This past week I was looking back through recorded answers to prayer. I came upon a prayer from a few years ago for some local new believers to be baptized. I had written the date we started praying for this, and the date God answered that request.
The lead up to the baptism was tricky. This believing couple was pretty fearful of blowback from their community or relatives. As with many Muslim societies, the community here views baptism as the true point of no return, much more so than a verbal profession of faith. I’m not sure the historical reasons for this, but it is a powerful dynamic we must wrestle with as we work with new believers. Finding a place that is appropriately private and public – so that we honor the biblical requirements and the security realities – is often a great challenge as well. And we live in a climate labeled “high desert,” so there’s not exactly a ton of private swimming holes dotting the landscape.
After much discussion, a date was agreed upon. Then a place and a plan. The husband requested that we do the baptism at their house, in a kiddie pool that he would get ready beforehand in their garage. This would provide a measure of security and privacy, yet still allow the members of the young church to gather and publicly witness their profession and immersion. Initially, they wanted to choose which members of the very small congregation could be there and who couldn’t. Yet we insisted that it was crucial to allow all the members to attend – especially the locals. Locals tend to extend a lot of trust to us foreigners and almost no trust toward the other local followers when they are new believers, to the great detriment of church formation. We have to constantly push against this. It came down to the night before the baptism before they finally agreed the whole church (including all six locals or so) was welcome to attend.
By this point we were well aware of another cultural dynamic that was probably making them feel uncomfortable about their pending dunking. In this culture, it’s very important that men who are not relatives never see a woman wet, whether that’s swimming, wearing wet hair from a shower, etc. Wet hair and clothes are viewed as very sensual. So baptism, where a woman is publicly soaking wet, is the kind of event that could lead to strong feelings of shame, of dishonorably exposing oneself, a wife, sister, or daughter to the eyes of unrelated men. Families and close relatives go swimming together all the time, but its extremely rare for unrelated locals to be at a mixed-gender swimming locale. Because of this, all of the hotels have gender-segregated swimming hours.
To anticipate this fear and objection, our default has been to offer gender-specific baptisms, where the women only are present for the women going under and the men only are present for the men. Afterward, once the newly-baptized one has put on dry clothes and dried or covered their wet hair, all the believers celebrate together. I’ve heard that the early church in some places had similar practices for men and women and that the role of deaconess was mainly about modestly helping women with baptismal rites. When we extended this offer of keeping the genders separate, the couple pursuing baptism were noticeably relieved.
The morning of the baptism came and the members of the little church parked on the street and filed into the garage, beaming and shushing one another so that we wouldn’t make too much commotion for the neighbors. Baptisms, tricky though they are, are always an exciting time. We all stood around talking and inspecting the pool and making sure the water was deep enough for someone to go fully under – we are Baptists after all. We talked through some details for the celebratory picnic to follow the baptism and then it was time to start. We motioned to the newly believing husband and wife that now was the time when all the men would head upstairs.
“Actually, we changed our mind.” The husband replied. “We know that for our culture we should separate the men and the women, that only relatives should be present for a time like this.”
We all nodded and he continued.
“But you have told us that we are family now, that through Jesus we are family with every other believer here. So we want the men and the women to stay for both of our baptisms.”
Surprised, we pressed to make sure they really meant it. Then we shrugged our shoulders and proceeded. As foreigners, we try to walk wisely in how much we try to change certain cultural practices that we might not prefer, but which are not sin. But when the locals insist that they desire to go against the grain of the culture for the sake of Jesus and the church, that’s not the time to pull out our lines about missions methodology. That’s the time to support our brothers and sisters in their risky decision.
Due to the trickiness of getting someone all the way down, under, and back up when baptizing in a shallow kids pool, we’ve come to adopt the method of having two individuals do the actual dunking, while a third reads out the gospel questions and makes the Trinitarian baptism declaration. While we stumbled into this practice, we came to really appreciate the corporate nature of it, where the honor and authority (and physical weight) of the baptism can be spread out between three believers. This gives us a good chance to undermine any competitive “my baptizer was better than your baptizer” nonsense that can often crop up. And it visibly communicates equality of spiritual authority between the foreigner and the local if both are involved in physically laying the new believer in their watery “grave.” Locals want the foreigners to do all the baptizing. Missiologists want the foreigners to never do the baptizing. We’ve settled into a middle way.
The husband and wife both went under the water and came back out, gasping and all smiles. The ladies were lightning quick to wrap the wife in a towel as soon as she came up. The church members, far from acting awkward, burst out in their favorite worship song. At that point everyone there was fine with the neighbors being suspicious. Rejoicing had become far more important. Everyone shared their warm congratulations with their sister and brother, using those familial terms in an intentional and kind way. They were getting it – the church is the new family of God.
Then, because we’re in Central Asia, we went upstairs to drink chai, and to commence with the honorable haggling over picnic logistics.