Last Sunday, my youngest daughter Savannah (age 7) was baptized in our church in Corcoran. As the pastor of the church, I had the priviledge to baptize her. In the previous weeks, talking with Savannah about her decision to be baptized and confirming her faith in Jesus Christ, I had constant flashbacks to my own experience at her age and the conversations my wife and I had with my older daughters, Elise and Annalie.
To be clear. Savannah fully understands the gospel. She has put her faith in Jesus Christ. In her own words, “Jesus died on the cross for my sin and he rose again to prove it.” When I asked her to explain why she said “to prove it,” She said, “Anyone could die on a cross. Only Jesus came back from the dead.”
The best advice I can give to parents trying to raise their children up in church and in a Christian home is never ask your child if he or she wants to be baptized. In our Baptist and Evangelical tradition, we do not do infant baptism because the New Testament ties baptism to confession of faith in Jesus Christ. We call it “believer’s baptism.” As such, my wife and I did not ask our children if they wanted to be baptized. We waited for each child to ask. Each of my 3 daughters began to ask about baptism by around age 5 or 6. By age 7, they each asked if they could get baptized.
The amazing thing was that each of my three daughters had a clear understanding of the gospel and had placed their faith in Jesus Christ. We found it only necessary to calrify the significance of baptism once we confirmed their faith.
With each of my daughters’ baptism, there were conversations with other adults, especially parents. Some questioned whether children could even understand the gospel. Some adamantly opposed baptizing children because they do not think children have the mental capacity to make a faith decision. A couple of other parents thought my children were so exceptional, that it made sense they would understand the gospel at such a young age. The truth is that my children, while smart, are really not that different from any other child. We simply taught them the gospel in our home as well as at church in much the same way we would present it to adults.
With that in mind, I think it is important to adress the erroneous belief that some adults have that children are not capable of making faith decisions. Also, there are many children who grow up in church and are still confused about the gospel when they reach age 18. The confusion leads many to the conclusion that they have to in some way work their way to heaven. This may be a trust in their own good works, a belief that going to church saves them, or a belief that a balancing of the scales where is you do more good in life, it cancels out the bad. Some of my most devout religious friends will tell you that they are going to heaven when they die because they have not committed a mortal sin.
Whatever the case, there are many people who have grown up in faithful Bible teaching churches, yet, they remain confused about the gospel so much that they are completely unaware that the Bible makes it clear that salvation is obtained by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Here are 3 reasons why this happens.
1. Adults “dumb down” the gospel message so much they end up not teaching the gospel at all.
The beginning and the end of this is simple. Many adults who have no experience working with children think they are incapable of abstract thought. Someone once told them that children are concrete thinkers inacabable of abstract thought, analogy, or inuendo. So, their solution is this. Since they think children can not understand the concept of faith and trust, they must tell children to ask Jesus into their hearts in order to be saved.
Anyone reading this with a critical mind should see the irony in this. People who think children only think in concrete terms often use phrases like “ask Jesus into your heart,” which is by it’s very nature the least concrete thing you can tell a child. Telling someone to ask Jesus into his or her heart is the exact opposite of using concrete terms and terminolgy.
In addition to this, telling someone that the way to be saved is by asking Jesus into their heart is a false gospel. The writers of the New Testament books of the Bible made it clear. From John 1:12 on, that writer tells us 99 times to believe in Jesus. Paul, the writer of most of the New Tesatment penned these words, “For by grace you have been saved through faith” in Ephesians 2:8. He would also answer the question of his prision guard in Acts 16:31 with “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
First of all, the idea that children are conrete thinkers incabable of abstract thought is a myth. In fact, I have tutored a couple of high functioning autistic students who can not grasp analogy or sarcasm, but have no trouble with abstract concepts and theological thought. Children, in general, are abstract thinkers. They live in the real world and constantly play in the world of make believe, fairy tales, and cartoons. So, when it comes to understanding the historical fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, and the only response for salvation being faith alone in Jesus Christ, children have no trouble understanding this at all. With this, children also have no trouble understanding which stories they hear are history and which ones are fairy tales. Children also know that people are capable of great things and will not hesitate to ask if a story is real history, exaggerated, or “just a story.”
Likewise, children understand concepts of sin, forgiveness, fair play, and everything else that goes into the gospel story. Anytime a child is confused about the gospel message, you can be sure the confusion was caused by an adult who believes in the “children are only concrete thinkers” myth.
2. Children are often taught a self help theology instead of the gospel.
This is directly contected to the the first reason children are confused. Since many adults think children are not capable of understadning the gospel, they end up teaching them a self help theology.
The best example I can give happened about 15 years ago. I watched as a friend of mine was trying to to teach the gospel to a group of chilren at his church’s Vacation Bible School. I watched as he stumbled over his words as he stood in front of about 40 children. When he finally got the words out, he told them that in order to be saved, you have to believe that Jesus wants them to succeed in life and that if they believe that he can change their lives, they can be saved. Over lunch that day, I asked him why he did not tell the kids that Jesus died for their sins and invite them follow John 3:16, which says, “whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”
His answer was, “they are children and they would not understand that.” Sadly, what he told them instead was a self help message where if you just believe Jesus wants you to succeed and believe he can change your life, then you are saved.
3. Adults often talk at children rather that talk with them.
This final point comes up often in ministry from pre-school through high school where adults see themselves as nothing more than teachers. Sometimes, I see this with parents as well. In this, there is only formal teaching in a class room. Sometimes, it is nothing more than an adult or parent telling children what they are supposed to believe. In this, children are not asked to think for themselves. They are only asked to recite and repeat back the correct answers. Ultimately, the result is always the same. When the child is old enough, usually teenage years, it will be clear that any perceived faith form childhood will be proven to have never existed. Some do come to their own faith decision during teen and young adult years because of a good mentor or friend, but most walk away from anything spritual.
When we teach children, it is necessary to engage them in conversation. When we tell them a story, ask them what they think of the story. Sometimes it starts with asking a child to repeat a story or concept, but it should never end with that.
Children are capable, at a very young age, of forming their own opinions and beliefs. This begins whenever a child looks up at mom or dad and says for the first time, “no.” Most parents know about the terrible 2s, which is a magical age when your precious little baby becomes your live in little terrorist. It is at this moment in a child’s development they begin to assert themselves, demand their own choices, and suffer consequences for disobedience and defiance. Of course, some children are worse than others. As children grow, it is important to remember that it is not just behavior that children choose. They are forming their own perspectives, opionions, and choices about what they believe. While each child is unique in how they process and learn, each one does form these throughout childhood.
So, rather than simply tell children what they are supposed to believe, it is necesary to guide them. The task for Sunday school teachers and parents is to sit down with them as you teach them. Do not ever assume a child is not capable of learning something abstract, spritiual, or theological in nature. Ask them what they think about the stories they have learned. Ask them what they think about the meaning and moral of the story.
One thing to remember above all others. Be understanding if a child express doubts about Bible stories and theological concepts. Whether you are a parent, Sunday school teacher, or some other type of mentor in a child or teen’s life, your role is to teach the child how to think for him or herself so that they can make their own decisions about what they belive.