The Red Letter Day

By Tony Hudson

It was just one remarkably unremarkable day, the 302nd day of 2023. And yet, decades from now, when people in the Los Angeles suburb of Riverside are asked if they remember where they were and what they were doing on that final Sunday of October, some can describe every water-logged, fist-pumping detail. For years to come, people at Riverside’s Magnolia Church on October 29 will be telling everyone about the Sunday that was like no other Sunday—Student Baptism Sunday, 2023.

“Leading up to that day,” says RJ McCauley, the Student Pastor at Magnolia, “everybody at our church was like, ‘Let’s turn this into something special,’ because we all saw what happened after last year’s Student Baptism Sunday. It created a rallying point for our youth ministry. Other youth saw students getting baptized and wanted to get baptized, too. We had baptisms for five months straight after that day. And this year, we wanted God to do that again.”

In ways people at Magnolia Church never thought possible, that’s just what happened. God made October 29, 2023 a date everyone here will remember for a very long time.

“What a moment.”

It began four months earlier with an overcrowded calendar. If RJ McCauley has learned anything in the years he’s served as a Student Pastor, it’s this: middle school boys are very busy people. There’s homework and football and band practice and karate class and orthodontist appointments and piano lessons. That’s why last June, when brothers Ayden and Jaymien both decided to follow Christ, RJ had to look several months ahead to find a day when they could be baptized.

“They were really busy with a whole bunch of stuff and it was hard to find a time that would work for them,” RJ says. “And so last summer I told them, ‘We can make it work on Student Baptism Sunday. But if we do that, you need to take this time and tell other people about your decision—especially your dad.’ And so that’s what they did. They went to their father, they explained salvation and baptism and they were like, ‘Dad, you need to get saved. You need to get baptized,’ and then they brought him to me. He made a decision for Christ, and so on Student Baptism Sunday, he got baptized along with his two boys. What a moment.”

It’s rare to see irony in a baptism. And yet, it was that one fully-grown non-student RJ baptized on Student Baptism Sunday that reminded him what’s strategic about student ministry. “In Ayden and Jaymien’s family, Student Baptism Sunday was a mega win,” RJ says. “It was a motivator for those kids to say, ‘Dad, you need to give your life to Christ and get baptized with us.’ And that speaks to everything I tell the kids about being an example to their parents. They can be like, ‘Mom, Dad, I want to be where God is and I want you to be there too.’ They can lead the way.”

“I can’t believe this actually worked.”

At Magnolia Church, young people “leading the way” took on all sorts of different forms in the days leading up to Student Baptism Sunday. There was Ayden and Jaymien. And then there was Stephanie and Ethan.

Several months earlier, RJ had begun a 16-week study of Romans that he presented to his youth group as an opportunity for evangelism. “Every week,” he says, “I told them, ‘You have 16 weeks, 16 opportunities to invite an unsaved friend to come and hear the gospel.’”

Stephanie took that challenge seriously. She decided, strangely enough, to invite one of the last people she thought would be interested in a 16-week Bible study. And to her complete surprise, he came.

Ethan was a middle school boy with grownup problems. “He was holding on to so much hurt and pain,” RJ says. “And yet, he told me later that the moment he walked on this campus, he just knew this was where he was supposed to be.”

Ethan came once. And then twice. And then, he just kept showing up. “That was in September, and he started attending all month long,” says RJ. “He came to all our stuff and then October comes and he goes, ‘Oh, you’re having a baptism this month? I want to be a part of that.’ So yeah, he ended up putting his faith in Christ. We say, ‘Ethan came in an atheist and went out a Christian.’”

Ethan was one of the students RJ baptized on Student Baptism Sunday, and his baptism had a powerful effect on more than just one person. “Ethan told me later that he felt this tremendous weight come off his shoulders when he came up out of the water,” RJ says. “But maybe the best part of this was Stephanie. She was crying so much when she told me later, ‘I can’t believe this actually worked, but it’s just like you said—invite a friend and they might come to faith in Jesus.’ And I’m like, ‘I know. That’s why you have to invite your friends to church.’”

“God did it again.”

Now, Ayden, Jaymien, Ethan, Stephanie, and all the other young and old people who played a part in Magnolia’s Student Baptism Sunday will remember October 29, 2023 for as long as they live, not just for what happened on that day, but for what will now happen in the days to come.

“Last year, Student Baptism Sunday kind of kicked off this youth revival that’s happening now with our students,” RJ says. “And this year with Student Baptism Sunday, God did it again. I already have two more baptisms lined up for next month. There’s a lot of great things happening. So, we’ll see what happens next.”

Published February 1, 2024

Tony Hudson

Tony Hudson writes for On Mission