My friend, Pastor (and now school teacher!) Tony Kummer, just posted up the latest edition of the Children's Ministry Think Tank. Here is the latest question and my thoughts. Click over to his site to see very thoughtful answers to the same question from Brenna Phillips and Glenn Woods.
How should children’s ministry offer an urgent Gospel invitation without emotionally manipulating children? When does child evangelism cross the line and become abuse? What principles guide you in this area?
Last week [now a few weeks back], I read the following words from Henry Zonio (http://elementalcm.com) regarding evangelistic presentations for children:
The key… is to help connect children and families to Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to do the work of conversion. It’s more than just praying a prayer, raising a hand or coming to the altar. It’s about life transformation, and that is something that can’t be manufactured or manipulated into existence.
Henry is right. Real conversion—life transformation—can’t be manufactured or manipulated into existence. It is God’s work, not the work of a minister or parent. When we seek quick decisions from children, we are in danger of manipulation. So, in the spirit of Henry Zonio, here are some principles for avoiding manipulative evangelism.
1. Be clear. Little children think literally, and they can be confused by figurative language. Be simple and concrete. Stress the facts of the gospel. We are sinners (Romans 3:23), but Jesus took the punishment we deserve for our sins by dying on the cross (Galatians 3:13). We can trust him to make us right with God and be our friend and advocate (Romans 4:25; 1 John 2:1).
2. Encourage children to think about their sin. Teach kids about their personal need for the Savior. Don’t flatter or deceive children by teaching them that their nature is good. Instead, tenderly teach a child about his or her own failures. Point out the specific sins to which children are prone (greed, pride in performance, lying, disobedience to parents, etc.). Be tender but true. Then, 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.
3. Call children to trust Jesus for salvation from sin—not just salvation from hell. Children are impressionable, so fear tactics about hell or platitudes about heaven are certainly manipulative and possibly abusive. It is not wrong to teach a child about hell as God’s just punishment of sin. It is not wrong to teach about heaven as a benefit of trusting Jesus. But we must be extremely careful not to play on a child’s emotions.
4. Call children to trust what Jesus has done to save—not just their personal experience with Jesus. When speaking about the gospel to children, our temptation is to focus on the child’s personal struggles with sin and obedience. We’ll focus on what God is “doing in me” now, rather than what God did for me on the cross. The gospel is NOT primarily about Jesus’ work in our heart but about Jesus’ work in history. While it is a Biblical truth that Christ is present with the Christian by his Spirit (Colossians 1:27; Ephesians 3:17), the work in our hearts is secondary. Over-emphasizing a change of heart can actually discourage a child. When a child becomes become aware of his or her sins, the child may become introspective and worry, “How can Jesus live in my heart when I still get so angry?”
5. Call children to trust Jesus with their whole life—not just “have a relationship” with him. We are sometimes very adept at reaching people on an emotional level, but our personal faith is more than an emotion. While it is not wrong for faith to move us on an emotional level, it is not as right as it could be. Salvation is not just saying yes to a relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is finally resting in Christ. This involves a life change—conviction, illumination, and regeneration –not merely a decision.
6. Call children to admit, confess, trust, pray, commit, decide, but don’t assure them that these things save. Leading a child in a “sinner’s prayer” may give the child false assurance. We must never give our children the impression that a prayer for mercy (a “sinner’s prayer”) guarantees their eternal destiny. It does not. Human hearts long to find assurance in things that we can manipulate – our own knowledge, emotional experiences, prayers, or our works. We must discourage children from seeking assurance in such things, and we must never give false assurances. False assurances are certainly abusive because they endanger a child’s soul—leading the child to believe he or she is a Christian when this may not be the case (Matthew 25:31-46).