At the end of a special event, a Christian dressed as a superhero calls for kids to come forward if they want to know Jesus. Dozens and dozens of kids, primarily preschoolers, come forward. They are counted and the church celebrates the high number of “salvations” from this event.
Following the traditional VBS gospel presentation, an opportunity to pray to receive Christ is given, and then kids are asked to respond by raising their hands and then coming forward. A couple of fourth graders respond. Others notice their friends are moving forward and they go to the front as well. Soon the majority of the fourth grade class is standing there. They are given card stop fill out and the church celebrates the number of decisions.
If you’ve been in church for awhile, it is possible that you’ve seen similar situations. These are actual situations that I observed many years ago. I believe with all my heart that children can understand and receive the good news of Jesus. That’s why I am in kids’ ministry. However I also know that right after Jesus told His disciples that “whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me”, He also warned with very strong language of the danger for those who cause kids to fall away from Him. (Matthew 18:6) It is critical that we create spiritually safe environments for every kid who enters our church.
We talk a lot in next generation ministry about creating environments that are physically safe, as we most certainly should. Thankfully, background screens and two adult rules have become the norm. We give attention to bullying and making sure we have emotionally safe environments. These are important topics, but since our number one mission should be to train children spiritually, it is imperative that our environments are spiritually safe.
What do spiritually safe environments look like?
- The gospel is primary. In spiritually healthy environments, kids are consistently taught that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead, providing a way to Heaven through faith alone. When we implicitly or explicitly emphasize anything else, we are potentially harming kids spiritually. If kids leave our classrooms with the impression that they only have to be “good” kids or they have to work to earn salvation, we are setting them up for spiritual harm.
- The gospel is communicated clearly. I believe that Jesus is clear that a child is capable of saving faith, and in fact uses a child’s faith to define what saving faith is like (Matthew 18:3). Our responsibility is to communicate in ways that they understand. We do this by explaining church-y or theological terms in kid-friendly and age-appropriate ways.
- Decisions for Christ are not made based on guilt, fear, or peer pressure. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict and draw kids to God. It is our job to share the gospel. Years ago I asked my friend and associate pastor to talk with a child about salvation. He used a popular evangelism tool that just happened to highlight a large picture of fire. Yes, hell is a biblical reality and kids need to understand that separation from God has eternal consequences. However, guess what that unchurched kid was totally freaked out about? It is our responsibility to share the gospel in a way where kids are responding to the grace of Christ, not trying to please adults or do what their friends are doing or because they are scared of the fire picture.
- Kids are not pressured or put on the spot to make a spiritual commitment A well-meaning volunteer once went around his circle of kids asking each to say out loud whether or not they had trusted in Christ. His intentions were good, but unfortunately his methods made kids feel uncomfortable and put on the spot to respond like he wanted them to. We owe kids the honor of letting God work in their hearts privately. Following a gospel presentation, we do not have kids make public commitments. Instead we allow them opportunities to respond privately via a card that they fill out or by encouraging them to approach their leader to start the conversation.
- The emphasis is on gospel conversations, not counting decisions. Every child who expresses an interest in following Christ has a one-on-one conversation with a decision counselor. As often as possible we include the parents. The purpose of the conversation is to walk through the gospel again and try to gauge the student’s understanding and interest. We are not the judges of kids’ salvation, but it is our responsibility to help make sure they have a clear understanding.
- Every effort is made to make sure concepts are understood, not just repeated. Kids can repeat a prayer. Kids can answer yes or no questions. Kids can parrot back what you’ve said. Salvation through Christ is more than repeating words. Kids need to understand what sin is, that they are sinners in need of forgiveness, that Jesus came, died and rose again to provide a way to heaven. They need to understand that salvation comes only through Him.
- Salvation is not a prayer of magic words. I believe we have raised generations that have equated salvation with just saying a prayer and you get zapped into heaven. I also believe that this practice has led to lots of spiritually confused adults. Salvation is believing in Christ and confessing Him as your Lord. Repenting of sin and making Him the Lord of your life is a lot bigger than just saying some words. In spiritually healthy environments, kids understand that salvation is a surrendering of one’s life to God. In kid-terms we say God is the boss of their life and we do things his way instead of ours.
- Kids are loved unconditionally regardless of their background or their behavior. We model who Christ is by loving kids as He loves us. Kids know that the people who are sharing Christ with them are legit and truly care about them.
Sharing the greatest news in the world is a high responsibility, but what an incredible privilege! My prayer is that God uses each of us to spread His gospel to this generation with much integrity and much care so that this next generation grows up with a rock solid faith.