As those 20th-century churches have aged, however, their once-modern baptisteries have come to look old-fashioned, too.
“It’s like eating organic food,” said Chad Seales, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin who has written about the history of indoor baptisteries. The middle and upper classes now embrace the “primitive” as a mark of authenticity.
The change is not just a matter of style. Built-in baptisteries are bothersome. Mold and leaks are a constant problem, and because the tanks are larger than most portable options, they take longer to fill and heat. “Maintaining baptisteries is very expensive,” said Evan Welcher, until recently the pastor at Vine Street Bible Church, in Glenwood, Iowa, which operates two large 19th-century church buildings on the same block. (It’s a long story.)
These days, Rev. Welcher eyes newer, ostensibly hipper baptism facilities with something like envy.
“We have two baptisteries, and at different times they both leaked,” he said. “The cattle trough looks really easy; it looks so much better. People might say ‘Oh, the cool churches do it,’ but it actually looks like a better way.” Vine Street, which has baptized four people this year, spent around $3,000 to fix a broken heating pump in one of its facilities a few years ago.
Those “cooler churches” are often “church plants,” or new congregations established by an existing church or denomination with the goal of evangelizing in a new location. They typically begin by meeting in rented facilities like schools, movie theaters or storefronts, and they are attuned to events and aesthetics that will attract crowds.
Historically Black churches have generally maintained a more formal tradition, said David Latimore, director of the Betsey Stockton Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Black church “has always resisted the pull of informality for informality’s sake,” Dr. Latimore said. Since baptism is a ritual of belonging and “citizenship,” it had a kind of double meaning for much of American history. “There’s a great and heavy sense of the profound sacredness of this ritual,” he said.