This is the first of a series of blogs for parents on how they can be involved in leading their children to faith in Jesus. Seeing our children come to Christ and then grow as disciples is the single most important task we have as parents. In this series we hope to challenge you, encourage you, and give you some tools that can help in the journey.
I grew up in a religious tradition that emphasized the idea of conversion. We knew that people needed the Gospel and be given the opportunity to respond to Christ. People were invited to repent of sin and believe the Gospel, and an invitation was given so people could do just that. I still believe that conversion needs to be emphasized, that to be a follower of Jesus there must be some initial point of faith in Christ, where the Gospel is proclaimed, and the individual hearing the Gospel has his or her heart made alive by the Spirit leading to initial repentance and faith in Christ as Savior and King. I do get leery when I ask someone to share their faith story and the response is something like, “I’ve pretty much always been a Christian, I grew up in a Christian home, always been to church.” On the other hand, often the application of the emphasis on conversion led people to say a quick prayer without really wrestling deeply with the implications and the call of the Gospel. This was especially true with children at events such as Vacation Bible School or a kids camp. We would have “evangelism night” where Jesus was shared (along with the heat of hell sometimes) and then we asked Jesus to come forward and “pray the prayer” if they wanted to go to heaven. What nine year old doesn’t want to go to heaven, miss hell, and have Jesus as their best friend. But often they were called to make a decision without really understanding the Gospel. Yet, the church would cheer, mom and dad would cry, and the baptistry would get full. So it must be genuine. I remember the first time I was asked to preach to children on this night of a VBS. We did a great job of connecting to their emotions, and I preached. Then we gave the invitation, and every single kid, yep, every single kid stood up, came forward, and prayed the prayer. To be honest, I was devastated, because I knew that most of them had no idea what they were doing, which was incredibly dangerous.
What I’ve learned over the years is that great care needs to be taken in the conversion of our children. On one hand, we can have children who believe they are Christian because they grew up in a believing home and church. They accept the idea that being culturally Christian is the same as being justified, but the truth may be that they have never been converted. It is our job to challenge this notion in our children. As one person has said, “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than going in a garage makes you a car. You must trust Jesus for yourself.” There is no family plan for the Kingdom, we enter the Kingdom of God by repenting of our own sin and trusting Jesus ourselves. Christian parents must pray for and teach toward the conversion of their children as a real goal. Yet, the other extreme is leading kids to a decision without a clear understanding of the Gospel. In fact, often kids will decide to follow Christ out of a desire to please their parents or from a sense of belonging to church family. This is fine, but to truly come to Jesus a child must come to terms with their own sin and need for a Savior, and sense the beauty of Christ and what He has done for us. In other words, what we need to look for are marks of genuine conversion, seeing the spiritual eyes of our children opened and their heart softened to Christ. Without this we can end up with children who have a false sense of security, either because they were never pushed toward and taught about conversion, or because they were pushed too hard and so kids made a decision to do something without genuinely receiving Christ as Savior and Lord.
I believe one of the big reasons for this struggle is that we have not equipped parents to be the primary disciple makers of their kids. We have followed the model of public education. In eras past, the primary educator was the parents in the home, and the school was to assist and be a second voice. But as social systems broke down the educational system bore a greater weight to educate children whose parents were not involved in their lives. The outcome was that parents saw the school as the primary educator, and in many cases stepped out of the way. Parents didn’t need to read to kids at night, the school did that for them. In the same way, within Christianity the Sunday School model became for spiritual education what the school was for reading and arithmetic. Parents believed they were doing their religious duty if they got their kids to Sunday School (see Genesis Kids here for us). Vacation Bible School, and other kids stuff. Now, clarity here, I don’t think G-Kids or Sunday School is the problem, the problem lies in the idea that these programs are sufficient to disciple your children. And the reason they are not sufficient is that God did not intend the church to be the primary evangelizers and disciple makers for children in Christian homes. Yes, the church does need to step in and assist when we get children from homes where mom and dad do not believe in Jesus or they are brand new to the faith. But the primary way kids should come to Christ and grow in their faith is through the faithful love, teaching, prayer, and encouragement of parents who open the Scriptures with their kids and teach them that they must come to Christ themselves. And then our programs at church come alongside the parents to support what they are already doing and teaching.
This is not easy, but I do believe that if parents will work on this it does become somewhat natural. My greatest joys in life happened when my children realized that God was speaking to them, and I could see in them the work of Christ opening their eyes, and then sitting with them when they confessed Christ and trusted Him. And what a joy to step into the waters of baptism with them and watch them publicly profess their faith. We need to both encourage our children to know Christ and believe in Him. We need to pray for their conversion, literally praying over them for the day when they will come to trust in Christ for themselves. We need to encourage them when they have interest and zeal. But we also need to be careful to take this slow and make sure the Holy Spirit is at work and our kids truly understand what they are doing before we move them to the waters of baptism. The rest of this series of blogs will be about ways we can do this, to equip parents to lead their children to Christ, with all kinds of helps. I really hope they are fruitful for you.
God bless, church family!