Let me start this by setting out my assumptions.
1) Children, because of their natural sinful state, need to be evangelized. It is imperative that we proclaim the full truth of the biblical gospel to children. Their eternal souls depend on it! (No, that is not an invitation for a TULIP food fight!)
2) Evangelizing children is a minefield with some very real dangers of which we must be aware. Children are often eager to please and susceptible to inducements. The possibility of a false conversion which gives a false sense of confidence to someone unconverted increases by orders of magnitude as the gospel is shared with younger children.
3) There is no discounted gospel for children. That truth (or Truth) which saves a 43-year-old alcoholic is the same that saves a cherub-faced 8-year-old girl. We cannot offer children a gospel any different than that which is offered to a full-grown adult. The words and presentation may be different, but the substance is the same. Too often, though, we not only simplify the presentation of the gospel for children, but discount the gospel itself.
Years ago, a young relative of ours came home deeply disturbed from Sunday School. He was about 8 years old. The evangelist who was there for the weekly revival spoke to his class. Now, in fairness, I don’t know what the evangelist actually said; we only know what this kid came home thinking. He was under the impression that because he did not respond to the evangelist’s message, there was a black spot of sin on his heart that would never go away!
A church in my city held a VBS-type sports camp and one of our church’s families took their kids. They got a letter a couple of weeks later congratulating them because their child had “asked the Big JC to be her best friend.” There is just too much wrong with that to speak about!
At our annual Upward Awards Celebration, we had a well-known speaker who came in and “shared the gospel” with the hundreds of children and their families who were in the local high school gym. Somehow, his gospel presentation never mentioned the death of Jesus Christ. Can there be a gospel presentation that doesn’t mention Jesus and his death on the Cross?
Of course, we’ve pretty much all heard about the firetruck baptistery at an SBC megachurch whose children’s wing was designed to mimic a Disney set. The firetruck baptistery would fire off a confetti cannon when a child was baptized. Of course, there was no inducement to profess faith there, right?
I would hazard to guess that in each of those situations sincere people with a sincere desire to reach children with the gospel did what they thought was right. I do not question their motives or desires. No one acted out of a desire to falsely induce children to false conversions. People who loved Christ wanted kids to come to Christ. I do not question motives.
But I do question the wisdom of their behavior and their .
We have to be incredibly careful when we are evangelizing children. We must not slack in this duty, but we must navigate the minefield carefully. Here are some suggestions that I would put forward as we evangelize children in our families and churches.
1) Immerse children in the gospel story.
My daughter called it “the story.” “Daddy, tell me the story.” She was struggling with the gospel and her need for salvation. As a bedtime story, I would tell her the story of the Bible – the whole truth. I started with Adam and Eve, the first human pair. God made us for himself and his glory. I told her of the fall into sin, and the judgment that came as a result. I shared about the Law of God which told us how to live, but how each of us failed to obey that law and therefore stood guilty before God – condemned by our own actions. Then I told her about Jesus coming to earth, living a perfect life and never sinning, doing great works, but dying on the Cross for our sins. I told her that Jesus rose from the dead as Lord of all and that anyone who believed in him would be saved. I even told her that Jesus would come again one day to establish his kingdom on earth and to judge the world.
Over and over again we told “the story” at bedtime. We took her to church where that same gospel was taught in classes and from the pulpit. She was in a Christian school. Long before she was ever immersed in water, she was immersed in the gospel story.
When you plant a garden, soil preparation is important. The seed will sprout and grow if the soil is properly tilled and fertilized. Children’s hearts must be carefully prepared for that moment when the seed springs to life. Immerse them in the gospel story from an early age.
2) Be careful with invitations and inducements.
“Bethany, mommy and daddy would be so happy if you just trusted Jesus. Won’t you do that now, please?” My guess is that if we had ever said words like this, she would have “prayed the prayer” and put our hearts at ease.
But it is not about putting the parents’ hearts at ease; it is about a child counting the cost and making an informed decision to trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. They must understand the essentials of the gospel and they must respond in faith – not in obedience to the their parents’ wishes or to pressure from anyone else.
- Children tend to wish to please their parents (except when they don’t!) and it is easy to get them to make a decision they think will make their family happy.
- Children tend to want to fit into the group. When there are public invitations and other kids raise their hands or do whatever it is they are asked to do, children will sometimes follow along with the crowd and do what everyone else is doing.
- Children tend to respond to pressure or manipulation, even doing things they don’t want to do if the pressure is high enough.
- Children will do things that are fun and exciting even if they do not fully understand what they are doing. “Hey, if I raise my hand, they will shoot off the confetti cannon!”
Because of these characteristics, invitations to children must be without pressure of any kind, without inducement, pressure or manipulation. I am not saying that we should never invite children to believe. I am saying we should be careful when we do it.
3) Let the motivation come from within, from the Holy Spirit.
One of the things I looked for with my kids was a desire for Christ, a sense of conviction and need that came from within. Old, young or in between – we are saved when we recognize our sin and become aware of our deep need for Christ. The Spirit of God creates that sense of need. When we are dealing with kids, we ought to continue to proclaim Christ, live out the message, and wait for the Spirit to bring the child to the place of new birth.
I’ve met with children in my office who, the parents tell me, have put their faith in Christ and been saved. When I question them, they either do not understand or cannot articulate the truths of the gospel story. It is my suspicion that sometimes, the motivation for these experiences comes more from the parents than it does from the children.
It is what I would call a premature new birth!
When a baby is birthed prematurely, it causes problems. Sometimes, the baby does not survive. Sometimes, there are defects or physical challenges to be overcome. It is best when the baby reaches full term and is allowed to come in its own time.
Is it fair to use that illustration to describe the salvation experience (at least from the human perspective)? There is a moment of conception when the soul is opened to the gospel. Then, there is gestation, in which the person considers the claims of Christ, counts the cost, and contemplates his or her response. Finally, there is the exciting moment when a new life is born, quickened by the Spirit and made alive in Christ.
We must be careful not to try to shorten the gestation period by artificial and humanistic means. Rushing a child to new birth is not a good thing. We must preach the gospel, let the Spirit work, and gently guide children to respond.
4) Be careful of fictionalized, simplified or watered-down gospel accounts.
I remember a musical my oldest son’s Christian school performed one year at Christmas – a sort of Star Trek meets the Gospel of Matthew. It was funny (and since my son had the main part – the Spock counterpoint – it was incredibly well done). But it trivialized the gospel, making a farce out of the gospel story.
My children loved the Hanna Barbera animated Bible stories series back in the 80s, in which some modern kids traveled back in time and witnessed (and became part of) those stories. They even tackled Samson and Delilah – standard fare for children’s movies, right?
These are not, in my opinion, sinful or evil. But they are dangerous, especially if they trivialize, simplify, or (especially) water down the hard truths of the gospel. We need to be careful of such things. The gospel is not just another story like the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. It is a true story of sin and love and grace.
Should the church evangelize children? Absolutely.
Should the church evangelize aggressively, directly and forcefully? Yes.
But it must do so carefully. We must immerse our children in the full story of the biblical gospel. We must make sure that we offer no fleshly inducements, use no manipulative tactics, exert no pressure and simply let the Holy Spirit accomplish the miraculous work of new birth. Birth is a natural process that must not be rushed. New birth is a supernatural process which also must be allowed its proper time.