The issue of baptism occasionally comes up in several different groups I associate with, from academic theological discussion groups to Christians who have no clue what baptism is about to non-Christians who have no clue what baptism is.
Well here is how I explained it and then did it on my recent visit to Ban Saeng Sawan with The Charis Project.
Now, I don't push baptism. If people ask I respond. I don't push it because I have not yet been in a position where that seemed the right thing to do. I may some time find myself in such a situation and will cross that bridge when I get to it. When I was with my friends up in the hills in Thailand, Judah, the lead guy at the children's home we manage, notified me that there were a number of the kids and one guy from the village who wanted to be baptized and that they wanted me to do it.
So we talked about it for a bit. I started off by saying that there are a lot of different understandings of what baptism is. Many Christians think many different things about it, but this is what I think.
Historically, Christian baptism comes from the Hebrew practice of baptism which was a mixture of ceremonial washing and a reenactment and recapitulation of Israel's passage through the Red Sea in the Exodus, the event in which Israel was transformed from the family of Abraham into the nation of the people of God. In Christian baptism a person is participating in the cleansing redemptive work of Jesus and is going through the "naturalization" process into citizenship in the "people of God." (I take this "people of God" to be a functional designation rather than a designation of status, that is, it is an entry into responsibility rather than into a position of special standing.)
I said that it is a public declaration of solidarity with all the others who have been baptized.
I also said that baptism is not magic. It is not the sort of thing that if you do it wrong, you mispronounce the incantation, you perform the act incorrectly (maybe the water is the wrong sort or or you did it at an age that someone thinks is wrong or whatever), or the wrong person does it, it will not work. It is the one baptism of Jesus that we participate in however we are able.
Then we went out to the lake.
When there, I said that baptism is a public declaration of a person's commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. I commented that different Christian traditions may have a process that leads up to baptism but I will just ask two questions and if you agree to them then I will go ahead and baptize you.
Then with each of the people I asked, "Do you choose today to be a disciple of Jesus for the rest of your life?" Then, "Do you commit to obey his commands and to work for the growth of his kingdom in this world from this day forward?" When they said "yes" to these questions I and Judah then dunked them in the water saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit." When they came back up I hugged them and said, "Welcome to the community of disciples."
There has been much ink spilled and blood shed in this topic. I tend to take differences in how one does baptism to come down more to style than substance. As with marriage, it is what you do with it that imbues it with it's lasting meaning and significance.