Not that baptism only has three futures, but I see three possibilities.
I’ve been thinking of this important Christian practice a lot lately as I’ve recently finished up a six weeks small group class that has covered the biblical material, origins, history, practice, and theology of baptism. In the last session I talked about contemporary issues, and among those was a speculation of where baptism may be heading in modern American culture. What I see is not all that great.
Future One–People Are Getting Baptize All The Time
Many Christian groups, particular those with an Arminian disposition, may have people who feel they’ve lost their way and come back to faith in Christ and want to celebrate this with getting baptized again. Other traditions, like my own Baptist heritage, has begun to view baptism as an almost expected double or triple experience. It is not uncommon for people to have been baptized as a child, then again as a teenager or in their 20s, and then finally when they join a new church that has a different practice. None of these things in itself might lead us to this new future of everyone getting baptized all the time, but combine it with the idea of using baptism to cleanse a conscience after a traumatic event or a startling life change, and it is not hard to see the idea of baptism as a symbol of renewal of Christian faith that might be repeated multiple times a year as Holy Communion is celebrated.
Future Two–No One Is Getting Baptized
Another variation is one in which the act of baptism has been ‘metaphored’ away into something that represents a decision to follow Jesus as Lord but the symbolic representation of the water has been removed as an artifact of a pre-enlightened world. This move would certainly be welcome to the large mega-church movement which are functionally non-denominational in their affinity appeal to ideology and style rather than theology or heritage. It is easier to move people without the trouble of water.
Before you object to this as an impossibility, consider this has already happened in most places with the concept of anointing with oil for prayer and healing. Whereas our foremothers and forefathers would have likely seen and participated in such moments of symbolic action, today’s Christ followers rarely if ever experience it.
Future Three–Everyone Is Getting Baptized
No, not because everyone is become a follower of Jesus, but because baptism has been secularized and no longer is rooted in faith in Jesus. In this concept, the world co-opts the baptismal font as a statement of cleansing or renewal in a psychological or emotional sense but no need to bother with faith or theology. The best example of this having already occurred is the cross. People adorn their bodies with a cross who have no faith in Jesus at all. Indeed, the government designates the cross as a secular symbol (click here for Greenbeans outstanding ‘The Cross Is Not A Secular Symbol’) that means death or cemetery. Can you see a future in which people are baptized after a bad day, a breakup with their boyfriend, or quit a job, or smoking? Sadly I can see backyard pool parties in which people promise to be loyal to themselves and to serve the better good as citizens of the world an some other bilge about the heart wants what the heart wants, then a good friend baptizes them and everyone sings a John Lennon song.
Each of these futures is horrific to me.