Last term was one of the most frantic terms of my ministry as a school chaplain. I had decided to launch a service of baptism and confirmation for the school community to run in the middle of the term. My school is situated in one of the most secular demographics in the country and we had not hosted a service like this in decades due to low interest in the past. I expected around five to ten people to come forward and ended up with 26. Suddenly, my schedule was crammed full of preparation meetings. Here are some reflections on baptism in a school context.
The invitation matters
I remember a few years ago feeling a little down about chaplaincy because it seemed like I had put in so much effort but wasn’t seeing much change. It turns out that God was in fact working quite powerfully in people’s lives, but I had not given them an invitation to change. When the notice about baptism and confirmation came out, these people came forward.
One student approached me at the Year 12 Ball to tell me he wanted to be baptised. I didn’t know him well, but we met together the following week and he told me that he realised there was something deeper in life. A parent approached me in the playground, telling me that what I said about hope in a Christmas sermon years earlier had stuck in her head. One father wrote to me saying that his Year 6 son would come home frequently speaking about the stories he had heard in chapel, and that when the opportunity to be baptised came up, he asked his father if he could go forward with it. A staff member found his faith rekindled through school ministry and requested to come forward for confirmation.
Had I not provided an invitation to these people, I may never have known the joy of what God was doing in their hearts.
The strangeness of worship
I have heard it argued that to attract young people to church, we need to strip back the religious ritual and make church familiar and accessible. But is this approach right for the young people today? Winfield Bevins writes in his book Ever Ancient New: the Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation of a millennial believer who said to him, “For my parents’ generation, who were raised in church, tradition and liturgy were old and boring, but for our generation, liturgy is new, exciting, and fresh.” Bevins recounts a number of stories like this in his book, and there seems to be something of a movement of young people globally toward liturgical worship.
He says, “Many young people today are not interested in a church that provides a slightly different version of what the world can give them. If the church is just another vendor of services – not even a good one in some cases – what does it have that they cannot get elsewhere?”
I certainly saw something of this in this service of baptism and confirmation. People were attracted to the idea that they were participating in an ancient ritual that gave meaning to the faith that had developed within them. Baptism for many was attractive in part because of its strangeness and because this strangeness pointed to a meaning of hope, peace and justice. The service was completely voluntary, and yet we attracted around 150 people to it – making it one of the more well attended voluntary events of the school year.
We are ministering to whole families
It feels at times we are ministering to the students and staff, but the reality is that in schools, whole families are affected by our ministries, even if second hand. One Year 8 boy here asked to be baptised and confirmed last year, and this year the rest of his family followed suit. Similarly, the school librarian recently told me that some of the students’ parents have asked their children to borrow Bible stories from the school to read together. This service of baptism reminded me of just how broad the reach is of the school chaplain and how much God can work through us even when we don’t see it.
We need to rethink church
The greatest challenge I’m left with is how to help these people find Christian communities going forward. While it is easy to recommend churches in the area that they might begin attending, the reality is that most of them do not have any connections to those parishes. How do we provide Christian community for our students and families that meets them where they are? I have continued to meet with one family regularly, but what about the others? Some schools have planted new congregations on site for this reason, but how do we maintain these with chaplains and staff already at capacity? It seems we need to think carefully and creatively about how to build new Christian communities to minister to the people in our schools that God is reaching with his good news.
God is growing his church and school chaplaincy has a powerful role to play. God bless you as you care, preach, baptise and minister in your communities.