Virtual bathtub baptisms help Maryland megachurch gain online members during pandemic
(RNS) — In February 2021, Amina Massai Jefferson-Motley wore a white shirt and pants for her baptism.
Her mother stood nearby as an associate minister from First Baptist Church in Glenarden questioned the little girl about her Christian beliefs.
But the celebrant of the megachurch of Maryland was in the United States. Amina was in the bathtub at her home in Georgia, becoming the first member of Maryland’s megachurch online campus to be baptized virtually.
“I’ve wanted to be baptized for years and I finally got it,” the 11-year-old said in an interview during Holy Week, when Christians say their baptism symbolizes their belief in the crucifixion, the death of Jesus. and the resurrection.
“After I was baptized, I felt so grateful to have been saved and the Holy Spirit was with me.”
Brandi Jefferson, who witnessed her daughter’s soaking in the tub, said the virtual baptism was an answer to her prayers. The mother and daughter had watched congregational services online after leaving Maryland. But Jefferson didn’t know how to fulfill his daughter’s baptism request when they had been physically estranged from his church for nearly 20 years.
Fourteen months after the fifth-grader took part in the ritual, the church has held 91 virtual baptisms. He plans to begin in-person baptisms on Tuesday, but the tub variety will still be offered to campus worshipers online.
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“We are baptizing people and obeying Christ all over the world,” said Pastor John K. Jenkins Sr., the leader of the predominantly black church in suburban Washington, DC.
“This pandemic has pushed me to realize that there are things I never thought I could do that we can do.”
The mega-church is not the first to extend the sanctuary tradition to the screen – requiring for each ceremony for a baptism candidate someone to help with the baptism, and someone to hold the camera while the online officiant declares the public act of faith “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
There are videos online of such ceremonies dating back to the 2000s, including one in a Georgia bathtub where the celebrant was in Florida. Another was in a swimming pool in Alabama when the local pastor was away for a conference in Indiana. John Dyer cited these examples in his blog on technology and theology in 2020, adding that the woman who requested pool baptism was ill and died four days after the ceremony.
Dyer, vice president of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote that a church’s decision to engage in virtual baptism “may depend on how well your community understands the meaning of baptism.” For those who make this choice, he recommended using “physical water,” including the statement “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and to be baptized by another Christian.
The Reverend Keshia Dixon, minister at First Baptist Glenarden’s online campus – who recently added ‘International’ to the end of her name – said her church had determined the baptismal assistant did not have to share the faith of the baptized.
“The power is in the profession of faith you make and the power is in the work of the Holy Spirit in that moment,” she said. “So it doesn’t matter who helps you get underwater. That’s what he symbolizes. And it is the presence of the Holy Spirit that is important at this time.
Dixon notes in an instructional video she created for baptism candidates that there are options if a bathtub is too small or not available. She suggested a hot tub – “but make sure the water isn’t too hot” – a swimming pool or a public body of water. Alternatively, the assistant may pour a pitcher of hot water over the head of a baptismal candidate seated in a chair in a tub or shower stall.
Alicia Cameron, the first international online campus member to be baptized, began watching church services in early 2021.
Beaches at her location in Arima, Trinidad — where ocean baptisms are traditionally common — were closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she had no bathtubs. So after the ‘breathtaking moment’ when she learned virtual baptism was possible thanks to First Baptist Glenarden, she also discovered she could use her shower for the ritual.
“It really works for me,” she recalled thinking ahead of her August 28 baptism. “God is only opening way after way to make it possible.”
Now Easter has new meaning for Cameron, 45, a senior manager at an educational institution who considered Christmas the most important holiday.
“This time for me, Easter takes on new meaning now that I reassess what Christ really did at that time and what that meant to me as a child of God,” she said.
“I’m going to use it to be very introspective, very representative of the true meaning of what Easter is.”
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