Our theology shapes our actions.
For that reason it is vital that we get our theology right.
When it comes to working with children it is especially important.
I grew up in a setting in which theological issues were simple. We were right and everyone else was wrong. It took me a long time to move beyond that simplistic approach and to realize that there are many issues for which we will never have a definite answer. At least we won’t in this life.
I share this to say that while I believe that the issues that I am going to consider are important, I don’t profess to have the final answer to them. In fact I would value your response to what I write. You may not agree with my conclusions but I do hope that you agree that the issues are important.
Faith not the sinner’s prayer
I recently heard a report on a Sunday morning about a day camp that had just finished. I heard about how well everything went. I heard that the children were eager participants in the programs. I heard about the wonderful job that the staff had done.
Then the crowning moment came. The person who was sharing announced that six children had made a commitment to Christ and had become Christians.
If that doesn’t get you excited, you need to check with the doctor to make sure that you are still breathing.
It is exciting. Over the years I have known of many children who made a commitment in some form of children’s programs and went on to live solid Christian lives. There is nothing more exciting than a young person with her whole life ahead of her coming to Christ.
The problem is that those commitments aren’t always genuine.
In many cases children respond in the excitement of the moment. They go forward and talk with someone on staff. They might acknowledge that they are sinners and they probably pray some sort of prayer.
But that does not guarantee that they are Christians.
I was a visitor in a church in which the pastor ended his sermon in a way that I believe contradicts one of the central truths of scripture. He asked if there was anyone there who wanted to become a Christian.
That was okay. I don’t have a problem with altar calls but then he said something that did bother me. He invited people to come forward and said that becoming a Christian was as easy as praying a prayer.
One of those verses that we often get children to memorize contradicts that statement.
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8, 9
One becomes a Christian on the basis of faith. The source of that faith, whether it is a gift from God or something that we produce ourselves, is a question for another day but it is clear that salvation is on the basis of faith.
When we present the gospel to children, we need to make sure that we bring faith into the process. The children need to have a clear understanding of who Jesus is. They need to understand the significance of his sacrifice on the cross and the importance of his resurrection. They need to grasp something of the change that Jesus wants to bring to their lives.
In short there needs to be content to their faith. Do they need to understand all of the finer points of theology? Obviously not but they do need to have enough understanding to give meaning to their faith.
Disciples not decisions
At the heart of the Great Commission is a call for all Christians to make disciples. That should be the thing that drives every church. Jesus, the Head of the church, has commanded it.
When churches define their purpose, their goals, their mission or whatever term a church might use, the conclusion that the church should come to is that they are called to make disciples.
A church should be a body of disciples who are in the business of making other disciples. That is what is described in the closing verse of Matthew. Jesus has gathered his disciples together and he challenges them to do for others what he has done for them throughout the three years of his public ministry.
Jesus took a group of people, taught them, prayed for them, worked with them, and demonstrated to them what it meant to be a disciple. Now he was sending them out to find other people so that they could duplicate what he had done.
Jesus committed his life to growing those disciples and in return he wanted those disciples to commit their lives to repeating the process over and over again.
When someone becomes a Christian, it is the beginning of a life-long process of growing that person until she is a passionate, mature follower of Jesus Christ.
Applying this to children’s ministry
How do these two points affect how we do children’s ministry?
We need to ask ourselves two questions and our answers to these questions need to determine how we work with children.
Question # 1
If faith is the means by which a person becomes a Christian, whether that person is sixty years of age or six, how do we insure that the person has a solid foundation of content for his faith?
Question # 2
What do we have to do in order to lead someone through that journey of moving from a seeker to the point at which he is a mature, passionate follower of Jesus Christ?
Why do so many young people disappear when they reach high school? Why don’t they make that transition to the youth group and continue as an active part of a church’s programs?
I have heard various answers to that question.
Outside activities take up too much of their time.
Our culture is anti-church and therefore the children aren’t encouraged to attend.
Parents don’t care about the church any longer.
Our youth program isn’t exciting enough.
Perhaps the problem is that our theology is wrong.
Perhaps we think that getting a child to pray a prayer in response to a gospel presentation is the final goal instead of just the beginning of a life-long process.
Perhaps we get too excited about decisions and forget that we are called to make disciples.
As a pastor in one of the church’s in which I served, I accepted the job of working as one of the volunteers in a senior-public school group. For the most part it was fun but as is true of all groups there were a couple of children who were problems. They disrupted the group almost every week and made life miserable for all of the other children.
Things finally came to a head and we realized that we needed to do something with them. I proposed that we needed to expel them from the group seeing as we had already done everything else that we could think to do.
One of the volunteers spoke up and out of her very faulty theology suggested that it was okay to expel one of the children because he had prayed a prayer the year before and therefore was going to heaven.
The other boy though had never prayed the prayer and therefore would not go to heaven. We needed to keep him as part of the group until such time as he prayed that prayer.
That is an extreme example of bad theology at work but it is only an extreme case of what far too many people believe.
The goal of any children’s program should not be to have a child pray a prayer. It should be to bring that child to a point of true conversion that will then be the beginning point of his journey to becoming a passionate follower of Jesus Christ.
Anything less that that is to fail the children whom we are serving.
In next week’s blog I am going to suggest what that might involve.