beach, some praying, some cheering.
In general, I’m reluctant about street-corner preaching. I think it turns more people off to the gospel than on to it, and it often presents Christians and Christian teachings in a poor light. But the public baptisms resonated with me as a powerful symbol for the Church, and for all of the people passing by.
The baptism was not aggressive. It was, to the contrary, a pretty simple, happy affair. It was not about forcing the gospel on Chicago–it was not even about telling the gospel–it was about living it.
Additionally, the ceremony didn’t come across as Park’s attempt at proselytizing. It wasn’t some kind of show put on for the city. Instead, it was a genuine experience of worship, acting out the obedience to Christ that comes with reclaimed lives. The event was certainly “seen by others,” but that was not its purpose. The point was honoring God and celebrating his work in the life of the Church.
Saturday marked the 44th anniversary of the secret moon communion, at which time Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin celebrated the Lord’s Supper inside the lunar module on the moon. He intended to take the Eucharist on air. The moment would be broadcast to NASA and the world, a witness to the guidance and power of God. But he was instructed not to take the elements publicly because it would stir unnecessary controversy and would be seen as the imposition of religion on the masses by a government employee, a violation of the separation of Church and state.
Granted, the leadership of Park Community Church are not state workers, so it was by no means a violation of the separation of Church and state to perform baptisms on a public beach, but it could easily have been seen as the imposition of religion on unbelieving observers. Apart from holding the event in the early morning, there was nothing subtle about it. It was an unashamed, public service. The church put itself in the public eye and said–not aggressively, but clearly–“This is who we are as a Bible-believing church. This is what happens when lives are changed by the gospel. Come join us.”
This is the sort of evangelism I like. The sort of mission work we are all called to in our own communities. Like wearing a cross or humming a hymn or carrying a Bible, it’s a statement without saying anything at all.
There are effective means of sharing the gospel, and there are ineffective means, and knowing which is which depends on our understanding of context, of who’s watching and of ourselves. We are not called to showoff. We are not called to force faith on others. Many of us are not even called to preach.
What we are called to is a life that is different. Not so we will be seen, but so Jesus will be seen. We are called to live lives that, in private and in public, reflect God’s sanctifying and transformative work in us. We should confess him before people, not only so they know where we stand, but so they know where he stands. We are called to be a light, not one that scorches passersby, but one that is fueled by the Spirit and shows the Way in the darkness.
That’s why I liked Park’s communal baptism, because it was public without being oppressive. Obvious without being theatrical. Unashamed without being arrogant.
Some may have perceived it as an imposition of religion, as was feared for Buzz Aldrin’s lunar communion. But at some point we must be allowed, even encouraged, to live out our true selves and calling. And as Christians, our mere existence is our witness. If our beliefs are truly held, if our lives are truly changed, it is impractical for us to keep it hidden. While it is possible for some Christians to be overt (think Tim Tebow) and some to be more reserved (think Jeremy Lin), it is impossible to avoid a public faith altogether. We should not lock it away and out of view, and we could not even if we tried. And while it is wrong for Christians to force the gospel onto others, it is just as wrong for others to force the gospel out of Christians.
Ultimately, we don’t need a stage or a pulpit or a television camera on the moon to live out the faith. All we need is air and the Holy Spirit in us.