I had enjoyed getting to know this young couple during our pre-marital sessions. I remembered their wedding on a September evening in a nearby park. I remembered how fun it was. Occasionally, I would still run into them because of our church and family connections. But lately, she had been emailing me regarding baptism for their two young children.
We have a policy that we baptize people at one of our church services (although I have been known to bend this rule for extenuating circumstances). We also, generally speaking, baptize the children of members of the congregation. There have been times when complete strangers call us on the phone and ask if we will just baptize their child. They have never been to our church before, and they they don't intend to become regular attenders. They just wonder if we will "do a baptism."
In these instances, it is not so difficult to say "no."
But this was different. I had a relationship with this couple. I wanted to know what they were thinking about; I wanted to know about their faith, their questions, their convictions, their doubts. So one summer morning we set up an appointment to have coffee.
We got caught up with each other's lives. I learned a little about their two young boys, the ones who would be baptized. We talked about the importance of growing up in a faith community, the connection between baptism and the people who will help the baptized grow in their faith.
She talked about how hard it was to find a church, although they had visited several. They just hadn't found the right one yet. She confessed that the church she liked the best so far was the church her mother went to. But that church only had baby dedications, not baptisms, and they felt they wanted more for their children.
So we talked a little bit about the difference between baptism and dedication, me being careful to speak with the utmost respect about the practice of baby dedication, even though it is not my tradition. I also recommended some churches of our denomination in her neighborhood that I thought they might like. Then I asked (because I was curious):
"Just what is it about your mother's church that your like so well?"
As it turns out, there were two practices that attracted her to this faith community. At worship, there was a time for people to get up and tell stories about their faith. These were genuine, warm and truthful moments for her. She wanted to belong to a community where people shared their faith.
The other practice that attracted her was service. This congregation gave her opportunities to serve.
It was not the choir, not the dynamic preaching, not even the warm personality of the senior pastor. It was not the theology (liberal or conservative), not the architecture, not the amazing array of educational programs.
It was the ability to share faith, and the commitment to service.
Now I know that this was an isolated conversation, just one anecdote. But something rings true about it for me, as a mainline Christian in a denomination that I am convinced still has a lot to offer. We don't even know how much most of the time. We take beautiful liturgy for granted. We don't often plumb the depths of our own theology, all of the wideness of grace amid the persistent questions.
I am convinced that mainline Christians have a lot to offer the world. But I am also convinced that we have some things to learn. For example, we have to get over our reticence in speaking about our faith. Whether we know it or not, we do have a faith story, that we have many faith stories, and we need to learn to tell them, too. This is something we need to learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters, from the richness of their traditions.
We need to learn to testify. We need to learn to testify to the goodness of God in our lives.
We don't have to hand out tracts, and we don't have to accost people on street corners. We just have to learn to say, "Here's where I saw God last week."
He was in a stranger that I met; he was in the streak of sunlight that fell across the page of a book I was reading; He was in a conversation I had, a conversation with coffee on a summer morning.