In February 2020, the Evangelical Free Church of Bemidji in Minnesota finally purchased a baptismal tank, eager to conduct baptisms in its building rather than offsite at a local university swimming pool or nearby lake.
After putting baptisms on hold during the pandemic, the church’s pastor asked a teenaged believer to take off his mask and plug his nose as he became the first to undergo the sacrament in the new wooden baptistry on Easter Sunday—14 months later.
In addition to some churches opening their doors for the first time in over a year, the holiday marked a delayed chance to celebrate new life through baptism, a practice that represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus commemorated during Holy Week.
“We are thrilled that we not only are able to gather for worship in person this Easter but also that we are able to have these baptisms as a part of our Easter celebration,” said associate pastor Eric Nygren.
To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, the Evangelical Free Church baptized a set of two siblings during one of its services on Sunday; each shared their testimony by video before stepping up to be baptized before the congregation.
Last year, when only 7 percent of churches were meeting in person, churches had to call off baptisms or, in some cases, adapt the practice as they got creative with other aspects of Easter services. One Florida church held Zoom baptisms where new believers baptized themselves in bathtubs or swimming pools while the congregation watched online.
By the second Easter of the pandemic, church attendance for Easter had risen but wasn’t back to typical levels; around 2 in 5 Christians (39%) said they planned to go in person this year, compared to the 62 percent who normally do, Pew Research found.
As church buildings slowly welcome more and more congregants through their doors, they’ll have the chance to celebrate new converts who made decisions to be baptized during the pandemic. After a year during which death has hovered so near, baptisms feel like ushering in a new era of church fellowship.
While the Catholic Church traditionally holds baptisms for adults joining the church during its Easter Vigil, some Protestant churches had bigger-than-average baptism celebrations this Easter due to postponing the practice during the pandemic.
Outdoors and indoors, babies and professing believers, churches added to their numbers during the Sunday services: 82 people baptized at First Baptist Church of Cleveland, Tennessee; 45 baptized at Christ Place Church in Flowery Branch, Georgia; dozens at a beachside service by Coastline Calvary Chapel in Pensacola, Florida; and on and on—each a tangible sign of how God has continued to grow his church despite the challenges of the past year.
On Easter Sunday at Tanglewood Bible Fellowship, David Shields baptized two converts who found the Duncan, Oklahoma, church during the pandemic. One became a believer a few weeks ago.
“Every single person who has visited our church has said they heard about us and watched us online before,” said Shields, who went from doubting the effectiveness of virtual services to seeing them as his church’s greatest community outreach.
He became the Tanglewood’s senior pastor just three weeks before the pandemic shut down worship services in March 2020 and believes the Lord has blessed their efforts to continue to preach his Word through the video services.
Nygren has also seen streaming services as a boon. Though his Evangelical Free congregation had a livestreamed service before 2020, more new visitors are finding the church online and following up by coming in person now that cases are down and more people are vaccinated.
Next Sunday, a week after Easter, New Life Church in Colorado Springs will baptize more than 100 new converts during its second baptism service since the pandemic began.
The church consulted with local health officials to ensure that symbolic life in Christ didn’t coincide with real-life outbreaks of COVID-19. By alternating tanks, regularly disinfecting the water, and wearing masks and shields, the church got approval for mass baptisms.
Senior pastor Brady Boyd believes the pandemic has stirred within people a hunger for the gospel that he has never before seen in nearly 25 years of pastoral ministry.
Each week, New Life has 5,000 live worshipers at its eight congregations and another 25,000 streaming the service online. The church bought airtime on its local ABC affiliate to broadcast the service each Sunday.
“Even in the midst of the pandemic, the gospel didn’t get stopped, and people are responding to it,” Boyd said. “As Christ followers, we need to be reminded that the gospel is more powerful than anything.”
Among evangelical Protestants, Pew found that nearly 2 in 5 (37%) say the pandemic has strengthened their faith. The teenager baptized Sunday at the Evangelical Free Church of Bemidji described being inspired by an audiobook about Brother Andrew.
“I want him to be at work in my life like he was in Brother Andrew’s life,” he said in remarks prior to his baptism. “I’ve started reading the Bible not just out of habit, but because I want to learn more about Jesus.”