The Joy of Baby Thanksgivings

If you’ve got a problem with something which is a "widespread yet biblically inexplicable phenomenon in the contemporary evangelical church", it’s wise to have a position paper on it. Here is one we have been using at Gateway for a number of years...

On the day of Pentecost, Peter’s great sermon came to a crescendo with the declaration, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:39). As Pentecost people we lay hold of this promise and look for God to be about his saving work in our families. At Gateway we love family! We understand the church to be an expression of family, in which everyone, regardless of age or marital status is included. We also love the privilege of being parents and having babies, so how we welcome new babies into the family is obviously important.

We do not baptize babies, as we are clear that baptism should take place in response to a clear confession of faith. We take baptism very seriously, and love to celebrate it as part of someone coming to faith – it is part of new birth, not natural birth. However, as having a baby is such a significant event, many Christian parents like to mark the birth of a child with some kind of church celebration.

As a result, many churches have performed baby dedications. This is a moment when parents can publicly give thanks for the birth of their child, and make promises before God about how they intend to raise that child. This is very positive, but also contains a danger – that to all intents and purposes what is happening is a ‘dry baptism’!

At Gateway we recognize both the benefits and dangers of baby dedications, and operate according to the following principles:

What should we call the event?
Generally, we prefer to speak of ‘thanksgiving’ than ‘dedication’. This is because dedication is a somewhat odd word to anyone who is not a Christian. Also, dedication speaks of making a sacrifice. According to Old Testament law the firstborn son had to be redeemed by the payment of money to the priests. We do not expect this at Gateway! And in the story of Hannah dedicating Samuel to the Lord, this meant her leaving her infant son at the temple for Eli the priest to raise. This is also a model the elders at Gateway do not want anyone to follow with us! If anyone is being dedicated, really it is the parents of the baby, because they make promises that they will dedicate themselves to raising their child in a God-honouring way. However, we do see having children as being a blessing from God, and something to thank him for (Psalm 127:3-5). So all in all we prefer to speak of thanksgivings – but we are not legalistic about it!

When do we hold baby thanksgivings?
Parents can of course express thanks for their children at any time, and there is no reason why – say – a Life Group cannot organise a thanksgiving service. However, in terms of what we do on Sundays, we like to have one big thanksgiving service on Mothers Day. We do this because:
• Mothers Day is a day when most people are thinking about ‘family’ and this means it is a great day to invite people to church to take part in a wonderful family event.
• Holding a thanksgiving for a number of babies on Mothers Day helps underline the fact that we are not doing a dry christening, but saying something about our community and how we value family.
• Having a thanksgiving for a number of babies at once means we are able to make more of an occasion of the whole event, rather than just doing it quickly during a regular Sunday meeting.

What happens at a baby thanksgiving?
This is a time to celebrate! We ask parents to bring their children to the front of the meeting, where we introduce everyone. The elder leading the meeting will then ask some questions of the parents, like these:

• Do you promise, by God’s grace, to raise your children following the example of our heavenly Father’s love and care for us? Will you discipline and instruct them in the way of the Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit?
• Will you be faithful to one another, as parents, and to your children as Christ is faithful to his church?
• Will you faithfully teach your children the message of the gospel of Jesus, and lead them towards faith in him?
• Do you promise, by the grace of God, to give your children the spiritual, emotional and physical care they need?
• Do you promise to not make idols out of your children, and to guard them from falling into idolatry – will God be first in your family?

Having made these commitments, the congregation will then be asked to make commitments towards the parents and their children, such as these:

• We promise to help these parents in the care and nurture of their children.
• We will do this through prayer, example and practical help (including babysitting!).
• We commit ourselves again to building healthy family and community life, and the discipline of faithfulness towards Jesus, and one another.

There will then be a time of prayer for parents, children, and the church.

What about godparents?
As this is not a christening, godparents are not required! Instead, we invite every member of the church to stand with parents in the raising of their children. However, when it comes to the point of the service where we pray for parents and children we often invite significant friends and family chosen by the parents to come forward and join in the prayers.

What about older children?
Sometimes when people become Christians after they already have children they ask about dedicating their children. Normally we would respond to this by involving the whole family in prayer at the time of the parents own baptism. (Please note, we do not carry out thanksgivings for older children simply to help them gain places at church schools!)

Do parents have to be members of Gateway to take part in a baby thanksgiving service?
We think the birth of every child is something to be celebrated, and there are lots of ways to do this. However, because our baby thanksgivings are so expressly a statement about raising our children to know and love Jesus it would be inappropriate for anyone who does not share this belief to take part in such a thanksgiving. Also, because we greatly value church membership at Gateway, we feel it is appropriate that we limit thanksgivings to the children of church members. At a thanksgiving parents make themselves accountable to the other members of the church, and this only makes sense for those who have already committed to membership.

What does a baby thanksgiving achieve?
We believe in the power of prayer and we believe it is good to celebrate! This means that we believe the promises made and prayers prayed at a thanksgiving mean something, and have effect. It also means there is a sense of accountability between the parents and the rest of the church about how the child will be raised, and we take this seriously. It is important to stress, though, that a baby thanksgiving does not mean these children are Christians!

Giving thanks for babies that have been born to church members is a real gospel opportunity. It enables us to speak about the significance of parenting and the value of family, which then gives opportunity to express something of what we believe about what local church life should be like. It also enables us to make clear that we do not regard the infant as ‘saved’ but that as a congregation we are taking the responsibility to help the parents instruct the child in the gospel in the hope that it might one day respond in faith and be baptised.

We then need to be consistent in our teaching about parenting, and in the children’s ministry our church runs. A constant battle is to keep children’s work from descending into mere moralism, where the assumption is made that ‘church children’ are believers really, and what they need to be taught is how to behave. Our children’s work should be at least as gospel saturated as our preaching to the adult congregation. We need to be clear that anyone who has not responded in faith is not yet regarded as numbering among the covenant people of God.

And when someone responds in faith, we baptise them!

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