Sometimes we need new wineskins. When Jesus came to earth, God was doing something new and exciting. Sadly, the people had a hard time receiving this new move of God because of their old patterns of thought and religious practice. In response Jesus said, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins. The wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine needs new wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
About two years ago, our church realized we needed some new wineskins when it came to baptism. Of course nothing was faulty with the sacrament itself. It remained a powerful means of grace packed with God’s life-giving, life-transforming promises. But we made two discoveries that helped us realize we needed some new thinking and some new approaches to the sacrament of baptism. Both discoveries had to do with parents.
The first discovery was a sad one. Our church was baptizing a lot of children every year. That sounds exciting! However, we noticed that a large number of parents who brought their children to be baptized were leaving the church as quickly as they came.
The second discovery was a game changer. Our children’s ministry came across a few statistics that have since changed the way we approach children’s ministry. They learned that parents have way more time with their kids than we ever could. If a parent brought their child to church every week, the most time we would have with them in a year is around 40 hours. In contrast, a parent has roughly 3000 hours with their child. Just by the sheer amount of time a parent has with their child, they are the most influential person in a child’s faith development. Research supports this truth. In a survey of young adults who stayed with the faith after graduating high school, almost all of them said the most influential person in their faith journey was a parent. And that is how God meant for it to be. In Deuteronomy 6, God calls parents to be the primary spiritual leaders in their children’s lives. So it occurred to us that if we wanted to have the biggest impact on a child’s spiritual life, we cannot simply focus on the children. We have to focus on the parents too!1
Together, these two discoveries challenged us to consider new wine skins when it came to how we thought about and approached baptism. In the past, we had 1 hour-long class that parents attended before the baptism of their child. Maybe it was time to try something new.
Around the same time we were having this conversation, we were experiencing the growth of small group ministry in our church. It was clear that small groups were a powerful way to help people connect in a church, build close friendships, and grow spiritually. We began to explore the idea of hosting a three-week small group experience for parents who were baptizing their children. The concept was simple. We wanted to create a small group that helped families connect with others in the church. We also wanted to help parents see the significant role they play in the spiritual lives of their children and give parents tools to be successful in their role.
We started with leaders. We contacted couples from our church who were passionate about God and passionate about connecting with new families, and we invited them to be hosts for the baptism small group. These host couples are the ones making the initial contact with baptism families. They are present at every gathering. They build relationships throughout the small group. And they help with follow up by attending the baptisms and then inviting the parents back to other family related activities.
Next, we developed a small group study guide. This guide has been tweaked and revised several times, yet the major content is the same. The theme of the first week is “Beginning with the End in Mind.” We talk about the kind of people we hope our children become and how to guide them in that direction from the very beginning, starting with baptism. In the second week, we focus on how the parents can deepen their own walk with God. In the final week, we talk about the many ways our church can support and partner with parents. Each of these sessions is relational and conversational, rather than a lecture style format.
God has been pouring new wine into our new wineskins. Do some families still disappear after the baptism? Unfortunately, yes. But we have noticed a lot more of the baptism families sticking around after the baptism. Some have become new members.2 Some have joined other small groups. But the most exciting results are transformed lives. We had couples tell us, “We’ve talked more about God in the past three weeks than we have in our entire relationship.” We have seen healing and reconciliation between parents who were no longer married but went through the small group together. We have seen parents baptized with their children. We have heard parents telling us about the new faith practices they are doing with their children.
This started as a tool to help a parent with their child, yet God used it to help a child with their parent. Early in 2014, I began having deeper faith conversations with my dad. He had not been baptized as a child and he did not have a close relationship with God as an adult. I used this small group study to talk with my dad about baptism and about a life of faith with God. To my joy and astonishment, my dad decided to be baptized at our church. He made the trip from his home state of Hawaii to Illinois where he was baptized in April. Since then, my dad has continued to grow in his walk with God. We read the Bible and talk about it together every day. My dad regularly worships with a church in his home state, and he is genuinely seeking to honor God in his work, in his relationships, and in his actions.
This journey of new wineskins and new wine has been exciting. People are still being baptized. But now, more than ever before, we are seeing God sprinkle the whole family through this amazing sacrament. I would be happy to share more about this baptism small group model with anyone who is interested, but I do not presume it is the right fit for every church. Nevertheless, I would challenge everyone to prayerfully consider what new wineskins God might be leading you toward in order for his new wine to be poured out through the sacrament of baptism.
- ^Reggie Joiner’s book Think Orange (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009) in particular helped us arrive at these insights.
- ^Parents are not required to be members in order to have their child baptized with us. Many are not. Some are regular visitors or they heard about our church through a friend or family member. The child becomes a member at baptism, but the parents are not yet. Several of the parents have gone through the New Member Class after going through our small group and having their child baptized.