Paul tells us that when the good news changes us, we are sent out with God’s power to tell the gospel to others. It’s the impulse of the Spirit at work in us. We are sent out as ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 5:18–20, Paul writes:
“[God] reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting humanity’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
Many evangelicals these days want to embody this identity as Christ’s ambassadors. We make passionate appeals to lost friends and family to come, see, and believe the good news. We fully resonate with Paul’s missionary impulse. Fully, that is, until it comes to children.
Are we overly cautious with children and the gospel?
If my observations are normative, many young evangelicals tend to be more anxious and tentative about calling kids to believe. There are of course reasons for this. Children are, after all, easier to manipulate. Some of us grew up in churches where we were encouraged to pray and ask Jesus into our heart before the gospel was fully explained. We now want our own kids to follow Christ because they love him and understand his cross—not merely to escape hell and enter heaven. We want them to assure their hearts with the gospel—not their knowledge, emotional experiences, prayers, or obedience.
But I wonder if we’re overly cautious. One week, the elementary classroom at the church where I served was studying the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle. For three long weeks, we were entrenched in Old Testament details. Our children’s ministry team complained about the lessons. And if I’m honest, I struggled as their leader to grasp why teaching the sacrificial system to seven-to-10-year-olds was beneficial.
Then, when we taught that the old method of gaining access to God and receiving forgiveness for sins was to sacrifice a lamb, one girl, we’ll call her Sarah, said, “I wish we could still do that.” Goodness. We were shocked. Why would a nine-year-old want to kill a lamb? Why would Sarah think this was necessary to gain access to God? Did I need to make a quick curriculum change? Had we not taught the gospel well enough?
Sarah’s teachers talked with her after class, and they got her parents involved as well. It turned out she really wanted to be forgiven for some harsh words she’d spoken to her younger brother earlier that week. When confronted with the truth that her sins required a blood sacrifice, Sarah was overwhelmed. The concreteness of the sacrificial system made her guilt very vivid. She wanted to kill a lamb and be done with it.
Calling kids to Christ
That morning in children’s ministry was an opportunity for our kids’ teachers and Sarah’s parents to share the gospel with her and call her to respond. But how? How can we confidently encourage kids to respond to the gospel’s call while avoiding manipulative techniques and remaining sensitive to their level of development? Here are five suggestions.
1. Boldly teach kids about their sin.
You’ve probably seen that children’s program where the wooly mammoth, vampire, monsters, aliens, and overgrown canary have all invaded a side street in Manhattan. In his brilliance, Jim Henson took some of our greatest fears and made them cute and educational. The child-friendly terrors that live together on Sesame Street should remind us of the hidden reality of childhood.
Children are glorious and beautiful gifts from God, and yet within each child—behind the cuteness—there’s a fallen heart that’s twisted from the moment of conception. Every child is a sinner. It can be difficult for us to shoot straight with kids about this, but even they need to be faced with the reality of their brokenness. The prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon, said it well:
“Do not flatter the child with delusive rubbish about his nature being good and needing to be developed. Tell him he must be born again. Don’t bolster him up with the fancy of his own innocence, but show him his sin. Mention the childish sins to which he is prone, and pray the Holy Spirit to work conviction in his heart and conscience.”
Yes, children need comfort, care, and a healing touch. But they also need honest correction, because it’s only when kids see the terror of their own sin that they’ll see their need for redemption. We need to hear Spurgeon’s warning, “Do not hesitate to tell the child his ruin; he will not else desire the remedy.”
2. Focus on what Jesus has done to save rather than what your child should do.
In traditional children’s ministry, there is often an emphasis on the ABCs: (A) Admit you are a sinner; (B) Believe in Jesus; and (C) Confess faith in him. There is nothing wrong with this (see Rom. 10:9–10) so long as we make clear that salvation is not about what we do but about what Christ has done. If we only talk to kids about what they should do, we run the risk of confusing or discouraging them.
When a child becomes aware of their sin, they may become introspective and worry, “Did I do enough? How can Jesus live in my heart when I still get so angry?” What Jesus has done for us is the most important thing—so much more important than what we do. He saves us. We do not save ourselves. We must teach kids to look outside of themselves to the love and forgiveness that comes because of what Christ has already done for them (Gal. 2:20). As puritan Octavius Winslow wrote, “One simple believing sight of Christ will produce more light and peace and joy than a lifetime of looking within ourselves for evidences and signs of grace.”
For this reason, I prefer a gospel tract like Billy Graham’s Steps to Peace With God or my own Are You Close to God? to the ABC method. Resources like these emphasize the work Christ has done for us more than our response. They help us clarify when a child has an understanding of the objective facts of the gospel and when they may be trusting their own prayers or works to save.
3. Call your kids to respond. Call them to decide.
We must be clear that the call to respond is not the gospel. But we also must be clear that a response is necessary. The Scripture calls all people to respond to God. It calls all people to pray, trust, and obey him. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesian church addresses the children of the church directly and calls them to obey their parents in the Lord (6:1). So, you don’t have to wait until you know that a child is saved in order to call them to respond or make a decision to follow Christ. We must teach kids with response as a goal, all the while recognizing that the children we lead will have differing levels of responsiveness.
Christian educators, Larry Richards and Gary Bredfeldt, outline five basic levels of learning in children:1Lawrence O. Richards and Gary J. Bredfeldt, Creative Bible Teaching, Revised edition, (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 120–127.
- Rote—a child’s ability to repeat back stories, verses, and biblical truth without thought of meaning.
- Recognition—a child’s ability to recognize biblical concepts that have been taught before.
- Restatement—a child’s ability to express new concepts in his own words and to relate them to a biblical worldview/system of thought.
- Relation—a child’s ability to relate biblical truths to life and see an appropriate gospel response/application.
- Realization—a child’s ability and desire for putting gospel applications into action in his daily life.
This outline reminds us that children typically learn the language of faith before their faith is fully realized. Our job is not to get a two-year-old to the realization level after one gospel conversation. You just need to encourage the children in your care to take the next step.
4. Don’t pressure your children for commitments, because the pressure is off.
Trust that God is already at work in our kids’ hearts. Our responsibility is to faithfully teach the gospel to them and leave the results to the Lord. Sometimes we’re tempted to pressure children, because we feel that getting them saved is our responsibility. It is not. Salvation is God’s work. Give children an opportunity to respond, but trust God to work in the hearts of his children to bring them to himself through faith, in his time and in his ways.
5. Finally, when you do encounter responsiveness, don’t be afraid to give gospel assurances.
Children should be taught that Jesus alone saves, and they should be assured that they can bank on him. You read that right. We should feel free to assure children that Jesus saves. We should freely invite children to come to Jesus because his redemption work is done. As the apostle wrote, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting humanity’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:18). Our Lutheran friends call this the doctrine of objective justification: the biblical truth that salvation has been accomplished, and it can be freely offered to all.
Once I was asked by a children’s minister, “Do you think it’s okay for children who may not yet be believers to memorize, recite, and sing Bible passages that were intended for believers?” He was talking about the kind of passages that give personal assurance. He was thinking of Scriptures that say things like, “I know that my redeemer lives” (Job 19:25–26), or “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1), or “I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Ps. 42:11), or “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). My response to this question was, “Yes! Absolutely yes! A thousand times yes!”
Leading a child to memorize these assurances is not the same as giving a false assurance, because these are the very words of Christ. To trust these words is to trust Christ himself. What should we do if we hear children assuring themselves with one of these passages? We must say to them, “Keep on believing. Keep on believing!”
As the team talked to Sarah after class that day, they explained that Jesus has already paid the sacrifice she longed for. He has done it once and for all. They clarified the truth of the good news, and they pleaded with Sarah to believe it. She didn’t receive Christ’s comfort for several more years. But they called her to respond in faith that day, and I’m glad they did. Because Christ hasn’t only made us his ambassadors to adults. We also bear the gospel to the next generation. We must go and call the whole world—even children—to respond in faith to him. And we can make this appeal with confidence, knowing that God is also at work. He is making his appeal to kids through us.