Few things say “Baptist” more than a baptism service, especially when it’s held at a river and and a big crowd shows up to celebrate. What makes it even more memorable is when most of those being baptized aren’t who you expect.
That’s what happened earlier this week at our church’s annual “Baptism at the River.” It’s our largest evangelistic outreach each year and during the decade we’ve hosted it, hundreds have professed faith in Jesus. But this year I saw something new. Among the twenty-five people who were baptized, half were young adult men.
In modern America, young adult men are among the hardest demographics to reach with the gospel.
In modern America, young adult men are among the hardest demographics to reach with the gospel. I don’t know all the reasons but suspect they have to do with our nation’s disengagement with religion in general; a prevailing culture that isn’t just secular but often antagonistic toward the church; and, for many, the lack of a father to direct them toward spiritual maturity.
Yet last Sunday at the river, some from this group bucked the trend and made the courageous decision to identify with Jesus through baptism. Single and married. Caucasian and African-American. Students and professionals. One by one they walked into the water, confessed their faith in Jesus as their personal Savior and were fully immersed in the best Baptist fashion.
When the men came up from the water they were shivering and sputtering like they’d plunged into an ice bath.
Those guys won’t soon forget their special day. I was standing knee deep in the river and felt first-hand how cold it was. Maybe the water had just been released from the base of the dam a few miles upriver. Maybe the summer sun hadn’t yet warmed it. Whatever the reason, when the men came up from the water they were shivering and sputtering like they’d jumped into an ice bath. The crowd loved every minute of it and cheered them one by one.
I was thrilled as their pastor. But on another level I’ve wondered since what led those young men to do something so counter-cultural. I’ve come to several conclusions.
First, young men today want stability and permanence. I’m no psychologist, but I’ve talked to enough of them to realize how many have been wounded or abandoned by their fathers and how that experience could set them on a spiritual journey. They’re in a better position than others to hear Jesus’ promise, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” As I think back over those baptized at the river, I remember how several were from homes without dads.
Second, they hunger for community. Whether students or beginning their professional careers, they live in performance-driven worlds where the main thing is how well they fulfill someone else’s standards. But like everyone else, they’re looking for the meaningful relationships only community can bring. It’s no accident that almost all of the young men baptized at the river were either in a vibrant Sunday School class or in a close relationship with a spiritually mature man in our congregation.
Third, I know from conversations with some of the young men that they have little interest in shallowness–in their marriages, friendships or faith. They want to dig deep and find what’s true, real and personal. In the months leading up to their baptisms, that desire led most of them to connect with one of several discipleship opportunities offered by our church.
Stability, community and authenticity–in service to the gospel–lead to spiritual fruit
Stability. Community. Authenticity. The circumstances young men face today put them in position to hear from God in a special way. But they’re not the only ones. What draws them to Jesus draws others as well, and any church that chooses to focus on the same values–in service to the gospel–will likely bear similar spiritual fruit.