A recent eye-opening experience led me to a surprising, shocking conclusion: Most of us, when it comes right down to it, really aren’t comfortable having children follow Jesus.
Hold on; let me explain.
Last spring as I was preparing to present a workshop at the Conspire Conference, I reviewed the book unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Their research revealed that Millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) are less likely to return to church after starting families because they perceive churches as promoting bigotry. Young parents are actually keeping their children away from church to protect them from becoming intolerant people!
After presenting that information at the workshop, I attempted to lead a brainstorming session about what a new children’s ministry curriculum might look like: one that teaches children to hold true to scriptural standards while loving and welcoming people who don’t think or believe as they do.
I wasn’t prepared for the vocal reaction I received from some workshop attendees. Several children’s ministers questioned whether it was a good idea to encourage elementary-age children to befriend kids who behave badly or are of different faiths. They raised the possibility that we’re risking the good character and growing faith of Christian children by exposing them to unchurched kids. One children’s pastor even asked if we could teach children to love their classmates without befriending them (in a word, the answer is no).
We never did outline what a new curriculum would look like. Instead, we debated whether Jesus ever intended children to participate in his Great Commission.
I’m not telling this story to have the last word in that debate. I’m merely sharing the moment when I realized that many children’s ministries have subtly adopted agendas that are different from God’s. If we’re truly working to raise a new generation of Christ-followers, then our instructional aim must be teaching children to be in a relationship with Jesus that overflows with love toward others, not to merely be religious.
Here are three specific ways we “inoculate” kids against the Great Commission.
Problem #1: We “Incentivize” Inviting
Many churches use a token economy to encourage children to bring people to church. Children receive rewards or chances to win a large prize each time they bring along friends. In the short term, this seems like an effective strategy: Kids will invite unchurched friends more often, attendance numbers will grow, you’ll win favor in the eyes of your senior pastor, and so on.
But these programs actually diminish children’s interest in evangelism. They aren’t learning to love their neighbors or to view them as being important to God. Instead, children’s eyes are on the bicycle they could win if they bring enough friends to the evangelistic rally. Plus, they get the message that sharing faith is painful or unnatural. If it were easy, the children’s pastor wouldn’t be bribing me with a bike, kids reason.
The Solution: Teach Children the Why and How of Inviting
Elementary-age children are capable of understanding why sharing their faith is important. They can comprehend that God made all people in his image and that he longs to have a friendship with them.
Use these ideas to teach children how to share their faith:
Infiltrate your ministry with the message that God wants to have a relationship with every person, and it’s important for us to love everyone and help others understand that he loves us all. Use the Wordless Book and the Gospel Flipper-Flapper, two excellent tools developed by Child Evangelism Fellowship (cefpress.com). Form pairs and use role-plays to help children become comfortable inviting friends to church. Brainstorm responses to common objections, such as “Church is boring” or “I don’t believe in God.”
Problem #2: We Teach the Wrong Story
Ask children what it means to be a Christian, and you’ll frequently hear answers such as reading the Bible, going to church, praying, and doing good things.
When I conducted baptism interviews, I used to be dismayed by such answers. A quick survey of moral-development theories by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg reminded me that children naturally see right and wrong in terms of keeping rules and avoiding punishment. However, the whole point of Christianity is that we’re unable to keep the rules, so we need a Savior. Once we become connected to God, our mission moves from rule-keeping to loving God and our neighbors.
Abstract concepts such as grace and love take longer for children to grasp. As a result, kids naturally fall back on concepts they understand, thereby reducing Christianity to an exercise in being virtuous. Such black-and-white thinking is what causes children to categorize everyone they meet as either good or bad, heroes or villains. To young minds, God loves the good people but hates the bad ones.
My wife, Amy, and I have been encouraging our middle son, Nate, to befriend and share his faith with a classmate named Alex, who struggles with learning and misbehaves so much he seems to have a standing appointment with the principal. His classmates have decided that Alex is bad news, and many just avoid him. Nate invited Alex to church, only to have Alex explain that he’s a bad kid, so God doesn’t like him. Church isn’t a place for such kids, in Alex’s mind.
We subtly reinforce this teaching by using curriculum that reduces Christianity to a moral code. In our attempts to make the Bible applicable, we disconnect Bible lessons from their broader context and attach morals such as “Be kind,” “Be loving,” or “Be industrious.” There’s nothing wrong with these virtues because part of God’s plan involves restoring his people’s moral character. But Scripture is driven by God’s motivation: He’s committed to the lost and broken people he made. He extends himself to the point of death out of his love for us all.
The Solution: Teach Jesus-Centered Truth
The gospels are filled with powerful accounts of Jesus defying our moral categories. He snubs the good and religious people for an opportunity to dine with known sinners. Jesus is even accused of having too good a time with these people (see Luke 7:34). Our Savior enjoyed broken people without being changed by them.
Through Jesus’ example, we can start a conversation with children about what it’s like to love and accept their friends and classmates without picking up habits that displease God. We can teach children to be confident while building friendships and inviting others to church. We can teach them to be like Jesus in an age-appropriate manner.