It was a cool Sunday afternoon as temperatures hovered in the mid-60s, but the rain stopped just in time for eight people from Community Bible Church to make their way to the Missouri River for the congregation’s annual river baptism.
Senior Pastor Chance Sumner said baptism is an expression of faith for the individual and the church.
“It’s really like a moment when the church is acting like a church,” he said. “It has both individual expression and corporate expression for us as a whole that God is at work — that people’s lives are being changed.”
There are no formal checklists for the church’s attendees when seeking a baptism. Sumner said the path is specific to each person. In some cases, he knows the person well and can proceed after having a few conversations with them. In other cases, Sumner said he might have more conversations and even provide scripture selections to reflect on or a class before moving forward with baptism. But he noted he would not be comfortable baptizing someone he didn’t have a conversation with first.
“But pastorally, I do want to make sure that they understand that baptism does not save us — that baptism is a symbol of salvation and not salvation itself,” Sumner said. “And that it’s really their desire that’s driving this rather than their spouse, rather than their parents, rather than the pastor — that this is something that they’ve chosen to do by themselves.”
During the church’s 11 a.m. service on Sunday, the eight baptism attendees stood before more than 200 people in the sanctuary, providing testimonials about what led them to choose the path for themselves.
Among them was Hayes resident Marc Scarborough, who has attended Community Bible Church for nearly 20 years. After the service, Scarborough said he moved a little slower than others.
“My wife passed away six months ago and changed my life drastically — my faith has just grown tremendously,” he said about the path leading him to Sunday’s baptism. “I was slowly getting to the baptism point, but with her death and my faith growing, it was time to do it. I just felt very called that it was time. It’s just a symbol of my covenant with Jesus Christ.”
Scarborough said having his baptism in the river made it special for him, but he noted the river’s importance varies for each individual seeking baptism.
The Community Bible Church holds one river baptism annually but does more throughout the year using an on-site trough. Sumner said there is nothing extraordinary about a river baptism that makes it more meaningful from a theological standpoint. But he noted that a full-immersion baptism does have great significance.
“We think that Romans 6 talks about how baptism symbolizes Christ’s death and burial,” Sumner said. “So, the water is a picture of death so that we think immersion is important to fully — that we totally die to our old way of living. And us being totally under the water symbolizes that.”
He added that sprinkling the water on a person’s head doesn’t symbolize death the same way as full immersion.
“Because water can’t really kill you if it’s just a trickle on your head,” Sumner said. “But if you get submerged, that’s where things become problematic. So, we think it best pictures what it is that Christ has done for us and what it is that we are called to do — die, in Christ, die his death, and then rise with him in his resurrection.”
Baptism also helps strengthen the bonds between Community Bible Church’s attendees and the church itself.
“I think that it is a time when our church can come around these people and wrap our arms around them,” Sumner said. “And it also gives these people, maybe, a good introduction to our church.”
He said the congregation varies from new attendees to those attending services for long periods.
“And so it provides kind of a welcoming celebration, like welcome to the family,” Sumner said, adding it also reaffirms his commitment to the congregation.
Scarborough added that the baptism also reaffirmed his commitment to the church. Reflecting on what baptism means to him, Scarborough said it follows a wedding ring metaphor.
“The wedding ring doesn’t make you married — it’s just the sign that you’re married,” Scarborough said. “And baptism is basically the same thing — it doesn’t make you saved, but it’s a sign or a symbol that you are.”