A DEFENCE OF CHILD EVANGELISM (3)
DIFFERENT PHILOSOPHIES OF CHILD EVANGELISM
“Conversion is a phenomenon of adolescence and until he has the use of reason (around twelve years of age), the child is not lost, since he is safe under the covenant by belonging to a Christian family.”
This philosophy is based on the covenant relationship between the nation of Israel and the LORD where no requirement is imposed on a male child to be included as a full member of the covenant community of faith other than circumcision which is performed on the eighth day after his birth (Exo. 12:48-50; Lev. 12:3). 7
“Thus, the only decision an individual ever faced within Israel was whether or not he would remain within the covenant, not whether he would enter the covenant, or share in the worshipping community.” 8The question arises, “Does the inclusive nature of the covenant apply to the church?” On the day of Pentecost, Peter said,
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39, NASB)The word “children” above (teknon in Greek) means child, daughter, son. 9 The verses indicate that forgiveness of sins is available to one and all (c.f., Acts 1:8) including future generations. It does not teach family salvation. But do cases such as the Philippian jailer teach household salvation (Acts 16:31)? Paul's point is that salvation is available to members of the jailer’s household as each one believes in Jesus as their Savioor. In Acts 16:32, it is recorded that Paul and Silas proclaimed the Gospel to all who were in jailer’s house and his whole family believed (Acts 16:34). The New Testament does not teach security or salvation under an inclusive covenant relationship by virtue of being part of a Christian family.
Assuming for a moment that the traditional philosophy is correct then what about children who do not belong to Christian families? According to the Barna Group, one-third of all adults (34%) in American remain "unchurched." 10 If so then how shall the children of the unchurched hear the Gospel?
“The child should receive biblical knowledge from a very young age and develop Christian habits and attitudes. One day he will make a personal decision for Christ, and be saved.”
But can an unsaved child develop Christian habits and attitudes? There is no bad tree which produces good fruit for out of the treasure of his heart, a child will bring forth its fruit (c.f., Luke 6:43-45). A saved child and an unsaved child are radically different at its core; the former has life while the latter does not. Moreover, a child without the Spirit of God will not and cannot accept the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14).
“The child is incapable of understanding symbolism and abstract concepts and is unable to reason; therefore, he cannot make a decision for Christ.”
This philosophy is based on the work of Jean Piaget who proposed that all children progress through a series of cognitive stages of development and that children cannot think abstractly and cannot reason logically until around 12 years of age.
“The Christian educator must always respect the inner supernatural working of the Spirit of God in the life of the child. Christian educators should be careful not to limit what they think a child can do, because of research by behavioral scientists. At the same time, the discerning Christian educator may be aware of human behavior and child development.” 11The challenge before Christian educators is to know the child whom we are teaching and to teach biblical content using words that match the child’s prior knowledge and experience. Abstract concepts can be presented in a concrete way. For example, the concept of salvation may be illustrated by a story of a child who is rescued from drowning by a man in a boat.
“Some theological concepts are admittedly beyond the thought and conversation level of the typical child. But most of the great truths of the Bible which we organize into theology can be stated in such a way that a child can understand them. It is a matter of putting the subject matter into the communications and learning level of the learner.” 12There were many spiritual things that we adults did not know or understand at the point we made a decision for Christ but as we read the Bible and grow, we know more and more. The same is true of children; they may not understand many theological concepts but they can believe what the Bible says about Christ’s death and resurrection. As they grow physically and spiritually (1 Pet. 2:2), they too will learn and know more and more.
“The Gospel should be presented to the child at an early age so that as the Holy Spirit works, he will come to know Jesus as his personal Savior. As a result the child can begin to develop Christian character, which is the outward expression of a new inward life.”
If we accept the fact that all (including children) have sinned (Rom. 3:23) then the Gospel should be presented to children (Rom. 10:14). When should we present the Gospel? While the Bible is silent on the age of accountability, it states that one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin (Jas. 4:17). According to Erikson’s psychosocial theory of human development, a child aged 3-6 years begins to develop a rudimentary conscience with concepts of "right" and "wrong" as spelt out by his parents. 13 Therefore, the Gospel should be presented to children at an early age around 3-6 years.
“… nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born again Christians (64%) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday. One out of eight born again people (13%) made their profession of faith while 18 to 21 years old. Less than one out of every four born again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their 21st birthday.” 15Someone may protest that children at the early ages of 3-6 years are in the preoperational stage and are incapable of understanding abstract concepts in the Bible. As mentioned earlier, abstract concepts can be presented in a concrete way. Moreover, we should not doubt the power of the Holy Spirit to teach and convict the child (John 14:26; 16:8).
From the New Testament, the author of this paper has established that there were believing children during the times of Jesus as well as in the early church e.g., Ephesus and Colossae. In the Old Testament, there was an emphasis on transmitting the truth of God’s works and law for building the next generation so that they too would fear the LORD and obey His Word. However, the (Jewish) Scriptures cannot save as in the case of Timothy even though he had been taught from childhood. What is needed is the transforming power of the Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection. Children can believe but how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? Children’s ministry workers should not be ashamed of sharing the Gospel with children for it is the power of God for salvation. Child evangelism is simply sharing the Gospel to children at an early age, trusting the power of the Holy Spirit to teach and convict and leaving the results to God.
7 Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr., “The Child Within the Old Testament Community,” in Children and Conversion, ed. Clifford Ingle (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 20.
8 Ibid., p. 25.
9 Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, www.e-sword.net, Version 7.9.8
10 Barna Group, “One in Three Adults Is Unchurched,” http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/182-one-in-three-adults-is-unchurched (accessed September 10, 2011).
11 Norman Wakefield and Robert E. Clark, “Children and Their Theological Concepts,” in Childhood Education in the Church, ed. Robert E. Clark, Joanne Brubaker and Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), p. 351.
12 V. Gilbert Beers, “Teaching Theological Concepts to Children,” in Childhood Education in the Church, ed. Robert E. Clark, Joanne Brubaker and Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), p. 364.
13 Catherine Stonehouse, Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p. 56.
14 Class Notes of Progressive Methods of Child Evangelism, (Warrenton, Missouri: Child Evangelism Fellowship Inc., Fall 2011).
15 Barna Group, “Evangelism Is Most Effective Among Kids,” http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/196-evangelism-is-most-effective-among-kids (accessed September 10, 2011).