Creeks, waterfalls, rivers, ponds, swimming pools, bathtubs. If there’s a mass of water and a baptismal candidate, the Asheville, N.C.-area Biltmore Church seizes the moment.
“This is kind of getting back to Acts here. This is really just seizing the moment and wherever you have the opportunity you do it,” Biltmore Central Discipleship Pastor James Myers said. “I was fortunate and blessed to walk one of my families, that was a part of my connect group, through it in their own bathtub.”
Baptizing more than 400 people in 2020 in the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, the multisite church took to heart the Ethiopian’s plea of “Here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?” in Acts 8:36.
“Even in COVID, a lot of people were still making these major spiritual decisions and wanted to follow with baptism … and still wanted to go public with their faith,” Myers said. “But then we didn’t want to do mass gatherings, so what do we do?
“I’m sure we just kind of looked at Acts. ‘What prevents me from being baptized?’ and said, ‘Hey anything is possible. Wherever there’s water.’”
Biltmore baptized 101 candidates on its annual outdoor baptism celebration Aug. 29, most of them in a lake on Six Oaks Ranch in Fletcher. The church had other baptisms planned for Baptism Sunday on the Southern Baptist Convention calendar.
Senior Pastor Bruce Frank emphasizes baptism whenever he can, including the topic in exhortation, education and special events.
“There are times when we do preach on the importance of baptism, probably once a year for sure,” Frank said, adding that they cover topics such as why baptism is important and what it means to be scripturally baptized. “And we baptize most every Sunday, but there are a couple of times a year where we focus on it,” he said.
In addition to the annual summer outdoor baptism, Biltmore Church has an annual winter baptism emphasis. At both events, there are scheduled baptisms and impromptu baptisms for those who make decisions and receive counseling on the spot, with church T-shirts and shorts available in multiple sizes.
“Those have been by far some of the sweetest days,” he said of spontaneous winter baptisms. “I think right before COVID, that spontaneous baptism, it was 199 people baptized on that Sunday morning that were spontaneous. You had about 20 that were already scheduled.”
All candidates receive counseling before demonstrating their faith in the waters of baptism.
“We do counsel those people that morning, but I teach on it for 40 minutes, so that’s about as much counseling you can do on what baptism is and why you should do it,” he said. “Most every baptism we see in the Book of Acts is what you and I would call spontaneous.”
Baptism is prominent on Biltmore’s website, with a video of baptism testimonies, a definition of baptism, answers to frequently asked questions about the ordinance and an online form to request baptism.
Biltmore no longer uses the raised baptismal pools at its campuses, but uses a large, mobile pool on the floor of its sanctuaries to make the experience more accessible and personal. Family and friends are within arms’ reach, Myers said, as the pastor sits at the side of the pool and baptizes.
Biltmore celebrates baptism with a barbecue at its annual outdoor event. Parents and church leaders sometimes baptize candidates they themselves have led to Christ, a practice that increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but generally campus pastors perform the rite.
Candidates assemble in the lake at the annual outdoor baptism, forming in rows assigned to each campus pastor. Friends and families also attend.
“We’ve had people that have come to see somebody else be baptized,” Frank said, “got invited just to come and watch. We share the gospel before we start to baptize, and we’ve had many, many people there, coming to see their teammate get baptized, they end up coming to Christ and getting baptized that same day.”
The church is careful not to put any “unnecessary roadblocks” in the way of baptism, Frank said.
Myers recalls the experience of talking a father through baptizing his daughter in a bathtub at the family home, as Myers guided them on Zoom. The new candidate, about 12 years old, didn’t want to delay.
“She wants to be baptized as quickly as possible,” the girl’s family told Myers. “And at this time, we weren’t physically gathering as a church.”
Small groups of as many as 12 could be baptized in the church with no worshipers present during COVID-19 restrictions, Myers said, but the daughter didn’t want to be baptized in an empty church.
“There’s nothing more special than a parent baptizing his child. His voice cracked. He loves his daughter. He’s so proud of his daughter. I encouraged him to say, ‘You’re no longer just my daughter, but now my sister in Christ.’
“He understood the weight of what he was saying, and it was so special.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer. Sunday Sept. 12 was Baptist Sunday in the SBC.)