Can Children Understand the Gospel?

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Is it possible to communicate the gospel on a child’s level? Here are two different perspectives…

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Christianity embodies the eternal story of salvation. God sent his son Jesus Christ to earth to die for our sins. At some point, every person must reckon with this man-is he Savior or lunatic?

We in children’s ministry have another dilemma related to these faith questions. When can a child fully understand the whole issue of reconciliation? Is it possible to communicate the gospel on the children’s level, or is it better to wait until they’re older?

We asked two authors to tackle this issue from their perspectives.

Children's Ministry Local Training

Seize The Day!
by Robb Dunham

Statistics slightly vary, but surveys of seminary students and missionaries show that, at a minimum, 70 percent of these people came to know Jesus Christ as Savior before the age of 14. If we dig a little deeper, we’ll uncover this startling fact: Over 50 percent of Christians chose to follow Christ between the ages of 5 and 9. If we skip by children at these ages and wait until they’re teenagers, we’ll be too late.

According to surveys, the numbers of people who choose to follow Christ after the teenage years drop off so dramatically that they become almost nil after age 30. I’d rather err on the side of presenting the gospel to a child “too young,” than risk missing that child at the most spiritually sensitive time in life. It may be the only chance that child gets. The question is not, “How young is too young?” but rather, “How old is too old”?

Also, consider that the surveys referred to were of adults. An entire generation of children has been born since those surveys were conducted. This generation is maturing earlier than their predecessors. The “mean age” for salvation seems to be dipping lower with each successive generation.

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Many teenagers and adults today say they came to know Jesus as their Savior at 3 years old. We can no longer afford to “save” the gospel message for children we consider old enough to understand. Obviously, the container for the message needs to be adapted for the age group we’re ministering to; however, the content of the message never changes.

There are those who feel children may be too young to fully understand the gospel. Of course they are! But in the defense of children, I have yet to meet an adult who fully understands the gospel-even those who’ve been Christians for decades!

Remember, Jesus told us the kingdom is made up of “such as these.” There’s something about child-like faith that makes it easier for a child to understand the gospel than it is for most adults. One of the main differences between an adult’s understanding and a child’s understanding is language.

Analogous to translating the Bible into a foreign language and presenting it to indigenous peoples, we need to translate the gospel well enough for children to receive Christ-whether they are in preschool or sixth grade.

If children have not yet received Christ, by all means, give them a very clear and direct opportunity to do so. As children grow older, they become hardened and spiritually calloused. Don’t let children slip into the tumultuous teenage years without God.

 

Milk or Meat?
by Delia Halverson

As a child, I recall singing, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” I thought washing with blood was pretty messy. I’d experienced many a bloody knee, and I remembered when my sister seriously cut her leg. There was plenty of blood then, and it certainly didn’t wash anything away.

In reality, I was too young to understand the symbolism of being cleansed by blood. I was being given calculus before I had conquered simple math. Or in Paul’s terms, I was being fed solid food instead of milk. Simply singing the song certainly did not damage my faith development, but I did know it was something beyond my comprehension at the time.

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There are references to Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in many of Paul’s letters. In order to better understand “sacrifice,” let’s look at the events of Paul’s day and ours today. Early Christians were accustomed to the blood sacrifice of animals for their sins. Some cultures even sacrificed children. And so, even for children of that day, the concept of Christ as a blood sacrifice would’ve been understandable.

In today’s world, the only time our children hear about blood sacrifice is in reference to witchcraft. In science, children do study about the importance of our blood to our bodies. Therefore, we can help them see that when we talk about communion as the body and blood of Christ, we’re saying this is a special way of recognizing that accepting God makes us healthy people and gives us the type of life we want.

We can teach rote answers about Jesus dying for our sins. We can tell them that because of Jesus’ death we have God’s forgiveness, no matter what we’ve done. But we cannot make them understand it until they’re ready to “eat meat instead of milk.”

Sin may be defined as our separation from God. At what point do we know that we’ve strayed from God? Can we really know what we’re missing if we’ve never tasted it? For that reason, it’s important to emphasize the closeness of God with children. We must accentuate the positives about our faith before we dwell on our sinfulness.

For those of us who’ve experienced the wholeness of God, we know what we’re missing when we find ourselves separated from God. And we can fully appreciate the concept of our redemption through Christ’s death.

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There’s no way we can put a definite age level on understanding. Helping children learn to walk with God and experience God’s love and grace gives them the fork with which to taste God’s redemption through Christ. Once they’re ready for meat, and once they have the tools to understand abstract concepts, then they can imagine what it’s like to ignore and not accept God’s love.

For some children this comes earlier than for others. Children raised in the experience of God’s love may recognize that we all fall away from God. They can appreciate the joy of reconciliation even when they can’t label it. But children who have no self-worth and don’t feel worthy of even a parent’s or teacher’s love, will have difficulty grasping a God who loves us anyway.

And so our first task is to establish a positive feeling of self-worth and an understanding that God loves each person. Most children, by the time they reach middle school or high school, have developed an ability to deal with abstract. At that time, even if their self-worth is low, they can appreciate God’s love for them through Jesus Christ.

To Tell Or Not? Let us know if you agree or disagree with either of these authors. JOIN THE CONVERSATION at the bottom of this page.


Robb Dunham is a former children’s pastor in Colorado. Delia Halverson is an author living in Florida. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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2 Comments

  1. Robb Dunham on

    Hi Jess – Thanks for asking. The surveys were taken of Dallas Theological Seminary students and Assemblies of God Missionaries.

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