Many pastors, church staff, children's leaders, and parents struggle when leading children to Christ. Since most families have only two children, parents are not typically experienced in this area. Pastors usually face the challenge of handling children and parents at this special time. Two of the difficulties they face are knowing how to talk to a child about God and knowing when a child is ready to accept Christ.
Pastors sometimes admit that they feel many children who join their churches are unsaved, but they just don't know what to do without upsetting everyone. Yet, we do a disservice to children if we baptize them before they grasp the essentials of salvation. There is only one way to come to Christ. There is not one set of rules for adults and a "jr. set" for children.
How do children accept Jesus as Savior? How can we make that time of commitment the most meaningful time for the child and the parent?
There appear to be four stages to a child's spiritual birth and development. Not every child fits these categories exactly, but most follow this general pattern. Knowing where a child is in his/her development will help adults counsel the child about salvation.
The first stage is the discovering stage. From birth to about age 6 a child is downloading information. During this time he gets his impressions about life, God, and rules.
The next stage is the discerning stage. This stage begins somewhere around age 4 or 5 and continues until about 8 or 9. It is a time of questions. Children ask questions like "How does that affect me?" "Why do people go to the altar to talk to the pastor?" "What happens when people die?" What is hell like?" "Why do people get baptized?" "Should I be baptized?" Young children who grow up in church may have an early "decision" because they feel left out or are just inquisitive. We must be careful not to confuse conviction with curiosity. Children may be very impatient or may put real pressure on adults at this time. The wise adult will help them relax by encouraging them and reminding them that just as there was a "right" time for them to be born, there is a "right" time to be baptized. God will let us know when it is time for baptism. In the meantime we will focus on learning more about Him.
The third stage is the deciding stage. This is when the child is faced with the decision. It becomes personal. No longer is following Christ related to the loved ones (parents, pastor, relatives, friends, teachers) around the child. It becomes an issue the child must deal with himself. The smoke clears and he is faced with a personal need for Christ. This typically happens between 8-12, but sometimes as late as 14. These may indeed be the most fruitful years. [Note: most Christians, 75-85 percent, come to Christ between the ages of 8-14].
The last stage is the discipling stage. This begins after salvation and continues throughout the adult life. Some of the richest years are between the preteen (age 10) and the college years. This is when the young Christian is taught to develop healthy spiritual habits that will be a pattern for his adult life. Consistency, accountability, encouragement, and good role models are extremely important at this stage.
Though these are natural stages of spiritual birth, they will not progress smoothly unless we take the time to guide the child. We must become more personally active in the child's spiritual life and not just leave it up to God. Of course He can handle it, but He has commanded us to spiritually train our children. Spiritual matters can be confusing to adults and even more so to children.
Can young children be saved? Certainly, but we have found that most children who make that decision under the age of seven tend to need to make another decision later (if they are brave enough to go public the second time). In 1994, 60 percent of Southern Baptist baptism were rebaptisms. We are responsible to lay a solid foundation through each stage of a child's spiritual development so that when he makes his commitment, it will be established and not in question later. Pastors must avoid the temptation to use young children's decisions to boost baptism numbers. The Great Commission is two-fold — we are to evangelize and disciple people. Our challenge is to honor His principles and allow Him to manage the numerical response.
Understanding these stages helps us to relax and trust God more, which takes pressure off the child, and often encourages the parents. It helps if we remember that God is both obstetrician and pediatrician — we merely serve as His nurse assistants.
Art Murphy has served thirteen years as Children's Ministry Pastor for First Baptist Church of Orlando, Florida and is president of Arrow Ministries (a ministry to parents and children's leaders). In 1998, Murphy will baptize the 1,000th child that has come to follow Christ during his ministry at FBC Orlando. Murphy has personally counseled and baptized most of these children.
Ready or Not?
The following questions help determine if a child is ready to make a commitment to Christ:
• Does it make sense to the child?
• Is there brokenness over sin?
• Is the child serious about this decision?
• Was this decision self-made?
• Has the decision been sealed?
• Is there a sense of reality in the decision? A young child's trinity may consist of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. If a child is at the stage where pretend characters like these are real, then it is best to delay in making the decision public. When he has outgrown this stage, his commitment to Christ will be meaningful and not intertwined with the fantasy world.
Child Evangelism Policies at First Baptist, Orlando
1 When children come to the altar, they visit for 2-3 minutes with the pastor, and then a meeting of approximately thirty minutes is planned with the appropriate staff member or children's leader later that week. This takes the pressure off the pastor, the child, and the parent to cover everything in such a brief moment.
2 Altar counselors, evangelism teams, staff, children's leaders, VBS volunteers, and parents are trained in these principles. There are many differing philosophies about child evangelism, so it is important to have the whole team using the same principles.
3 Salvation is separated from baptism. Children are not baptized the next week. Their commitment is given time to take root and grow.
4 Prior to baptism children who are new Christians are enrolled in a four-week, follow-up class. It is limited to children in second grade and above. For younger children, there are private meetings with them and their parents where they are encouraged to grow. The parents are asked to enroll them in the class when they reach second grade.
5 After completion of the class, an appointment is made to discuss baptism. It is approached much like the planning of a wedding or a birthday party.
When talking to children avoid using phrases such as "profession of faith," "open up your heart," "washed in the blood," etc. Speak simple English. They are so literal minded that we lose them in the church jargon.