NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — For nearly 500 years, Anabaptists have met together to study, debate and dream about the role of baptism in their lives. Discourse that was once held only through hushed tones in a deep forest, or in the dim backroom of a village tavern, has expanded into every medium imaginable. No matter the platform, these gatherings continue the legacy of examining the purpose of baptism in the lives of Christ followers.
Over the course of two days, Anabaptist pastors and faith leaders in India joined in that tradition, through the virtual education series, "Walking in Newness of Life: Why Baptism Matters."
The two-part webinar, broadcast Nov. 28-29, 2022, was an education series born out of a collaboration between Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MCSFI). The webinar, designed for pastors and church leaders in India — a country that is home to over 250,000 Anabaptists, spread across nine conferences – examined the theological significance of baptism and the different ways it is practiced.
Elisabeth Kunjam, who helped organize and host the webinar, recalled reading about a collaboration between AMBS and MWC to promote Anabaptist education for the global church in fall 2020. Mission Network shares in this partnership, through AMBS' Global Leadership Collaborative (GLC) initiative.
Kunjam, who graduated from AMBS in Elkhart, Indiana, in 2004, before moving back to her home community in India, was intrigued at the possibility of sharing some of the theology she experienced at the seminary with the broader Mennonite church in India. "I felt India's need for Anabaptist education could be fulfilled through this initiative," she said.
Kunjam reached out and connected with two Mission Network representatives: Joe Sawatzky, training and resource specialist, and John Lapp, who at the time served as the senior executive for International Ministries. More people joined the conversation, including Pratik Bagh, who graduated from AMBS in 2021 and is now a pastor at Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart.
Eventually, the group discerned that the first educational webinar for pastors in India would be focused on baptism. MCSFI, which includes leaders from seven of the nine Anabaptist conferences in India, worked to bring in Indian Mennonite church leaders, as well as speakers from AMBS and Mission Network, to share about the role of baptism in Anabaptist theology.
"The topic of baptism was a crucial one," Bagh said. "I have seen conversations happening in our conference around baptism since I began to serve in the Bharatiyah General Conference Mennonite Church in India in 2009. … While we all are baptized into Christ, the benefits and mode of baptism are distinct in different congregations, and its discussion has always been sensitive."
During the first session, Nishant Sidh, a member of the Mennonite Church in Rajnandgaon, India, explained to attendees some of the complexities of baptism in the Indian Mennonite context.
"To many of the candidates seeking baptism, [it] is a legal, social and religious requirement and not much more than that," Sidh said. Baptism, he explained, allows one to become a member of a church and enjoy all the rights and privileges that come with it. Men cannot get married, unless they are baptized into the church. Baptism makes getting a job in a Christian institution easier. Yet because of these requirements, "many of the candidates are being baptized without the saving knowledge of Christ," he said.
For others, the mode in which someone is baptized has created debate. While the majority of Indian Mennonite conferences practice immersion baptisms, "the model of pouring and sprinkling is sometimes considered as inferior by the seekers of baptism," Sidh said.
The first webinar session, led by Sawatzky, focused on the role of baptism and the connection between water and the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament and into Jesus' life and ministry. Sidh and Rev. Paul Phinehas, chairman of the Gilgal Mission Trust in Tamil Nadu, India, gave additional insight and context to the Indian Mennonite experience.
The second session, led by Jamie Pitts, associate professor of Anabaptist studies at AMBS, examined the history of Anabaptism and how the act of baptism has been debated since the start of the movement in 1525. Bishop Shant Kumar S. Kunjam, a member of the Mennonite Church in Rajnandgaon, provided the response meditation.
Each webinar session concluded with a time for questions and dialogue in the larger group.
Deacon Vikal Pravin Rao, executive secretary of the Mennonite Church in India, closed the webinar by thanking the speakers, translators and organizers, as well as the participants, who made the virtual gathering possible. "It's been a blessing for all of us," he said. Rao expressed excitement for future educational workshops, both in-person and virtual. Rev. Benjamin Nand, director of MCSFI, led the group in prayer before attendees signed off.
"Many webinar attendees from India personally called and texted me to express appreciation for the sharing [and] discussion," recalled Bagh. "I hope this event becomes a global Anabaptist practice, in which we respond and support each other on the different subjects we are currently facing, from matters of concern to joy, and get strengthened. May the members of the body of Christ have the same care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25b-26)."