It’s a scene we’ve seen at countless church service, camps and concerts. The speaker tells everyone to close their eyes and raise their hands (or stand) if they want to accept Jesus. It’s a scene we’ve seen because it’s probably going to show up in promotional videos and newsletters to supporters (making a bit of a liar of the speaker who says “no one is watching except God”). It’s a moment we rejoice and celebrate over, and rightly so: young souls have begun a journey with God by responding to a gospel plea. It may even be a moment from your own life. I’ve been part of a team praying in the back in that moment. I’ve been a leader saying the words of a prayer line by line on stage for others to repeat. And I must confess, I’ve wondered if it’s all just manipulation. Before you dismiss my cynicism, let’s honestly consider a few factors for a moment: authority, peer pressure, and fear.
Before we start counting our numbers, we should think about what it really means for children to raise their hands when asked by an adult to do so. Children who are taught from a young age to listen to their elders and teachers, to be compliant with what the grownups say, and to be “good.” Are they really able to understand the significance of what they are being asked to do? And at what age? There are droves of books about this, to be sure, but is really important to consider the power differential in place. Are we inviting or commanding? Do children feel they truly have a choice? Or do they feel they might gain favor with you if they do raise their hand? Suddenly this simple action has gotten a lot more complicated.
To add to that, young people care a LOT about what others think, especially their peers. Sure, eyes are closed, but you can hear the movement around you as others stand. There may even be prompts, such as “Anyone else?” I’ve experienced this first-hand in scenarios of speaking in tongues, bible memorization, baptism and other Christian contexts too. You wouldn’t want to be the only one who raised your hand, or didn’t! As an adult, you may not be able to do much about the peer pressure factor, but it is something that could be activated depending on the words you choose. When a child sees others being praised by an adult, they may want to copy that behavior in order to get the same preferential treatment.
If you died tonight, do you know where you would go? Giving someone a choice between heaven and hell is kind of a no-brainer. But does framing the message in those terms really help bring people into relationship with God? It’s pretty hard to have a relationship with someone you’re terrified of. This is not a post about the existence of hell, but what we believe about heaven, hell, and the end times will certainly have a huge effect on how we present the gospel message. Is someone who says a prayer once automatically saved from hell, even if they never enter a church or give another thought to God for the rest of their life? Is there a discernable moment between unsaved and saved? Again, it really depends on what you believe, but I would love to see us presenting a God so good (because He IS) that the offer of knowing him and being known by him sends us running to his love and salvation rather than desperately praying to escape his judgment.
Does this mean we should stop? Some might say yes. But with all that I’ve written, I want to say that I believe children’s ministry is important work. I regularly pray for people to come to know God at an early age, because I truly believe it will transform them and give them strength for the trials of life to come. But I want that journey to be authentic. I think it does more harm than good when kids are pressured or guilted into an acceptance of God. However, many well-intentioned people have added factors of power, pressure and fear of punishment to their presentation of the gospel, maybe without even realizing the impact it can have. Finally, it’s disingenuous when we focus so much on numbers. Above all, I am aware that I have no business judging the salvation of another person. As Romans 10:9 reminds us, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It is a privilege to be one who can give that invitation, but what happens in the heart of someone else has absolutely nothing to do with me.
Charlotte is on the Editorial team at boldcupofcoffee.com and currently works with a non-profit organization in Taiwan where she teaches, leads English Bible studies, writes educational materials, trains teachers, poses for pictures, and a bunch of other stuff too. She is originally from Canada, spending significant amounts of time in all three westernmost provinces and the idea of home has become quite fluid. She has learned that life overseas is not as exotic as people may think, but life with God is a daily adventure. Read more article by Charlotte.
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