A ‘Saguaro Church’ at Worship

On June 12, 2011, we celebrated our first “Blue Pentecost” at the United Church of Santa Fe. Like churches around the world, we had traditionally based our Pentecost celebrations on the Acts story, with its “mighty wind” and “tongues of fire.” Pentecost at United was always red, noisy, and fun. We would fill the Sanctuary with red balloons and hang the red Pentecost banner. Children and adults blew like the wind, spoke in different languages, and waved slips of red paper above their heads as their “tongues of fire.”

But that year, everything changed. Santa Fe, like the rest of the Southwest, was in the grip of a decades-long drought. Ten days before Pentecost and hundreds of miles west of Santa Fe, an abandoned campfire in Arizona’s White Mountains started the largest fire in the state’s history. Fueled by tinder-dry forests and grasslands, it raced into New Mexico. By the Monday before Pentecost, its smoke descended upon Santa Fe. The normally azure sky turned grey. The smoke blocked the sun by day and turned the moon blood-red by night.

As the Southwest continued to burn, we knew our worship couldn’t include the traditional symbols of wind and fire to represent God’s spirit. So we designed a “Blue Pentecost,” based not on the Acts story, but on Jesus’ baptism—another time when God’s Spirit descended to fill someone with power. Water—not fire—became our central symbol of Pentecost. We hung the blue baptismal banner and used hymns such as “Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me.” Rather than slips of red paper as tongues of fire, the children used pinon branches to bless the congregation with water from the baptismal font, as we sang John Chisum’s “Let Your Spirit Come:” 

Let your rain fall down, pour upon our souls.

Come and wash us now; come and make us whole.

Our “Blue Pentecost” didn’t follow the usual script for worship that year. But the congregation definitely experienced God’s powerful spirit poured out upon us and all creation in that dry and harsh time. The story of Jesus’ baptism, the prayers and songs for rain, and especially the feel of those drops of water from the baptismal font renewed our spirits as surely as the tongues of fire had energized the apostles that first Pentecost.

The “Blue Pentecost” is one way our congregation has adapted our liturgy to life in a land of little rain. Although Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, arose in the arid lands of the Mideast, much of the American Protestant tradition historically comes either from the green hills of Germany and England or the equally green landscapes of New England and the American South. Our hymnody, prayers, and even church architecture often reflect our attachment to the “fields, forests, and flowery meadows” of colder climes. With its steeply-slanted roof to keep the snow off, the Congregational (UCC) Church of my Arizona childhood could have come from the New Haven Green. At Christmas, we sang “in the bleak midwinter, snow on snow” when it was 70 degrees outside and it hadn’t even rained for months.

The issue is not simply aesthetics or the cognitive dissonance of singing about lush landscapes when we’re surrounded by desert. When our worship affirms God’s beauty only in green forests and verdant meadows (the landscape many current desert-dwellers left behind), then despite its abundant and tenacious life, the desert is seen as “God-forsaken” or as Belden Lane’s “fierce landscapes” of trial and temptation. It is not “home.” The results have included not only transplanted New England-style churches, but also and especially the development of unsustainable desert cities like Phoenix with its green lawns and verdant golf courses. If worship in the desert fails to connect our congregations with the sacred creation outside the sanctuary doors, we will fail to love and save this unique corner of creation.

When, after a ten-year sojourn in the green hills of Connecticut, I became pastor of the newly-formed United Church of Santa Fe, I saw part of my call as making the connection between worship and the desert. Just as the magnificent saguaro cactus is adapted to life in the desert we hoped to grow a “saguaro church” with deep roots its natural environment. It was a commitment shared by the congregation’s founders. The church’s original covenant affirms that we will “live in harmony with all creation” and “give ourselves to the challenges and opportunities” of life in this high desert setting. Even the architecture bears witness to that commitment. One wall of the sanctuary is adobe. The Pueblo-style roof is flat. The original entrance to the church has an “acequia,” a turquoise-tiled fountain that stretches the length of the sanctuary and serves as a reminder of both the waters of baptism and the irrigation ditches (“acequias”) that give life to the communities of New Mexico.

Worship at United reflects our “desert faith” in various ways. For Children’s Sundays, the Parable of the Mustard Seed became the Parable of the Pinon Tree (of northern New Mexico) and the Saguaro (the giant cactus of the Sonoran Desert). Like the mustard seed, both plants grow from the smallest of seeds into great trees that provide shelter and life for other creatures. They also illustrate how to live in dry times: grow deep roots; adapt to change; acknowledge our dependence on one another; and seek God’s living waters.

In Lent, we use biblical images of water to speak of our thirst for God. Here is an example of a prayer that makes this connection:

In the deserts of our lives, in the wilderness within,

God gives us the waters of new life.

To give us hope when our lives run dry, to give us strength when our world seems barren,

God gives us the waters of new life.

To make justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a living stream,

To give us—and our world—a second chance and a new beginning,

God gives us the waters of new life.

In the Sacrament of Baptism, we include a question for the congregation that links the holy water in the font to God’s sacred gift of all water:

As we bless this water of Baptism, will you give thanks for God’s gift of water in all ways and recommit yourself to the wise use of this sacred resource for the sake of generations yet to come?

We also seek to learn from other desert peoples who have lived and prayed in this land far longer than any of us Protestants. For example, in both Native and Biblical traditions, prayers for rain are connected to prayers for a right relationship with the Creator and the rest of creation. The rains come when harmony and justice are restored. These traditions help us understand our own faith better. In times of drought or fire, we pray:

For rain in a thirsty land and hope in a hard time,

For all creation that suffers because of drought or human greed,

For the remembrance of the Source upstream and our neighbors downstream,

Lord, hear our prayer.

The continual incorporation of desert images, prayers, stories, and understandings in the worship life of the church shapes the rest of our life and ministry. Six years ago, the congregation adopted a “Whole Earth Covenant” that has led to practical projects such as solar panels and water conservation systems.

United’s “desert worship” not only connects us to the natural world outside the church. It also helps us draw on the deep well of God’s presence in the driest of emotional or spiritual times. Experiences of such dryness can be found in all congregations, regardless of where they are located. Every Sunday, people come through our doors from the deserts of their lives—divorce, job loss, a bad diagnosis, or other harsh and lonely places. Like the deer that longs for cool streams, they are thirsty for the living waters of hope, faith, and love.

From the story of Hagar in the wilderness to Moses striking the rock to Jesus asking a Samaritan woman for a drink, our Biblical faith abounds with the promise that God will provide that living water in the deserts of our lives. When our liturgy incorporates the lessons and practices of a desert faith, worship makes good on that promise.


Talitha Arnold

Talitha Arnold (YDS, ’80) was called in 1987 as Minister of United Church of Santa Fe, a new UCC congregation in the desert Southwest. Known for its worship, music, commitment to the wider community, and children’s and youth ministries, the church participated in the 2011 ISM “Congregations” project. Talitha also served congregations in Connecticut and Arizona and as Associate Chaplain for Yale. Author of Worship for Vital Congregations (Pilgrim Press) and articles for Feasting on the Word, The Christian Century, and NPR’s All Things Considered, her current work is A Desert Faith for a Desert Time (funded by the Louisville Institute).


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Arnold, Talitha. (2015) “A ‘Seguaro Church’ at Worship,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 12. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: A Saguaro Church at Worship

The Rain: A Funeral Story

We each made our solemn march to the places that had been designated for us. I watched as those who were going to sit took tentative steps toward their chairs. Others stood silently toward the back of the canopy. It was as though they were trying to will themselves as far away as they could from the open hole in the ground.

They had gathered here to pay their last respects to one they knew and loved as son, brother, father, and friend. He loved the ocean, and anything that was related to the water. It was imperative that the ritual that day include water. He didn’t just love rivers and streams and lakes and oceans, he loved the rain. His last promise to his now five-year-old daughter was that they would play in the rain that summer. He died before that could happen.

His mother was a devout Christian and it was important for her that this element of playing in the rain be turned into a liturgy that could be both playful and respectful—something that both the children and adults could participate in. Connections between play and worship are not unknown: Diane Ackerman writes that play “. . . carries us across fear and uncertainty toward the slippery edges of possibility, where one must use oneself fully and stretch human limits to achieve the remarkable . . . .”[1] This was where the liturgy needed to take all of us. Not just the children, but the other family and friends that would gather. This was where the liturgy needed to take me, as their pastor, as well.

It was my third funeral in about two weeks. I looked at the somber faces of those who gathered to pay their last respects, and thought back to the death of my own sister only a month before. When I was called to do this, a part of me wanted to say no. But there was a part of me that wanted to say yes. I knew today we would be confronting death and its hold, which was both invisible and tangible.

When I was asked to do this, I thought back to the last time I had played in the rain. It was in the summer of my first year of graduate studies at Yale. Taking a break from my research that day, I decided to go to a Sunflower Farm. The afternoon started out idyllic. The scene was as picturesque as something out of a novel. The sunflowers were in bloom and stretched as far as the eye could see. They were offering hayrides. I had never been on a hayride and thought this would be a great day to give one a try. I joined the group of women and children in a wagon and took in the sights and smells around me. It was a beautiful summer day. The wagon took us through a meadow and into a forest.

We were about fifteen minutes into the hayride when the sky became ominously dark. It began to rain. It wasn’t a light summer rain or a passing shower. It was a torrential downpour. Some of the children screamed in delight while their mothers tried to shield their heads and cameras from the rain that wouldn’t stop. Our peaceful mood was shattered. The person driving our wagon scrambled to find the shortest route back to where the trip started. I thought about the irony of it all. A day that had started with such hope and beauty had ended, for many, with some type of destruction. More than one person would have to replace a cell phone or a water-logged camera.

As we finally made it back to the place where we’d started the journey in our wagon, the sky began to clear and the rain stopped. We knew it wouldn’t rain forever, but while we were in that moment, as the rains were pouring down on us, it felt like forever.

Despite the havoc, I experienced the rain that day as cleansing. As we waited our turn to get off the wagon one of the ladies sitting next to me looked at me and said, “Well that was something else,” and we laughed. It wasn’t a small chuckle, but one of those laughs that comes from deep down in the pit of your belly. It was one of those laughs that reach your very soul. Before I knew it, I was standing and laughing with this woman whom I’d only just met and we were laughing so hard we were crying.

This is the power of water. It can be both devastating and life-creating. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t experience its life-giving power in some way, whether through the leaves on a tree, or plants in a garden, or through drinking and bathing. Water carries us through birth, and through the rebirth of baptism. At its worst, water can be destructive. At its best, it is cleansing.

I hoped the people sitting before me would be renewed and refreshed by the funeral liturgy that was about to take place. We said prayers and read scripture. Then, using the water that the family brought in from a stream from their family farm, we used a seashell to make it rain, scooping the water up in the shell and throwing it up in the air. With each shower of raindrops we said the words, “We remember you.” Children giggled, adults laughed and smiled, some wiped tears from their eyes. All were cleansed by the gentle raindrops. Instead of causing destruction that day, the rain was cleansing, as it washed away our pain and terror and fear.

There is pain and fear in losing a loved one: The pain of realizing you will never again have that person to walk with or cry with; the fear of knowing you must face a new day without them. There is also a terror in acknowledging death itself, and realizing that each of us meets the same end. Yet that day we laughed. We laughed fearlessly in the face of death, and we were cleansed as we played in the rain.


Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is the Senior Pastor at Catskill United Methodist Church in Catskill, New York. She is passionate about the intersection of religion and the environment, as well as helping people and communities reach their full potential through creativity that engages the spiritual and the natural worlds. She is an award winning filmmaker and hosts a radio show that examines connecting our spirituality with daily life. Michelle is the first woman of color to hold joint Master’s degrees in Religion and the Environment from Yale. You can learn more about Michelle’s work at MichelleEstelleLewis.com


[1] Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, ed. Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology (West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2012), 42.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Lewis, Michelle. (2015) “The Rain: A Funeral Story,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 13. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: The Rain-A Funeral Story

Water in the Book of Common Prayer

The freighter plowed its way steadily across the North Atlantic as I stood in the prow of the ship, looking out over an immense and empty expanse of water. No other boats in sight, no sea birds, no jet trails up above, only water. For the third day in a row water, only water.

More than 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean water. Half to three-quarters of the human body is made up of water. A child’s first home is in the water of the mother’s womb. Our everyday vocabulary conveys the power of water to shape and misshape our daily life: tsunamis and hurricanes, spring rains and relentless drought, the Colorado River and contention over water rights, polluted coastlines and the Exxon Valdez, dirty rivers and streams, and the call for universal access to clean water.

Without water there is no life. More than food and clothing and shelter, it is needed if life is to survive. From the womb to the last sips taken by a person close to death, water is our close companion whose presence is all too often taken for granted but whose absence is dreaded. Is it an exaggeration to take Saint Paul’s words to the Athenians (Acts 17:28) and apply them to water: “In [it] we live and move and have our being”? And what is true for us is true for every animal and plant. Water in all its life-sustaining abundance and awesome beauty is God’s gift to all living things.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

You send the springs into the valleys;

they flow between the mountains.

All the beasts of the fields drink their fill from them,

and the wild asses quench their thirst.

Beside them the birds of the air make their nests

and sing among the branches.

You water the mountains from your dwelling on high;

the earth is fully satisfied by the fruit of your works. (Ps. 104:10–13)

The Psalmist celebrates the precious gift of water and is awed by the God from whom this and every good gift comes:

You visit the earth and water it abundantly;

you make it very plenteous;

the river of God is full of water. (Ps. 65:9)

The Lord changed rivers into deserts,

and water-springs into thirsty ground……

He changed deserts into pools of water

and dry land into water-springs. (Ps. 107: 33, 35)

Mightier than the sound of many waters,

mightier than the breakers of the sea,

mightier is the Lord who dwells on high. (Ps. 93:5)

These and the twenty-eight other psalms that make reference to water are all part of the worship the Church offers to our Creator. If we look further than the Psalter, what place in our prayer and praise does water hold— the gift on which all life depends? The scope of this article is necessarily limited, so let us seek a partial answer to that question by examining just one liturgical resource— the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (BCP).

At the heart of the Episcopal Rite of Holy Baptism is the Thanksgiving over the Water (BCP, pp. 306–7), which begins with these words:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.

Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their

bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.

In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John

and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ . . . .

The second paragraph of the prayer thanks God for the water of Baptism through which “we are buried with Christ in his death . . . share in his resurrection (and) are reborn by the Holy Spirit. “

The celebrant then touches the water and prays that it may be sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit so that “those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

The rich biblical references and the cumulative use of prepositions (“over/through/in”) make this a memorable prayer to proclaim and to hear. However, what is remarkable is that, despite the opening words of the prayer, the water is not itself the gift for which we thank God. Instead it provides the medium through which the saving acts of God are effected. In that respect the water of Baptism is similarly the medium through which the salvation of those baptized is brought about.

Elsewhere in the Prayer Book there is a surprising absence of references to water. In the extensive section of prayers (pp. 814­–835) there is just one petition—for rain “in this time of need” (no.43). In the section entitled Thanksgivings (pp. 836–841), no mention is made of the wonder of water in all its forms and the indispensable blessings that it brings to us.

Eucharistic Prayer C (pp. 370–372), which is notable because of its focus on the created order, makes no reference to water. In the Daily Office, Canticle 8 (p. 85) recalls Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea,[1] but once again it is God’s saving act that claims our attention.

Only the Benedicite (A Song of Creation, Canticle 12) celebrates the gift of water which responds to its Creator with exuberant praise:

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew . . .

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord . . .

Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas and streams,

O whales and all that move in the waters . . .

Praise him and glorify him forever. (pp. 88–89)

Here is one of the few places in the Book of Common Prayer where there is a clear echo of the Psalmist offering thanks to the Creator for God’s wondrous works in creation, water included.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Why this drought? Why this dearth of references to water in the prayer and praise of the Episcopal Church?

In the first place, the prayer of Christians in the West has been largely focused on the redeeming life and work of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. In the past century the sanctifying and empowering activity of the Holy Spirit has come to the fore. Now, with a growing sense of urgency, God the Father is being celebrated as the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Those familiar words from both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are now being amplified with references to God as Creator in the Eucharistic Prayers and the Prayers of the People and in the Daily Office.

Secondly, this failure to celebrate both the Creator and the creation he has brought into being has led to a divorce between the staples of daily existence and their sacramental use in worship. A communion wafer has nothing in common with the crusty bread on our table; a sip of wine from the chalice bears little resemblance to a festive drink; a handful of baptismal water does not suggest being washed clean all over; a smudge of chrism on the brow is a poor substitute for anointing the body with perfumed oil. By failing to use these elements of daily life liturgically in an immediately recognizable form, we diminish the close relationship between our sacramental worship and the created world we live in. This can lead to indifference to the material universe that impoverishes our worship and diminishes our sense of responsibility for the creation entrusted to us.

A third factor is the trivialization of the Rite of Holy Baptism. In his book, Celebrating the Rites of Initiation, James Turrell recalls the church in which he grew up:

The parish used a small bowl, no larger than a salad bowl, as the baptismal font. But because it was inconvenient to clean and polish this bowl, there was placed within it a Pyrex custard cup, about two ounces in capacity. The custard cup held the water to be used in baptism. This was such seriously impoverished symbolism as to render the deep language of the baptismal rite ludicrous . . . . If the vessel under consideration makes one snicker as one describes its contents as the waters of creation and as the Red Sea’s tides, then one needs a larger vessel.[2]

This is an extreme example of trivialization, but the majority of baptisms even today make for a disjunction between the way the sacrament is celebrated and the powerful images recalled in the lessons and prayers accompanying the baptism. Even when the congregation is asperged immediately following the baptism, the appropriate teaching has not been done and as a result the people are not reminded of their own baptism. Sadly, when all this is the case, the most public use of water in a liturgical context does little to drive home the material and spiritual significance of God’s gift of water.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

All creatures of our God and King,

lift up your voices, let us sing: Alleluia, alleluia! . . .

Swift flowing water, pure and clear,

make music for your Lord to hear, Alleluia, alleluia!

So, what are we to do? As one way of rectifying the dearth of attention to water in our worship, we might sing and preach about Saint Francis’s great hymn of creation. We might also draw on the Psalter, especially on those psalms that have significant references to water (Pss. 65, 93, 104, 107, and 124). We can select biblical lessons that have water at their heart: Jonah overtaken by a mighty storm as he seeks to avoid God’s call to go to Nineveh; Jesus calming the wind and the waves; Saint Paul shipwrecked en route to Rome.[3] We can find or compose prayers that give God thanks and praise for water in its many forms. Above all, we can celebrate Baptism with careful attention paid to the powerful words and actions that constitute the rite. All these will provide much needed springs in the desert.

Most promising in this regard is the “Season of Creation” which is being increasingly embraced by Christians around the world. This optional season in the Church Year begins on September 1 (the Day of Creation in the Eastern Orthodox Church) and extends through four Sundays to October 4 (the Feast of Saint Francis). Each of these four Sundays in the three-year cycle is devoted to an element of God’s creation. Those Sundays that bear directly on water are the Fourth Sunday in Year A (River Sunday) and the First Sunday in Year C (Ocean Sunday).

Each Sunday in the Season of Creation is provided with lessons, prayers and hymns, and sermon material. Taken together, they allow for all that God has brought into being to be in our minds and on our lips as we worship. Humankind in all its diversity, the beauty of the physical world, and the magnitude of the universe beyond our sight— all are the subject of our prayer and praise.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis have called on Christians to pray and work for the protection of the earth and its peoples, all alike the work of God’s hands. Like all else that God has made, the gift of water is to be celebrated, cherished and conserved. In that way we will give glory to God and help in realizing Jesus’s words: “I have come that all may have life and have it in all its fullness” (John 10:10).

In conclusion here is the Prayer for the Day from the Australian liturgy for Ocean Sunday:

God our Creator,

as we reflect on the mysteries of the ocean depths,

we celebrate the wondrous design of the seas that surround us. Help us to discern how we have polluted our oceans

and to empathize with the groaning of creation beneath us.

Teach us to sense the presence of God in the tides and currents of the surging seas.

Teach us to care for the oceans and all our waterways.

In the name of the Wisdom of God,

the creative force that designs and governs all creation.



Jeffery Rowthorn

Jeffery Rowthorn came from Union Seminary to Yale in 1973 as one of the founding faculty members of the new Institute of Sacred Music. For the next fourteen years he taught liturgy and served as Yale Divinity School’s first Chapel Minister. In 1987 he was elected Suffragan Bishop of Connecticut and then from 1994 to 2001 served as Bishop of the Episcopal congregations in Europe. Over the past forty years he has compiled and edited three hymnals and written hymns, among them the school hymn for Berkeley Divinity School and a hymn commissioned to mark the tercentenary of Yale University.


[1] Canticle 8, The Song of Moses (Cantemus Domino) consists of selected verses from Exodus 15 (vv. 1–6, 11–13, 17–18).

[2] James Turrell, Celebrating the Rites of Initiation (New York: Church Publishing, 2013), p. 79.

[3] Jonah 1:1– 2:10; Matthew 8: 23-27; Acts 27: 13–44.

[4] The Season of Creation, First Sunday, Year C (Ocean Sunday)

Note: Under the leadership of Dr. Norman Habel, the Uniting Church of Australia developed the first “Season of Creation,” providing a liturgy for each of the Sundays in the three-year cycle. The most recent liturgies for all the Sundays can be found at: season of creation.com/worship-resources/liturgies.
A further resource is: The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, edited by Norman C. Habel, David Rhoades and H. Paul Santmire (Fortress Press, 2011).


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Rowthorn, Jeffery. (2015) “Water in the Book of Common Prayer,” The Yale ISM Reivew: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 11. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Water in the Book of Common Prayer




Why We Need an Altar Call to the Font

Author’s note: A number of people were helpful conversation partners in thinking through this essay. I am especially grateful for extended conversations with Susan Briehl, Jennifer Davidson, Paul Hoffman, and Gordon Lathrop.

The impetus for this essay comes partly from the open communion, or open table, movement.[1] At the heart of that generative and provocative movement is an invitation. The invitation is to communion, but it is especially provocative because it implicitly or explicitly invites those who are not baptized. This essay is not about the open table movement. However, I propose that we think further about invitation from a locus that has been surprisingly little engaged in conversations about open table: Christian baptism. A few recent essays, particularly among Lutherans, have addressed some of the baptismal issues raised by open communion.[2] As one response to those essays, this article proposes a modest but pivotal reform in contemporary baptismal practice: a regular practice of liturgical invitation to baptism.

Ecumenical context

A Sunday invitation to baptism is also a logical outgrowth of wider ecumenical work on baptism. The past century of ecumenical collaboration has produced significant convergences between evangelical and catholic streams of baptismal theology and practice. Specifically, ecumenical documents and worship resources now approach baptism as normally a public event on Sunday, mutually recognized across denominations, conducted with ample water, serious about discipleship and formation, emphatic about God’s grace, normally (even if not typically) for adults in addition to children, and an enduringly meaningful beginning-point for a lifetime of Christian vocation.[3] This is a profound change from the mostly private perfunctory baptisms of less than a century ago. Liturgical historian Maxwell Johnson writes that the current ecumenical convergence in baptismal theology and ritual offers “to modern Christians, as never before in history, the opportunity to recover a profound Christian spirituality, a way of living in Christ, which is consciously and intentionally rooted in Christian initiation in water and the Holy Spirit.”[4]

For all of this ecumenical baptismal prominence and promise, however, it is remarkable that relatively few worship services publicly invite anyone into the path toward baptism. In many places, there is not even any public information about how to begin the path toward baptism, much less a regular, liturgically integrated invitation. In many congregations, one might hear dozens or hundreds of liturgical invitations to confession, communion, and offering—and more prosaic invitations to committees and fundraisers—before hearing a single invitation to baptism.

Evangelical patterns of invitation

American evangelicals have been especially interested in speaking the language of invitation in worship. While the altar call may have its roots in invitation to the communion table, today the altar call (or invitation to discipleship, or opening the doors of the church) is more associated with individual commitment or recommitment to the life of faith. Many churches in the revivalist tradition include a time at every Sunday service that culminates in an invitation to discipleship, in which individuals who respond are supported by conversation and prayer with ministers, elders, and others. This ritual event sometimes occurs near the end of the service so that the time of prayer may extend for as long as needed.[5]

The specific practice of evangelical invitation to discipleship now often takes place within an emphasis on creating an ecclesial and liturgical environment of hospitality. While American cultural accents on inclusion and growth certainly influence contemporary practice, many of today’s evangelicals articulate calls to discipleship that are grounded in the radical hospitality of God. Thus, in many places the general concern for hospitality—from accessible websites to worship resources—may be understood as reaching its most concentrated and culminating form in the invitation to faith and discipleship. While the evangelical practice of altar call may not serve as a direct model for invitations to the font, it nevertheless represents an example of a clear, liturgically integrated open door for adult entry into the Christian life—something that mainline Protestant and Catholic liturgies rarely achieve.

A new option for the gathering rite from the Lutherans

Lutherans in North America now sometimes anchor the Sunday gathering rite in baptism—even when no baptism is celebrated. The new worship book of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), provides the option of beginning Sunday worship with a newly created rite, “Thanksgiving for Baptism.”[6] It is an alternative to a brief order for confession and forgiveness with which recent generations of Lutherans have often begun Sunday worship. The option for Thanksgiving for Baptism arose out of the ecumenical recovery of baptismal practice and the classic Lutheran understanding of confession as a subspecies of baptismal renewal.[7]

The Thanksgiving for Baptism rite is fairly simple and already includes something of an invitation. It begins with a Trinitarian invocation, including an option phrased in expansive baptismal imagery: “Blessed by the Holy Trinity, + one God, the fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvation.”[8] The presiding minister then leads a concise ritual pivot: “Joined to Christ in the waters of baptism, we are clothed with God’s mercy and forgiveness. Let us give thanks for the gift of baptism.”[9] Thus, in just a few words, there is a brief proclamation (of the promise of baptism) and an invitation (to give thanks for the gift of baptism).[10] This is followed by a thanksgiving prayer over the water that is a slightly modified version of the water blessing used at baptisms. The rite concludes with a gathering song, perhaps with baptismal imagery, during which “as a reminder of the gift of baptism, the assembly may be sprinkled with water.”[11] The rite is both baptismal and invitational, yet the invitation seems to be addressed to the already baptized.

Toward an invitation to baptism

Baptism, writes Lars Hartmann, is “the door into a new human community.”[12] While this door has undergone great ecumenical renovation and restoration in the past century, it remains ritually closed on most Sundays in many congregations. Thus, a number of factors make this moment in North American Christianity especially right for introducing a Sunday-morning invitation into baptism, as rehearsed above: an ecumenical convergence around a robust baptismal theology and practice, an open table movement pressing the question of how those who are not baptized are invited into sacramental participation, some newly created rites around baptism that begin worship with a thanksgiving for baptism, evangelical practices of liturgical invitation to discipleship, and the North American cultural reality of increasing percentages of seekers (as opposed to life-long Christians) in Sunday worship.

An example of an invitation extended

The occasion for this invitation to baptism was the closing eucharist for a national worship conference in Atlanta, Jubilee 2015: Called to Be a Living Voice, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, with approximately 600 people participating. The event was held in a hotel ballroom, with Gordon Lathrop presiding and Nadia Bolz-Weber preaching.

Worship began with an adapted version of ELW’s Thanksgiving for Baptism rite. The planners of the conference assumed that there would be only a small number of people present who had not been baptized (perhaps most likely a guest musician or one of the employees of the hotel attending or helping with logistics during the service). However, the planning team committed early in the process to offering an authentic open door into baptism preparation[13] at this worship service partly because it would be much observed by such a large number of worship leaders.

The gathering rite began with singing as the assembly gathered around a central baptismal font.[14] A number of people came forward carrying glass pitchers and generously poured water into the large central font. The presiding minister spoke a Trinitarian baptismal invocation:

Blessed be the holy Trinity, + one God,

            the fountain of living water,

            the rock who gave us birth,

            our light and our salvation.[15]

The presider then directly addressed the assembly:

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.

The waters of God’s mercy promise 

            freedom to those in slavery,

            forgiveness to the sinners,

            new birth to the weary,

            and a royal anointing for all people.

The font is open to all, 

            and the promise is for you, for all who are far away, 

            everyone whom God calls.

At these waters, you are invited to the way 

            of baptism into Jesus Christ,

            and, for those who have been baptized, 

            you are invited to renewal in the grace 

            that washed over you on the day of your baptism.

I am quite serious about this invitation.  If you are not baptized and if you desire now, here, to begin to come to these waters that join you to Christ and to life with Christ’s people, then please come.  

During the entire liturgy of the word that follows, two pastors will be standing here by the font, identifiable by their clerical dress. You may know them by name. They are Pastor Susan Briehl and Pastor Benjamin Stewart.  Come to them.  They are prepared to help you begin the way of baptism, to find a congregation and a catechumenate, and to be your sponsors as you begin.
These waters are for you.

And, if you are baptized, then once again hear the promise of Christ that has been spoken to you in these waters and once again stand in the daily dying and rising that was first made your way on the day you were baptized. 

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Let us give thanks for the waters of baptism.[16]

The rite continued with a prayer of thanksgiving for water and for baptism,[17] after which the assembly processed, singing, to the east end of the ballroom for the beginning of the service of the word. During the entire service of the word, the two pastors stood near the font, including throughout the intercessory prayers. The time for intercessory prayer in this service was called Open Space. The prayers were stational, modeled on what some know as the Thomas Mass.[18] During this time, a third minister stood at the font with an ewer, lifting and pouring water through the entire course of the prayers.

All of the ministers were prepared to welcome a candidate for baptism during Open Space. Each had become familiar with an adapted version of the rite of Welcome to Baptism[19] to use with anyone who responded to the invitation.

Reflections on the invitation

From the beginning, the leadership team understood that the demographics of this worship conference meant that the odds of someone presenting themselves as a candidate for baptism were statistically low. However, since we were speaking a public invitation, we knew that the odds were not zero, and this realization was both unsettling and energizing. Extending the invitation made us newly vigilant to the margins of our gathering, attentive to the open-door nature of baptism, and serious about the actual details of welcoming someone to Christianity and a local congregation.

In the end, no one presented themselves as a new candidate for baptism. However, many people came to the font to remember their baptism, a number of people came to the ministers at the font for some form of individual prayer and counseling, and the font itself seemed to stand newly in the center of our gathering as an open—and gently disruptive—invitation to the newcomer and outsider.

As I thought about how many liturgical, programmatic, and ministerial adaptations were needed in order to make an apparently simple invitation to baptism, I remembered Aidan Kavanagh’s description of the far-reaching and as-yet-unfinished baptismal reforms of the twentieth century:

One may turn an altar around and leave reform at that. But one cannot set an adult catechumenate in motion without becoming necessarily involved with renewal in the ways a local church lives its faith from top to bottom . . . . In this area, when one change occurs, all changes.[20]

Kavanagh was rarely guilty of understatement, and this essay can hardly address the reform of church life “from top to bottom.” However, Kavanagh’s observation is consistent with the experience in Atlanta: opening the way of baptism to newcomers in liturgy calls for an engaged rethinking of a number of liturgical and ecclesial practices. Toward that end, and aware of their necessarily preliminary nature, I offer some concluding suggestions for introducing liturgical invitations to baptism.

Into the way of baptism. The invitation modeled here is to “the way of baptism,” not simply immediately to baptism. This phrase recognizes the journey-nature of baptism and baptismal preparation, and eases unrealistic pressure for and undue emphasis on unplanned individual decision. The invitation might mention an upcoming baptismal festival at Epiphany or Easter. In order to invite someone on a journey, a way, toward baptism means that a way must be prepared. There needs to be something into which to invite people. Susan Briehl imagines a congregation being transformed by taking months to wrestle with the question, “How can we prepare to welcome people who respond to such an invitation?”[21] Answering this question might lead to the formation of sponsors, mentors, catechists, service projects, baptismal festivals, outreach efforts, and ministers prepared to pray for and with candidates.[22]

Beauty is an invitation. The aesthetic dimensions of a welcome to baptism are integral to any invitation. Beauty itself, Edward Farley writes, testifies to the benevolence of God and invites people into a journey of self-transcendence.[23] Some considerations include: the inviting sound, sight, and touch of clean, abundant water; language that compellingly reimagines life, God, and the world through biblical images; music and song around the font that nurture ritual participation; and ritual action and elements that are beautiful in their simplicity (laying on of hands and prayer, anointing, addressing, candle lighting, signation, robing, pouring and immersing, applauding).

But we still need clear directions. Biblical images and layered metaphor are central to sacramental rites, but sometimes people just need to know where to stand. As the example rite above demonstrated, clear and blessedly concise directions for how to respond to an invitation makes the invitation more authentic and hospitable. Inviting people to respond during an open time of prayer, such as during a Thomas Mass or Open Space, is more flexible and forgiving as it allows further directions and conversation to occur individually while members of the assembly are at different stations for prayer.

Both welcome and warning.[24] Baptism into Jesus Christ is a pure gift—an immersion in what Martin Luther called “a flood of grace.”[25] Because such grace is radically for all, it is never cheap, but is costly.[26] Therefore, invitations to baptism are most truthful when they speak of baptism not simply as an individual gift, but rather also as being swept into a landscape wholly altered by a flood of grace. Susan Briehl once phrased words of simultaneous welcome and warning at the font in this way: “Deeper than these waters is the mystery and mercy of God that waits for you.”[27]

The invitation comes from God. The waters of baptism, Christians say, flow toward humanity as an invitation from God. To speak an invitation in God’s name at the font is first of all simply to give voice to the nature of baptismal water. This means that invitations are not reminders of a religious to-do list nor are they one more strategy for institutional growth or survival. Invitations to baptism are proclamations of God’s expansive but partly hidden workings in history, of God’s present-day offering of promises, and of the holy thirst for God placed within all creatures. Thus, invitation is integral to the meaning of the font. Baptism stands among us as a door for the newcomers. To the extent that the door is closed on Sunday, we can open it with a simple invitation when we pray or sing beside the water.


Ben Stewart

Benjamin M. Stewart is the Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship and Director of Advanced Studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Author of A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (2011), he serves as convener of the Ecology and Liturgy Seminar of the North American Academy of Liturgy. His current book project proposes a liturgical theology of natural burial practices.


[1] For introductions to the movement see the online collection of various articles from The Anglican Theological Review, http://www.anglicantheologicalreview.org/read/conversations/1/; Charles Hefling’s “Who Is Communion for? The Debate over the Open Table.” The Christian Century 129, no. 24 (2012); and Sara Miles’s influential Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine, 2008).

[2] See especially these essays in the 2014 collection “Table and Font: Who is Welcome?” published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, available under the “Table and Font” tab at http://www.elca.org/Resources/Worship: Gordon W. Lathrop, “Welcome to Life in Christ: Reflections on Baptism and Hospitality at the Table of the Lord;” Melinda A. Quivik, “‘Butter in the Sunshine’: The Fragility of Faith and the Gift of Baptism;” Thomas H. Schattauer, “Exploring the Baptismal Foundations of Eucharistic Hospitality;” and Benjamin M. Stewart, “Invitation and Open Table.”

[3] Two documents from the World Council of Churches chart the progress of the past half century: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper 111, (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982); and Baptism Today: Understanding, Practice, Ecumenical Implications, Faith and Order Paper 207, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, World Council of Churches Publications, 2008). Substantial resources for baptismal preparation and catechumenal formation are increasingly available from denominational, ecumenical, and congregational sources.

[4] Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, Exp Rev Ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 450.

[5] For descriptions, see Daniel E. Albrecht, Rites in the Spirit: A Ritual Approach to Pentecostal/Charismatic Spirituality (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 165–174, 253–259.

[6] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Leader’s desk edition. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 169.

[7] The primary companion volume to ELW describes the rite as making “the baptismal character of our coming together even more explicit . . .[Thanksgiving for Baptism] may be the preparatory act . . . for this service of word and sacrament.” Lorraine S. Brugh and Gordon W. Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly: Using Evangelical Lutheran Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 119. In ELW, both the confession and forgiveness and thanksgiving for baptism rites are optional. Martin Luther framed confession and forgiveness as a baptismal practice. “Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism, to resume and practice what has earlier been begun but abandoned.” Martin Luther, Large Catechism, 4.77–79.

[8] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s desk edition, 169.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Notice that, because this proclamation phrases the state of being baptized in the present tense, it implies that the initiating event has occurred.

[11] Ibid. The order, in sum: Trinitarian invocation, brief proclamation, brief invitation, prayer, and song, perhaps with sprinkling.

[12] Lars Hartmann, Into the Name of the Lord Jesus: Baptism in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 46.

[13] The planners did not rule out the possibility of encountering a sort of Ethiopian eunuch occasion in which an immediate baptism was called for. However, given the planning team’s commitments to catechumenal formation, individual discernment, and local congregational relationships, the invitation was phrased to invite people into “the way of baptism” in order to signal support for immediately beginning catechumenal preparation for baptism.

[14] The ballroom was arranged around three central spaces: on the far west end a platform with leaders’ chairs and ambo as a place for the word, with seats for the assembly facing the platform; on the far east end another raised platform for the table, designed for the assembly to stand around (along with a few of chairs for those who needed to sit); and in the middle third of the ballroom a large area of open space with ten dispersed stations for various forms of prayer, in the center of which was a large, clear, elevated, baptismal bowl filled with water.

[15] As noted above, this is one of the invocations offered as an option in Thanksgiving for Baptism in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s desk edition, 169.

[16] This text was drafted by Gordon Lathrop and Benjamin Stewart.

[17] Using an adapted version of ELW’s Thanksgiving at the Font V, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 589.

[18] While the musicians led Taize-style chant, participants visited prayer stations to which they were drawn, moving at their own pace between one or more stations. The stations included baptismal remembrance at the font, footwashing, offering for a local ministry, letter-writing for advocacy, confession and forgiveness, anointing for healing, labyrinth prayer walk, candle-lighting and contemplation at a station with icons, prayers on fabric woven into a tapestry, prayers for those named in the weaving.

[19] In the adapted rite, the candidate marked the beginning of preparation of baptism, one or both pastors promised to accompany the candidate in preparation for baptism (essentially becoming baptismal sponsors), the candidate was signed with the cross, offered prayer with laying on of hands, and a blessing. See “Welcome to Baptism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s desk edition, 592.

[20] Aidan Kavanagh, “Christian Initiation in Post-Conciliar Roman Catholicism: A Brief Report,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, A Pueblo Book, 1995), 8.

[21] Susan Briehl, phone conversation with author, September 16, 2015.

[22] Paul Hoffman’s recent writing evocatively describes how his congregation was transformed by practicing a robust baptismal ministry to adult newcomers. See his Faith Forming Faith: Bringing New Christians to Baptism and Beyond. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. One example of Hoffman’s parish practice: among the other weekly intercessory prayers, his congregation regularly prayed for the newly baptized, and then prayed “. . . that you might send yet others to this font of grace to join us in the mission of Christ, we pray. . .” Paul Hoffman, email message to author, September 15, 2015.

[23] Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001).

[24] On the pairing of welcome and warning see Lathrop, “Welcome to Life in Christ: Reflections on Baptism and Hospitality at the Table of the Lord,” and, regarding invitations to Holy Communion, see especially Chapter 5: “Access to Holy Things” in Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998). I have written elsewhere about the need for invitations to communion not simply to speak of receiving the Body of Christ, but also, drawing on Augustine’s famous image from his sermon 272, of communicants becoming the Body of Christ in the eucharist. This latter image—while being an astonishing promise—is also a bracing warning to those who would avoid being transformed by ritual participation. See Benjamin M. Stewart, “Listening for the Accents: Noticing Patterns in the Conversation about Table and Font” in Let’s Talk: Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. http://mcsletstalk.org/communion-and-community/listening-accents-noticing-patterns-conversation-table-font/.

[25] Martin Luther, “The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519),” in Luther’s Works, ed. Theodore Bachmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 32.

[26] Bonhoeffer linked the phrase “cheap grace” to inadequate sacramental discourse and practice: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.” But note that for Bonhoeffer costly grace is not first of all about a more rigorous of baptismal discipleship: “Above all, grace is costly because it was costly to God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 44­–45.

[27] Susan Briehl, phone conversation with author, September 16, 2015.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Stewart, Benjamin M. (2015) “Why We Need an Altar Call to the Font,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 3. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

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