Pastor's Blog

Years ago, a pre-teen approached me after a Sunday sermon, visibly shaken.  “Pastor,” the student said, “after today’s sermon, I’m not sure if I’m a Christian.”  I asked why, and the young soul told me that sin was a “churchy-word” that she had used her whole life but hadn’t really grasped until the sermon that day.  And she understood what it meant to be guilty before God and knew of some particular sins in her own life of which she was guilty. 

She told me that she had become a Christian when she was three.  When I asked what she had believed at three years old, she shrugged and said, “My parents kept telling me that if I died without praying the ‘prayer of salvation’ I wouldn’t go to heaven with them.”

“And so you prayed the prayer that they told you to pray so you’d all be in heaven together,” I said.  The young soul nodded. 

She was able to explain how the death of Jesus forgives sin, and she believed that – but had never fully understood it or applied it to herself until that day.  I explained that what was most likely happening was the Holy Spirit was putting some of the last puzzle pieces in place in her soul, and that it’s not praying a prayer that saves you, but believing the message, trusting Christ.  And she was expressing that mature faith.

I asked if she minded if I spoke with her parents, and she wanted me to.  When I told her parents about our conversation and suggested that their child had come to faith in Christ that morning, her mother was indignant and told me that was ridiculous, that she herself had led her in the ‘prayer of salvation’ by her bed when the child was three years old.

I suggested that another way to look at it was that the seeds the mother planted had germinated in the child’s maturing soul.  I encouraged the parents to water that faith and watch it bloom and blossom.  To my surprise, they would have nothing of it.

“You’re saying our child wasn’t saved at three years old?”

“I’m saying that at three years old your child had a three-year-old understanding,” I said, “and today the Holy Spirit clarified that message in your child’s heart, and she now has – not your faith – but her own – born in her own heart.  She understands the gospel herself!  She grasps it in an adult way!” 

I saw it as a reason to rejoice.  But this mother was not rejoicing.  I got an angry lecture about how I was undermining the child’s simple faith.  “You’re scaring her with all this stuff about sin,” the mother said.  “She prayed the prayer with me when she was three and she’s going to heaven.  She doesn’t need to know anything else.”

That day was the last day the family attended our church.

Evangelicals mean well with ‘child evangelism’, but the road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.  I strongly support teaching children biblical truth, but what some evangelicals call ‘child evangelism’ seems to me little more than emotional manipulation.  Manipulating the emotions of a fragile, vulnerable child is easy – and, I think, especially despicable.  I’ve seen some pretty despicable manipulation of children, including the use of gimmicks – prizes, toys, gifts – to “bring them to Christ.”

There is a difference, I think, between a healthy fear of God and merely fearing the prospect of suffering in hell;  the latter is easy to generate by emotional manipulation – the former, not so much.  Likewise, it’s easy to want to go to heaven to be with a relative or friend or even a pet that died – and you can easily manipulate a child that way – “Don’t you wanna see Fluffy again?”.  It’s quite a different matter to want to go to heaven, not because of personal pleasure and comforts, but because you want an eternal life in a world driven by rejoicing in what God wants.

I think that’s sometimes a fine line, but a crucial one, that we evangelicals need to observe.

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