Paul tells us that when the good news of the gospel transforms us, we can go on mission in God’s power. This is 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.”
Reformed evangelicals like those of us in Sojourn Network love 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 this missionary impulse. We’re all about it until it comes to children.
If my observations are normative, Reformed folk tend to be more anxious and tentative with kids. Of course, there are reasons for this. We rightly see that children are 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 want our own kids to follow Christ because they love Him and understand his cross—not merely to escape hell or 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 Sojourn Midtown was studying the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle. For three long weeks, we were entrenched in Old Testament details. We complained about the lessons, because we could not grasp why teaching the sacrificial system to 7 to 10 year-olds was beneficial. 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.”
We were shocked.
Why would a 9 year-old want to kill a lamb? Why would Sarah think this is still the right way to gain access to God? Have we not taught the gospel well enough? Sarah’s teachers talked with her after class. They got her parents involved as well. It turned out that she really wanted to be forgiven for 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 have done with it.
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 call while avoiding false assurances and manipulative techniques?
Boldly teach kids about their sin.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “We must not flatter or deceive children by teaching them that their nature is good. Rather, we tenderly teach children about their failures—pointing out the specific sins to which children are prone (greed, pride in performance, lying, disobedience to parents, etc.). Our goal is to be tender but true. We pray that the Holy Spirit will use the truth to bring conviction to the child’s heart and conscience, and ultimately to give the gift of faith.” With Sarah, being real about sin and its consequences opened a door for us to share more.
Focus on what Jesus has done to save rather than what your child should do.
In traditional children’s ministry, there was 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 Romans 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 (Galatians 2:20). As Octavius Winslow wrote, “One simple believing [look at] 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? 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.
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 obey God’s law. It calls all people to pray, believe, and obey. 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 (see the chart). Their outline reminds us that children often 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.
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.
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. Let me say it again. 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 objective justification, the biblical truth that salvation has been accomplished, and it can be freely offered to all. Once I was asked by another 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); “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1); “I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 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 plead 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, because Christ has made our children’s ministry team his ambassadors. We must go and call the whole world—even children—to respond to him. And we make this appeal with the confidence that God is making his appeal through us.
Jared Kennedy leads SojournKids as Pastor of Families at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY. He is the co-author of the PROOF Pirates: Finding the Treasure of God's Amazing Grace VBS (New Growth Press, 2015), and serves as the Children's and Family Ministry Strategist for Sojourn Network. Jared is married to Megan and the father of three girls - Rachael, Lucy, and Elisabeth.