Needless to say, I want my kids without excuse when it comes to understanding the gospel. It's the core of what I try to teach them as I parent. I don't want their understanding on the matter to be fuzzy or their idea of it abstract. I want them to know it, understand it and see it played out in everyday life in our home.
But that being said, this issue can get very confusing for kids AND parents when it comes to what being "saved" actually looks like.
There seem to be two main "camps" on the issue:
1. Those who encourage a conversion experience and a "sinner's prayer."
2. Those who place more of an emphasis on the idea of "God's covenant" with Christian families which can have a wide range in meaning.
My husband and I each grew up in a different "camp" and we've had several discussion on what we feel like the good and bad are from these approaches. I think there are strengths and weaknesses in each and today I'll try to fairly discuss what I see those to be.
The "Sinner's Prayer and My Story"
I grew up in a denomination that often places a lot of emphasis on a conversion experience. Parents and teachers are often trained to lead children (or even any adult that they "witness to") in a "sinner's prayer." There are no set words or formulas, but it's often a summary of the gospel, a confession of a person's shortcomings as a sinner who recognizes my need for a Savior and asks the Lord to forgive their sins so that they can become his child. Many see these elements as pretty critical aspects to becoming a true believer.
Here are some strengths and weaknesses I see with this approach...
Strengths: It acknowledges that things like going to church, being baptized, and being raised in a Christian home do not save you and doesn't guarantee that a child understands and embraces the gospel and will one day spend their eternity with Christ. It can help a person process what salvation means and lead to a sincere, conscious and clear understanding of that gift.
Weaknesses: This mindset often places a lot of emphasis on a prayer that can inadvertently give a false sense of security to those who pray it because of a gross misunderstanding of the gospel. (This is sometimes referred to as "fire insurance" or a "get out of hell free card." There is no heart change, but because of an emotional presentation of the gospel and a (sometimes manipulative) plea for repentance, some pray "the prayer" and feel like they're "in" without ever giving another thought to what a life in Christ might look like or perhaps are completely confused about what in the world just happened.
I believe this mindset can also lead to doubts of a genuine salvation experiences down the road. This was very much my experience...
The beauty of the gospel is that the way I understood it when I was six years old is completely different than how I understand it now. That's okay... even a good thing! I see it as a more incredible and humbling and beautiful gift as the years go by. BUT, because I "accepted Christ" when I was six and understood it on such an elementary level at that point, I have often doubted my salvation experience as being a true conversion because several years down the road I would look back at it and know that I didn't "get it" then like I do now. It took me many years to come to terms with the fact that I have been working out my salvation (Ph. 2:12-13) and growing in the grace and knowledge of my Lord and Savior all these years (2 Pt. 3:18). I'm not sure that it would have been such an issue for me if that conversion experience was not made to be such a big deal by my church/denomination growing up.
"God's Covenant" and Kids
The other camp is more of a "covenant idea" of salvation. Many who fall into this category don't focus so much on an experience or prayer or use the word conversion much (unless it is someone who is not raised in the church and later comes to Christ). A child is often considered a Christian if they embrace the faith of their parents as they grow. Now, there are many denominations that fall into this category and interpretations of this swing wildly on this issue. I will say from the outset that I don't think any kind of outward act (namely, infant baptism, where this issue can get very confused) can change a child's heart and create a Christian. But I understand that MANY see this act as a dedication of their babies to the Lord and a commitment to raise them in the knowledge and fear of the Lord (and I even had the joy of witnessing my nephew's baptism this past Sunday!). Though I may not fall into this category, I am respectful of that opinion.
So here are the strengths and weaknesses I see in this approach:
Strengths: It doesn't place so much emphasis on a "decision" so there's not as much room for making a false commitment. It can also lead to less doubt later on. If you're not looking back to pinpoint a time and day when you "became a Christian" you might be less likely to struggle with doubts over the sincerity of your faith. If you look back and see growth, it's encouraging, not a reason to wonder if you really got it before that. My husband and best friend from college fall into this category and I've often been envious (in a super spiritual way - lol ;) of the fact that doubt of their standing with Christ has not been such a struggle for them.
Weaknesses: This approach can also lead to a false security because one was baptized as an infant or because your family are believers or even thinking that because you go to church you're "in." It can lead to a nominal faith with little depth and little consideration for what the gospel actual is and calls us to. (Note: This can happen with both approaches, but I see it as more likely result of the latter.)
This post is meant in no way to bash or judge denominations or approaches. I hope that it can bring some clarity as you think through how you approach salvation with your children. We all come into parenting with convictions, mindsets that have been ingrained in us, and even some baggage from the way we were raised and taught. This will likely impact how we present the MOST IMPORTANT message we have for our child and I think it's worth thinking through.
So how should we approach salvation with our kiddos? Next week, I will flesh out some of my thoughts on the matter based on my understanding of Scripture and my experience in children's ministry.
Without being too controversial or disrespectful, can you add insight into the pros and cons of either of these approaches based on your experience?
Part 2 - Salvation and Kids: So.... What Exactly Does the Bible Say About It?
Part 3 - Salvation and Kids: 5 Important Things to Consider When Presenting the Gospel to Children
Salvation and Kids: The Most Important Prayer