What is the appropriate age for baptism?
The shortest answer is: as soon as it is both possible and practical.
Our teaching on baptism is found in By Water and the Spirit. Here is the most relevant section to this question:
"Understanding the practice as an authentic expression of how God works in our lives, The United Methodist Church strongly advocates the baptism of infants within the faith community: "Because the redeeming love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, extends to all persons and because Jesus explicitly included the children in his kingdom, the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at an early age" (1992 Book of Discipline, par. 221)" (para. 226, 2012 Book of Discipline).
No specific age is named, but the expectation is that pastors will encourage baptism to be received promptly AND on a schedule compatible with having appropriate time for meeting with parents, sponsors, and others who are involved most directly in ensuring that the child to be baptized will be nurtured in an environment that will lead her or him to a commitment to personal discipleship to Jesus Christ in the life of the church.
The practice in some congregations is to "baptize on demand," at a time when this is most convenient for the family. This can place a serious strain on the capacity of the pastor and the congregation to live up to their requirements to ensure that adequate instruction and incorporation of the parents and sponsors has taken place. Ecumenical practice has moved toward offering baptism on or around specific critical moments in the church year — Easter, Pentecost, All Saints, Christ the King, Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration Sunday. Such a schedule creates opportunity for the congregation to develop a more systemic response (including the scheduling of regular classes or formational experiences) that helps connect the lives of the newly baptized and their parents and sponsors with the life not only of the particular local congregation, but the liturgical life of the universal Church. These Sundays are also often practiced as Communion Sundays in our Church, even in congregations that may not yet practice weekly communion. By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery both indicate that on Sundays when baptism is celebrated, communion should also be celebrated, and that special care should be given to ensure that those newly baptized and their sponsors and parents are included in this celebration.
While baptism is understood primarily as a means of God's grace toward the child, By Water and the Spirit also states: "If a parent or sponsor (godparent) cannot or will not nurture the child in the faith, then baptism is to be postponed until Christian nurture is available."
Baptism is, among other things, incorporation into the body of Christ. The questions asked in the baptism of infants are asked not of the parents and sponsors to answer on behalf of the infant, but on behalf of themselves. Those who cannot or will not answer these questions affirmatively for themselves in good faith are not yet ready to support another in a journey toward discipleship to Jesus Christ, and so are not able to enter the covenant relationship entailed in baptism.
In instances where it is clear that the parents and identified sponsors of a baptized child may not be able or willing to live as faithful disciples of Jesus in the baptismal covenant, By Water and the Spirit offers this instruction: "If a child has been baptized but her or his family or sponsors do not faithfully nurture the child in the faith, the congregation has a particular responsibility for incorporating the child into its life."
— The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources, General Board of Discipleship
- The General Board of Discipleship offers an in-depth Q & A on the appropriate ages for baptism and confirmation.