Lessons Learned: Living Room Baptisms

We had been living in Central Asia as a family for seven months. At last, I was hanging out regularly again with my dear friends from my gap year, Hama* and Tara*. This fun-loving couple had come to faith back in 2008 as we studied the book of Matthew, saw God miraculously answer prayer, and as they experienced God’s faithfulness during their six month ostracism from their family. When their son was born at the end of that year, they had named him Memory, so that they would never forget all that God had done for them.

I had done my best to try to hand off my relationship with them to others when I had returned to the States for seven years, but this can be a tricky thing. While one believing European friend stayed close with Tara, no one had been able to regular invest in discipling this couple, in spite of the fact that a believing husband and wife are a rare and wonderful thing in a people group where nine out of ten believers are single men. This lack of steady discipleship meant they had never been baptized, something I was eager for them to pursue.

Somehow, on that summer evening in their apartment the topic of baptism came up. As I shared how important it is, and showed them passages like Matthew 28 and Romans 6, Hama and Tara were suddenly convinced.

“Let’s do it then!” said Hama, “How about tomorrow?” Tara was beaming as well.

I was a bit taken aback by this spontaneous decision, and observed that when it comes to areas of difficult obedience, our people group have an interesting long-term resistance that suddenly breaks into a desire for immediate action – which often catches us westerners a little unprepared. Given all of the hesitancy around baptism and its costs in an Islamic society, my sense was to try to help Hama and Tara move fast, now that they were at last ready to move. I did not want the spiritual clarity and excitement for obedience they were currently experiencing to fade away again. Plus, this was a long time coming, seven years without taking that first crucial step of discipleship. This was an answer to prayer.

“Can we do it at your house?” they asked.

“Well,” I replied, “I’d have to figure some things out for that to work. Are you sure you don’t want to drive to a lake or river? The weather is nice and hot.”

“No, somewhere like your house makes sense. It would be private and clean. And we could do it fast, without having to plan a whole picnic.”

Our locals take their picnics very seriously. And no baptism outing to a lake or river would be permitted without some kind of a half day or full day picnic program also happening, which takes a lot of work and planning. There are picnic sites to argue over, food responsibilities to be debated, and logistics to be hammered out. Knowing how exhausting even just planning these local picnics could be, and that it was still too early for the cooler autumn picnic weather, I was happy to agree to something simpler and within the city. Plus, at that point we didn’t have a natural location that we knew could work well for baptism, and this would take some research.

“Right, then,” I continued, wanting to make sure they were OK with some other believers (my teammates) being present, “Let me see if I can make it work for tomorrow evening, and connect with some of my colleagues that you know. I’ll text you in the morning if it will work.”

This plan agreed to, I left Hama and Tara’s apartment full of excitement. My dear friends were ready to follow Jesus in costly obedience. And our team would get to experience their first baptisms with locals. I couldn’t wait to tell them. But first, I had to figure out if we could even pull this off in the living room of our second floor duplex home.

I had seen inflatable kiddie pools for sale on the sides of the road in recent weeks. I had also seen cheap hand-pumped siphons for sale in most neighborhood stores. A plan began to come together. I would buy a kiddie pool, inflate it in our spacious living room, fill it up with water from the porch hose, then afterward be able to drain it out to the porch drain with that same house and a siphon. We had no bathtub, something that is quite rare in our area, and I had read that some Muslim cultures have negative reactions to something representing cleanliness, baptism, happening in an area of the house that also has a toilet, or a squatty potty. No, I thought to myself, to get both privacy and respectability something like a kiddie pool is the way to go.

The next morning I embarked on a mission to find my needed supplies. Not too far from my house I bought a large inflatable rectangular pool, long enough for an adult to lay down in and deep enough to make sure they could get fully immersed, if they began by sitting down. I took the pool home and used my wife’s hair dryer to inflate it. So far so good. It fit perfectly in our living room alcove, backed by windows that looked out on the southern mountain range. It felt like it a took a very long time to fill the pool up with the slow stream of water from the porch hose, and it was early afternoon before I had achieved proof of concept. But there it was, a functional baptismal in my living room. This could actually work.

Now it was time to share the good news with the team. I sent them a picture of the pool and a pecked out a message with my thumbs.

“Last night Hama and Tara told me they are finally ready to be baptized! And they asked if we could do it at my house. I wasn’t sure if it would work, so I got a pool to test it out. But look, it works, and they said they’d be ready as soon as tonight! What do you think?”

The message I got from our team leader was not at all what I was expecting.

“We need to talk. This is not happening. I’m coming over.”

I was stunned. What was going on? Where did this kind of response come from? Clearly I was missing something big.

My team leader came over to our place and we proceeded to have a pretty tense conversation, one where I was scrambling to figure out where I had gone wrong. I had clearly stepped in something. It had all seemed so simple to me. We were there to make disciples, baptize them, and form churches in a city where there was no healthy church. What was the holdup? Why the resistance?

It quickly became clear that I had to contact Hama and Tara and tell them that we couldn’t move forward with their baptism. Our team, for some reason, was not on board. Over the proceeding weeks I began to figure out what gone wrong. The issues really boiled down to a failure of contextualization, both me toward my team and my team toward our local context. By contextualization here I mean using methods that are both faithful and appropriate for a given context and culture, taking universal biblical principles and implementing them skillfully with particular people and in particular places.

My team had responded to me so negatively because I had failed to operate within our culture as a team and organization, which was still very new to me. When I had been in the same city on my gap year, I had served with a different organization, and on a very disjointed team where we more-or-less coordinated on platform projects, but had a lot of autonomy as far as ministry decisions. But the new team and organization I was with was very different. Leadership of the team and strategy in church-planting were taken much more seriously. Ministry decisions were not rushed or autonomous, but approved by the team leader and hammered out over a long period of (hopefully) consensus-building conversations.

Comparing things to my previous season serving as a church elder in the States, I remembered once hearing the principle of “never surprise your fellow elders.” But this is exactly what I had done. I had very much surprised my teammates and my team leader, and not in a good way. In fact, they felt that the timing of my communication, after having set everything up, was somewhat manipulative, put them in a bind, and was at the very least out of order. They were stunned that I would proceed in this manner. For my part, I was struggling to understand why this kind of decision would be controversial at all.

Turns out our team had been at an impasse regarding local baptisms for a year or more before we had even arrived. A few single men had come to faith and desired baptism, but the team couldn’t agree on whether or not it was appropriate to baptize these men if they were not yet ready to tell their immediate families about their faith. Nor could the team decide on how to baptize them into a church if no healthy local church yet existed. They were also committed to westerners not doing the baptisms. Tensions had run very high around these conversations, unbeknownst to us. And into the simmering tension surrounding these ongoing debates, I, the new guy, had quite suddenly inserted myself and Hama and Tara.

Understanding this context wisely, both of team culture and of team conflict, should have led to a very different process as far as how I approached the whole baptism conversation. But in my excitement for my local friends, I had failed to contextualize well toward my team.

But there was an unintentional upside to my mistakes. I had forced the conversation. Two local believers were eager and ready to go under the water. A baptismal kiddie pool was sitting there in my living room. Nothing was stopping us from moving forward other than our own inability to agree with one another as a team. And so we found ourselves in the unfortunate position of delaying locals from obeying Jesus until we could get our stuff together. Though sometimes necessary, this is the kind of place any missionary should want to avoid. When the locals are ready to obey Jesus, we need to make sure that we are ready to facilitate this – though this is often easier said than done.

But the team, still all pretty new to Central Asia, had also failed to contextualize well to our specific situation.

The team was committed to no missionaries doing baptisms, because missionaries in Somalia had found this could result in baptisms performed by locals being viewed as second-rate by local believers. And missionaries in Latin America had found that barring foreigners from doing baptisms was an important principle in what is called shadow-pastoring. In shadow-pastoring, the missionary is never seen actually leading, but is always coaching a local leader from the background. But we weren’t in Somalia or Latin America. We were our unique city in Central Asia – which had no mature local believers able to do these baptisms. And where we had no local data yet to suggest that locals would elevate baptisms by foreigners as somehow superior, or that they would respond negatively to a foreigner directly modeling local church leadership in this way.

The team was also committed to baptism being done into the local church, a sound biblical principle. But once again, in our particular unreached context we had no local church for Hama and Tara to be baptized into. They would have to be the first local believers that would become the church for others to be baptized into it in the future.

Finally, the team was committed to baptisms not happening in kiddie pools in our homes, but in more idyllic natural settings. This final commitment seemed to be more of a personal preference or idealism, one which curiously went directly against the desires of the actual local believers we were working with. The sense among the team was really that it would be a bit of a tacky precedent to set.

In all of these things, it was not merely the biblical principles, but also their foreign applications and expressions that were being asked of our local friends. In this sense, things were backwards. Yes, good contextualization should be informed by how the global and historical church has expressed biblical principles, but it must also ask the important questions of what certain choices and expressions mean in their unique, local focus culture and people group. As far too often happens, our team was taking expressions and methodologies developed elsewhere, and imposing them upon our locals as some kind of inflexible missiological law. Hama and Tara were excited about being baptized in a kiddie pool, by me, in my living room. We were saying no to this. Why? Because of Somalia, Latin America, and our own personal baggage with indoor baptismals. Just as I was failing to contextualize to my team, my team was failing to contextualize to our local believers.

Biblically, there is nothing wrong with a foreign missionary baptizing local believers in a kiddie pool in their living room, in a private setting with a small crowd of believing witnesses. There is nothing wrong with those who are the first baptized becoming the church that others will be baptized into because no church yet exists. In fact, there is no way around this latter reality when planting the first church in what is sometimes called a zero-to-one context. But methodological commitments were prematurely denying us some of our biblical options – and doing this without any local evidence for it.

Thankfully, the ensuing conversations as a team were fruitful, and we were able to find a good compromise for Hama and Tara. The team had come around to us baptizing Hama, as long as he joined us to baptize his wife afterward. But the kiddie pool in the living room was still something they couldn’t bring themselves to agree to. It just felt tacky, and it would take many more local believers insisting that it was fine and respectable for it to become an option that all of us were OK with. Hama and Tara humbly decided to go ahead and plan a half-day picnic and for our sake to be baptized in a slow-moving greenish stream.

“The Bible says I need to go under the water, but does it say it has to be such dirty water?” Hama joked with me at one point as we surveyed the slime at the edge of the stream. I smiled at him sympathetically, wishing I could tell him about all the dynamics that had led us finally to be permitted to dunk them in that lazy stream in late summer.

As for the kiddie pool, it remained filled up in our living room for the next several weeks. “Might as well let the kids enjoy it!” I said to my wife. Plus, having the kids use it actually helped us deflect our language tutor’s repeated questions as to why exactly we had a pool set up in our living room (The picture at the top of this article is of two of our kiddos very much enjoying a splash on a summer afternoon with no electricity).

Though it quickly developed leaks, we actually got to use the same controversial kiddie pool for several baptisms the following year, one in a local’s courtyard and one in a local’s garage. It was still too soon for the whole team to be comfortable doing it in our houses. But by the end of our first term, Darius* was being baptized in a kiddie pool in our team leader’s kitchen, dunked by a local on one side and a foreigner on the other, and into what was now a fledgling local church. Considering the level of tension around baptism a few years earlier, the symbolism of this event was not lost on me.

What had changed? I had learned how to contextualize to our team, and all of us on the team had learned how to better contextualize to the locals. God had answered a lot of prayer, and all of us had shifted significantly in how we understood what methods were both biblically faithful and locally appropriate. We were more committed than ever to biblical principles, but some very good adjusting had taken place as we sought to wisely express them for the unique people and culture around us. We were still informed by missiology from the outside, but it had become the servant to local contextualization, not the law.

Study your unique team and leadership. Study your unique local friends and their culture. You’ll likely find you have to make some significant adjustments in your assumptions, approaches, and your methods. But this is what good missions work looks like. One hand holding on tightly to fixed, unchanging biblical principles. The other hand with a looser grip, tweaking, prodding, and poking at your methods, striving for the best way to apply and express those principles in a way that is faithful, wise, clear, and compelling.

*Names changed for security

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