Sometimes it makes sense to look at church practices with a pragmatic eye. Does the thing or method have its intended effect? Does it work?
Consider the following hypothetical conversation:
Teenager to adult Christian friend: I’m going to quit school and __________ [fill in the blank with a negative direction in a believing young person’s life]. I don’t really care what anyone say anymore. It’s what I want to do.
Adult friend: But we were there at your baby dedication 15 years ago, and we promised with the whole church community to uphold you as you grew into a Christian young woman.
Teenager: Oh. I almost forgot that. Well, I guess I won’t continue on my current path, then. I’ll recommit to following Jesus instead.
(Said no one ever.)
Through the years, I’ve actually felt a great deal of empathy with the idea of baby dedication ceremonies. (We are not talking about “christenings” here.) No, there is no biblical pattern for them, and that fact alone makes many of my siblings back away from any practice—at least until they realize that many of the things they’ve been practicing for years also have no biblical backing. But most of the baby dedication ceremonies I’ve observed¹ have been fairly well conceived, with a strong concept of Christian community and a desire to do something that supports young families. Some of the hallmarks of these ceremonies may be 1) introductions and insights into who the families are, 2) a pastoral (in the truest sense) prayer, and 3) recitation or response by the whole congregation, i.e., some type of pledge to uphold the family in their desire to be Christ’s family and to raise the children to be Jesus’ followers. Not one of those is a bad thing, right?
Unfortunately, I think there’s no more effectiveness in such a ceremony than in the post-Constantinian practice of infant baptism, which I take as a shallow, perhaps desperate attempt to perpetuate an institution by forcing the young into it.
The day before this essay is made public, our family will have attended the wedding of dear longtime friends’ daughter, and we have looked forward to sharing in the celebration. We look hopefully with all of them to the future of this particular marriage. But wedding ceremonies don’t have a terrific record of effectiveness, either. Whatever the current stats are for weddings/marriages/divorce—whether taken in the whole or in any cross-section—I imagine we could generally agree that there is a limited correlation between ceremony on the one hand and long-term stick-to-it-ive-ness on the other. (It’s not the ceremony, after all, but the people’s character and commitment that makes the difference.)
There is to my eye a much more notable lack of correlation between baby dedication ceremonies in all religious traditions and the likelihood of said babies actually turning out to be disciples of Jesus. I’m not saying baby dedications should cease, necessarily. I’m rather saying that they’re not effective. Possibly, in a less mobile society in which small Christian groups existed familially for 20 years or more, they would be more effective.
What works better than ceremonies? What do you think?
¹ I think we might have even participated in such a ceremony ourselves about 6.5 years ago, but the fact that I can’t remember for sure may say something.