Children and Conversion
by Derek Gentle

The conversion of children can be a sensitive subject in evangelical churches, especially when the children have attended the church without their parents. Perhaps the child has attended evangelistic services or Vacation Bible School with a friend. Perhaps the child professes faith in Christ or maybe the child was just expressing an interest in Christ. When told about it the parents get that "My child has just been captured and brainwashed by a cult group" look in their eyes. If the parents attend another church or don't attend church at all, the waters may be tough to navigate. Here are some reasons why:

First, the parents feel out of the loop. They may have a kind of resentment, feeling that you are trespassing on their parental turf, that it is their place to deal with their children in religious matters.

Another factor is the fear that their child is being manipulated. Think of the factors and terms involved: guilt, commitment, surrender. Put yourself in their shoes. They may have the impression that their child is being pressured or taught something weired by these strangers.

The protective instincts of parents come into play at this point. No one wants to see their children suffer. If parents observe their child grappling with the Holy Spirit's conviction of sin, they may want to come to the rescue. Though a person, even a child, has to see his lostness before he can become a Christian, there is a false kind of guilt, also. Many parents will have trouble knowing if they are seeing genuine conviction or some kind of the false guilt they may have experienced in their own past.

There is also the fear that one's children are not ready for the level of commitment involved in becoming a Christian. When one becomes a Christian she commits all that she knows of herself to all that she knows of the Lord. People seem to know this intuitively. It is true that some parents are looking for a "finished product" kind of commitment instead of the beginning of a growth process (which begins in the new birth). That is a misunderstanding on the part of the parent. On the other hand, parents should not be faulted for looking for signs of repentance.

And finally, some parents are resistant because if their child becomes a Christian, then their own child will be ahead of them! It's too shaming to bear, so they try to prevent it from happening.

Two Things to Understand in Dealing with Children

First of all, children are just learning abstract thought. Yet, by nature, religious concepts are abstract. The substitution of Christ on the cross is such a concept. And it is an essential part of the Gospel. Fail to grasp their need at this point and you won't be able to help them.

Related to this is that we should never assume that children know the meaning of the terms we take for granted: Repentance, faith, sin, forgiveness, Christian. Each concept should be carefully explained.

They can't believe what they don't understand. Sometimes in an attempt to "keep it simple," people make the Gospel more simple than it really is. They get as quickly as they can to, "Just pray this prayer" -- and that exactly what the child does, he "just prays" a prayer. He doesn't really understand what he has said. She may not have been putting faith and repentance to expression at all. They were just words she was told to say.

Some Hints for Christian Workers

First, never use peer pressure. Public invitations with her friends going forward at Vacation Bible School may cause a child to feel pressure to respond before she is ready. Years later, she may have to deal with the question of whether she was really saved or just following her friends.

Secondly, give it enough time to sink in. Most folks are not ready to respond to the Gospel the very first time they hear about God. It is true that in the Book of Acts many do, but one must keep in mind that most of these people were Jews with a strong Scriptural background. When I present the plan of salvation during our annual Vacation Bible School, I don't do it only on one day that week, I have a session each day and spend time defining Scriptures and terms in the plan of salvation so that they understand it clearly. Even then, many are not ready, but the foundation is laid for later.

Avoid scare tactics. The Holy Spirit can convict of sin without any help from us. And children's hearts are tender enough.

Children generally want to please you. Ask something like, "You love Jesus, don't you, Fred?" and little Fred will guess from your tone of voice what he is supposed to say and tell you what you want to hear. Instead, find out what Fred really knows with open ended questions: "What does a person have to do to become a Christian?" Avoid yes/no questions.

Pray for the children's enlightenment. The Holy Spirit can make the light come on.

Be sure to make the distinction between salvation and baptism and church membership clear.

If at all possible, involve the parents. You may know the Gospel better, but they know their child.

Tips for Parents

Don't try to hold your child back. Encourage him in his thinking about God and spiritual things - even if he is not yet ready. Don't make him feel dumb for bringing the subject up: "You're not ready for that! We'll talk about this later when you are ready." Instead, affirm his interest. Find out how much he knows and understands. Build on that knowledge. Answer his questions. If he is not yet clear on the Gospel - or he doesn't really understand the life commitment involved - lay the groundwork for the future.

Be careful not to underestimate your child -- or God. Our children are smart enough to remember their responsibilities at shortstop and to memorize the state capitals. Why assume that they can't grasp Gospel? The Gospel is simple enough to be understood. The fact is, you can't keep your child from becoming a Christian. You may embarrass her about it or prevent her from joining the church or being baptized, but you can't stop God from saving her.

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