Dying Young: The Significance of Baptism for Adolescents


by John Drury




The following essay analyzes the adolescent talk and experience of death and its relation to the theology and practice of baptism.  It is written in a popular style, drawing on internalized resources rather than being overloading with citations.  The first section describes the passion, authenticity and spirituality of adolescent death-talk.  The second addresses the Christian teaching and practice of being baptized into Christ’s death and its implications for identity, equality and assurance.  The last outlines practical ways to recollect one’s baptism.


Adolescents and Death-Talk

            “It’s to die for.”  “She’s gonna kill me!”  “My life is over.”  “I might as well be dead.”  Anyone who has spent time around adolescents has heard these phrases and others like them.  For adolescents, every little situation seems to take on mortal proportions.  Every day is filled with life and death situations.  If we take their words at face value, death hovers every moment of life.

            Yet for many of the adolescents in our churches, death is not the clear and present danger they seem to make of it.  Especially in the safe, suburban sectors of North America, students are just not at the kind of high risk that would warrant such a linguistic habit.  Adolescent culture itself relies on leisure and safety.  Adolescents seem to live like they are immortal.  So why do they keep talking like this?  Why is death constantly on the lips of adolescents?

            First of all, death-talk signifies the passionate world-view of the adolescent.  In her particular stage of identity-formation, she can feel in her gut what is at stake and she expresses it.  He is looking for who he is and finding out what makes him tick.  In the adolescent moratorium, she is free to “try on” different identities and ideologies in an all-or-nothing mode.  This passionate discovery of self and others drives the adolescent to encounter the extreme vitality of human existence.  The adolescent implicitly understands that life is not just what I do but who I am.  In a sense, adolescents are in touch with the “lifeness” of life.  It is this very vitality that makes mortality such a threat.  In this identity-forming stage every little thing is a “life or death” situation.[i] 

            Not only does death-talk point to the passion of adolescents, but it also reminds us of the real threat of death that exists for them.  Many North American adolescents do live in high-risk areas or homes.  Random acts of violence only serve to increase the fear.  The persistence of teenage suicide as a cultural phenomenon puts death on the mind.  For many of the vast group of adolescents suffering from clinical depression without intervention, suicide remains a live option.  Furthermore, many students are crushed under the pressure to succeed academically and socially.  So not all adolescent death-talk is hyperbole.  Death is on their lips because death is in their lives.

Beyond the passion and the risk, adolescents also talk about death out of a real spiritual insight.  Adolescent culture is in touch with the spirituality of death.  Although implicit for most, adolescents know that death is meaningful or at least significant.  Certain adolescent sub-cultures reflect on the spirituality of death more explicitly.  Arguably the most well known are the Goths.  But they are not the only ones who stare death in the face and incorporate it into their group identity.  In a sense, the Goths are an extreme case of what is going on in every adolescent’s mind: that death is a part of, if not the key to, life.

We have a tendency in our ministries to dismiss adolescent death-talk.  We see it as trivial, rather than passionate.   We see the reality behind it, and it scares us just as much as it scares them.  We see its spirituality as pagan and try to offer an alternative that is light and happy.  Our dismissal of adolescent death-talk blinds us to the passionate, authentic, and spiritual reality of adolescence. 

Baptized into Christ’s Death

            The irony of our dismissal is that Christian Scripture and tradition sound a lot more like adolescents than us.  For Christians, death is the key to life.  The good news is that we have died and our life is hid with Christ in God (cf. Col. 3:3).  It is amazing how mortal the Scriptures can be; they sometimes sound like heavy metal lyrics.  But just as we have dismissed the death-talk of adolescents, we have closed our eyes to the death-talk in our classic texts.  Only if we begin to recapture the mortal imagination of Christian scripture and tradition will we be able to faithfully respond to the language of death on the lips of our youth.

             Death finds its way into the center of Christian faith because of the crucified Christ who is the substance of our faith.  Christ’s passion and crucifixion have been the subject of endless devotional and theological reflection.  Debate has especially circled around how the death of Christ as a distant event is connected with our present lives.  Is it simply an event that changed the status of God-human relations?  Or is it an example that we imitate by bearing our own cross?  Some emphasize the former, others the latter.

This tension was not a problem for Paul, for he saw a deep unity between Christ’s death for us and our participation in it.  The linchpin for this connection was the Christian practice of baptism.  As Paul says in Romans 6:3, “Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (NIV).  The death of Christ and the baptism of the Christian go together.  This is no mere rhetoric but a reality.  In the remainder of the chapter, Paul applies this insight to the presence of sin in believers.  His application would have no force if he did not really mean that in our baptism we died with Christ.  In Colossians 2:12, Paul makes it abundantly clear that we have “been buried with [Christ] in baptism” (NIV).  The tangible practice of baptism links us to the reality of Christ’s death for us.

Paul’s teaching on baptism has all the passion, authenticity, and spirituality of adolescent death-talk, yet with Christ at the center.  The gospel of Christ does not stand in placid judgment over the language of death on our students’ lips.  Christ can gather up their death-talk as a means of worship.  Christ comes to the adolescent and says, “Yes, life is to die for; come, die with me.  Yes, death is right around the corner; come, die with me.  Yes, death is the key to life; come, die with me.”  In baptism, the adolescent can find a tangible yet transcendent death-talk.

            The implications of being baptized into Christ’s death are far-reaching.  While facilitating a group of adolescents in a class designed to prepare them for baptism, I was shocked at how quickly they saw its significance.[ii]  They saw how baptism marked them.  It was official and public – a tangible witness.  It secures Christian identity, even when one is not talking or walking like a Christian.  Most importantly, they saw that if they were dead, Christ – the firstborn from the dead – was the only identity to which they could cling.

            They also saw how baptism is the great equalizer.  We talked about how embarrassed they felt about being soaking wet in front of the whole church.  But they understood that every Christian does this.  We all get wet.  Old and young, jock and geek, prep and punk – we all get wet.  Moreover, these adolescents already knew that everyone is equal when they die.  Now they saw that this equality kicks in early at baptism.

These adolescents were overwhelmed by the measure of freedom and assurance that comes with realizing they die with Christ in baptism.  It is a real pressure release for those who are caught up in social, academic, or even spiritual competition.  When I mentioned that no one ever accomplishes anything after they die, they immediately got the point.  All those lessons on divine sovereignty and human responsibility could not compete with the mortal imagination of baptismal identity.  Death is already on their lips, around their lives, and in their hearts.  They already get it.  Someone just needed to point out the “death metal lyrics” tucked away in their own sacred book.

Though it offers identity, equality and assurance to adolescents, baptism certainly does not solve all their problems.  It does not even fully address the issue of death.  For instance, I have not addressed the hope of resurrection and questions about the afterlife.  Also, a little chat about baptism is no substitute for direct prevention and intervention of suicide threats and attempts.  There is a lot of adolescent death-talk that remains uncharted and unclaimed.  But the basic contours of the relationship are clear: the practice of baptism can reclaim the passion, authenticity and spirituality of adolescent death-talk.  It may not solve every problem, but a transformed linguistic habit creates a space into which transformed lives may grow.

Remember Your Baptism

All these ideas about baptism and death may be insightful and even inspiring, but they are still just ideas.  What about the practice of baptism?  What difference can this really make for an adolescent’s life?  What can ministers do with this material other than teach and preach it?  Applying ideas about baptism to the practice of baptism always runs aground on this problem: we are only baptized once.  Even those who re-baptize only do so on the condition that a previous baptism was invalid for some reason or another.  So even if ideas can shape practice, baptism is too atomistic a practice for it to matter much.

            The Christian tradition has perpetually struggled with how to appropriate the benefits of baptism to the life of the believer.  Put negatively, the persistent presence of sin after baptism has confused many Christians and led to a whole host of sacramental and pragmatic developments.  After centuries of such reflection, Martin Luther reclaimed the power of baptismal identity by recommending a piety of recollection.  In his famous treatise, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther opined, “To-day there is scarcely any one who calls to mind his own baptism, still less takes pride in it; because so many other ways have been found of getting sins forgiven and entering heaven.”[iii]  He goes on to say that “it is no small benefit to a penitent first of all to remember his baptism.”[iv]  In Luther’s mind, the once-for-all practice of baptism need not be forgotten in favor of repeatable practices such as penance.  Instead, we can remember our baptism, and therefore enjoy its fruits throughout our lives.[v]

            My students were thrilled to begin the habit of remembering their baptism.  They had been rather annoyed at all the hoopla over baptism.  Why all the stress on one day?  When they realized this was the beginning of a new identity, they immediately planned out how they could creatively remember their baptism in the weeks, months, and years to come.  Their language of death had been captured for Christ, and now their lives were ready to be formed by daily recalling that they have been buried with him.

            Together we brainstormed about different recollection practices.  They even came up with a few that Luther himself suggested in his catechisms.  Notice how the practices are both inward/personal and outward/public.  Just like the experience of death itself, baptism is both an intensely personal and overwhelmingly public affair.  They did not want their baptism to be forgotten among the rubble of past religious experiences, and so listed the following ways to remember one’s baptism:

·        Hang up a woodcut that says, “Marked as Christ’s Forever”

·        Think of baptism whenever you see a pond, a river, or a puddle on a rainy day.

·        Say to yourself “I am Baptized” every morning when you get up.

·        Recall your baptism when you take a shower or wash your hands.

·        Engrave the date of your baptism into a sign and place it on your dresser

·        Ask other people if they have been baptized to see if you have something in common with them.

·        Every time you put your name on something (a possession, a test), remember that you are dead and so the credit or ownership does not really matter.

·        One girl decided that the day after her baptism (which for her was the first day of school!) she wasn’t going to dry her hair in order to remember and tell others that she just got baptized.

Youth ministers who want to claim adolescent death-talk for Christ can do so with Paul’s baptismal theology.   But more importantly than learning and teaching baptism, we must internalize our identity by recalling our own baptism.  So get into the habit of recalling your baptism.  Try out these ways.  Think up new ways.  It will rub off more quickly that if you just teach it.  Remember your baptism!

[i] Kenda Dean, Practicing Passion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004) draws on the passion of adolescents for constructing a practical theology of youth ministry.  For the role of passion in adolescent development, see especially chapters one and two.

[ii] Although this class assumed believer’s baptism, the implications also apply to infant baptism.

[iii] Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961) 292.

[iv] ibid, 294.

[v] Luther is here assuming and supporting infant baptism, and so recollection is even more crucial for him.  Those who practice believer’s baptism tend to neglect the piety of recollection and therefore fall under Luther’s indictment.  In both cases, one ought to remember the fact of his or her baptism, not merely the experience of being baptized.