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A preschool-aged kid who looks sad as she wipes her cheek with the back of her hand. Is her teacher preventing her from following Jesus?
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3 Ways You Might Be Preventing Kids From Following Jesus

Do we really want kids to follow Jesus? Here are three specific ways we “inoculate” kids against the Great Commission. 

A recent experience led me to a shocking conclusion: Most of us really aren’t comfortable having children follow Jesus.

Hold on; let me explain.

As I was preparing to present a workshop at the Conspire Conference, I reviewed unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Their research revealed that Millennials are less likely to return to church after starting families because they perceive churches as promoting bigotry.

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 people who don’t 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 have different faiths. They raised the possibility that we’re risking the good character 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 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.

3 Ways You Might Be Preventing Kids From Following Jesus

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 ( 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.

Problem #3: We’re afraid.

I help teach a weekly Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) class at my church. We’ve held the free course for more than a year and have attracted a variety of participants—middle-aged men, teenagers, medical students, and more. Some are Christ-followers; more are not. I love the class because it offers the potential for faith conversations with an eclectic group.

I was disturbed after one class, though, when Eric told me he intended to fight at an upcoming cage match. (Our state recently legalized MMA fighting.) Eric just graduated from high school and doesn’t have a real plan for what’s next. When I offered to help him fill out financial aid forms for school, he thanked me but then changed the topic back to his cage fight.

I think his fight is a bad idea for several reasons. Our class isn’t a training camp or even a real school. To have a chance in the cage, Eric must train four hours a day. Also, MMA is, well, dangerous, with fewer regulations than other sports. My fatherly instinct doesn’t want to see Eric get seriously hurt as he figures out what he wants to do with his life.

I think we minister to children a lot like I’m training Eric. I’m willing to teach him all the pieces of the game—the striking, the redneck jiujitsu, and the clinch—but I don’t want him to actually use those tools in a real-life situation. I suspect that we parents and children’s ministers fall into the same trap. We talk about loving people who think differently from us and about sharing our faith in a conversational manner. But deep down, we’re worried about our kids ever trying that. Someone might get hurt!

The Solution: Trust the God who commissions.

We must accept that life is messy, and we can’t hide our children from all its dangers. However, we must also remember that we serve a loving God whose plan doesn’t include wantonly discarding our kids to save the lost. God isn’t asking us to place children in situations they aren’t ready to handle. On the other hand, he is inviting kids to imitate his love that reaches out and extends to people who don’t yet know him. When we encourage and train children to share their faith, we help them understand the heart of God, who sent his only Son to save them.

God seems to be testing me even as I write this article. Amy is pulling out of the driveway with our two youngest boys, heading to a picnic hosted by an openly unchristian couple. Amy knows the wife from a former job, and the husband describes himself as a Satanist. Gulp. One evening over dinner after our wives excused themselves to the powder room, the husband and I were left together at a table to find common ground. He informed me that when the neighborhood Christians discovered their religion, they immediately forbade their children from playing with their kids.

It was an awkward moment. I confessed that we Christians often tend to be driven by fear, which sometimes comes off as meanness. Right now, I’m feeling a bit apprehensive as thoughts race through my mind. But God is reminding me that he loves this couple’s children as much as he loves mine. Perhaps through this picnic and our children’s friendship, this family will take a step toward a loving God they haven’t yet met.

Larry Shallenberger is the associate vice president of compliance at Sarah A. Reed Children’s Center.

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!

3 thoughts on “3 Ways You Might Be Preventing Kids From Following Jesus

  1. I Would really love a follow up article on examples and ideas of ways to teach, “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.”

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I am so encouraged by teaching Jesus-centered truths. I have come to adopt this approach through a lot of hard learning on my part. It is easy to teach “be kind” and “show compassion.” However, when they are taught as rules instead of being taught as an overflow of gratefulness and love for what Jesus did for us, we reduce the gospel. And as Paul would say, “May it not be.” Thanks again for this!

  3. Thanks. Unfortunately the Christians who need to hear this aren’t bright enough or willfully not open enough to grasp it and go. You’ve already found that out. They see children as silly cute waifs not to be directed into reasoning in a complex world.

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