Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Speed" and Sinners Prayer for Tots

Last summer, I taught the incoming kindergarten class for our VBS program. (We go to a great church that teaches the Gospel clearly, and is filled with godly, fruit-producing people). I stopped short of leading the kids in a "Sinner's Prayer", as I do not believe 5-year-olds can think abstractly enough to understand substitutionary atonement. (I should mention that said-prayer was simply tacked on the end of day 5's curriculum. I was allowed in all things to use my own best judgment, which was especially fortunate when the curriculum suggested arts and crafts projects that were beyond my feeble ability. The point is, no one at the church pressured me to do the "Sinner's Prayer" with the little ones, and in fact the other adult teaching with me also agreed it was not such a good idea). The kindergarteners love Christ, know He loves them, and grasp the concept of sin. That's a good start, and age-appropriate. However, my teenaged helpers then led half the class into a separate room, presumably to color, and led them in just such a prayer - returning excitedly with a list of children who "had given their lives to Christ." I didn't have the heart to tell them how easy it is to get a 5-year-old to repeat a prayer after you.

Last Halloween, I ordered a packet of tracts from ATS to hand out to Trick-or-Treaters, geared toward kids and cleverly illustrated. No Gospel, no mention of repentence, only a vague reference to Christ being the light of the world. An incomplete gospel is worse than no gospel at all. Into the trash they went. kids participate in AWANA, which is a great program and motivates children to dig into the Scriptures. Last year, my 4-year-old son had nearly two dozen Bible verses (and references!) memorized, despite not knowing how to read. He LOVED learning about God (still does), and could explain the premise of the Gospel quite well for his age. One night in the bathtub, he reflected, "Jesus loved us so much He took our punishment, because 'all have sinned'. 'God loved us and sent His son'. And He is sad when we do naughty things - that's sin. We need to be nice and try to do what makes God happy." Well said, for a 4-year-old. I teach him about God, incorporate biblical principles into daily life (as we do with all our kids), bring them to church, and so on. But I will not lead Stefan in a "Sinner's Prayer", as I believe it is nothing more than an incantation at this age. Or at any age, when you leave out heartfelt repentance.

I couldn't help noticing, though, that the "Skipper's" book from his AWANA club tells the kids all about trusting Jesus, but leaves out the need for repentance. No explanation of the new life. Do we expect regeneration from 5-year-olds who have (by and large) been brought up in Christian homes? Why not just lead them in the ways of God, and let the Holy Spirit convict them into a true conversion, when they're old enough to grasp the implication of how serious sin really is? Leading kids into a "ask Jesus into my heart" prayer can actually short-circuit their spiritual growth later on. Just talk to any youth pastor - many teens point to a moment in early childhood when they "prayed a prayer". Their claim to be saved hinges on that one moment, but sometimes show no fruit and are indistinguishable from their non-Christian friends (except maybe by their Christian T-shirts).

Stefan came home with a tract this week, the ATS publication "Speed". I put it aside (he can't yet read it by himself). Here's an excerpt:

Here is the game plan God gave us in the Bible:

1. Sin separates us from God.

2. Only Jesus can take away our sin.

3. You must trust Jesus as your Leader and Savior.

4. God’s free gift to us is new life–eternal life with him.


Pray a simple prayer like this: Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for loving me. I am sorry for those things I have done that have separated us. Please forgive me. I want Jesus to be the Leader and Savior of my life. I believe he died on the cross and conquered death so that I could have eternal life with you. I receive this new life you freely give. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Where, exactly, does repentance fit into this? (An apology is not the same as seeking forgiveness - Jay Adams has a great book on that subject). Why is "Lord" softened to "Leader"? Why is the Lordship of Christ completely disregarded? Is this an American/"seeker sensitive" thing? Making the Gospel more palatable by taking out the hard stuff does no one any good. How will the kids grasp the Good News, if we're afraid to tell them the bad news? Does Jesus not warn us that to follow Him means a radical change?

There's something wrong with this. We're willingly breeding a generation of superficial professions - of an historical faith in Christ. Obedience is not optional - it is expected of true believers.


Daniel said...

I enjoyed your stories on the kindegardners and children in general for that matter.

It is fun reading the way you present your ideas.

In my church the leadership does not advocate the sinner's prayer for children for the exact same reason you mentioned.

It is interesting how many these days have the tendency of forcing the issue in order to see results, kind of like the teenage sunday school helpers you were talking about.

The helpers seemed honest in their intentions but there are those who try to obtain decisions for Christ in order to pad their statistics.

It is so cute how your four-year-old knows the steps to salvation. I have a seventeen month daughter and would love to have her get a head start on the things of God.

Once again, well written.

Marie said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for stopping by, and your comments! Yeah, the teen girls were earnest and I respected their desire to evangelize (always something to be encouraged), so I didn't want them to be too discouraged by my skepticism. Fortunately this is not commonplace in our church - it wouldn't have happened in, say, a Sunday School classroom. We don't do alter calls, either, although the pastor makes it clear one may seek him or one of the elders out for prayer or counsel.

I was in Campus Crusade in college, and back then didn't see the problem with shallow evangelism - exactly as you said, obtaining "decisions" in order to pad statistics. I read somewhere that if you follow up those folks who respond at revivals and such a few months later, most of them aren't even in a church, let alone being discipled.

Not that I have all the answers, and am dealing with my own set of spiritual problems right now....but no way does leading 4-5 year-olds in a "Sinner's Prayer" seem like a good idea.

Marissa said...


I must respectfully disagree that 5-year-olds don't know how to accept Jesus as their personal Savior. Do I think this is the case for many 5y/o's? I do but my husband because a born-again Christian around that time (5 or 6) and he's been a believer ever since. I went to a conservative Christian college in which many of the students accepted Christ between the ages of 3 to 8. (So much that I felt like a heathen for accepting Christ at 16!) Jesus said to not hinder the children from going to him and I believe if you ask a child if they would like to accept Jesus into his or her heart, then there can be true regeneration. We are to have faith as a child. I think that's telling.

I'm not writing this to influence how you feel but merely stating my position and what my experiences have been.

Peace to you.

Marissa said...

Also, I think I should make a distinction between the "Sinner's Prayer" and understanding that the child has grasped the concept that without eternal salvation found only in Jesus there is eternal damnation in hell. Reciting a prayer -- "pray the prayer after me" a la Joel Osteen -- doesn't do any good. Believers must make the effort to be sure that unbelievers of any age truly understand why they need salvation and what it means to be saved. I may have been a bit redundant but I wanted to clarify that simply reciting the "Sinner's Prayer" does not save anyone.

Marie said...

Hi Marissa,

Thanks so much for coming by and your thoughtful comments! Yes. I agree that a 5-year-old can have faith in Christ, and this is why we need to be teaching them about Him from a young age. Also, (and I'm not sure if I mentioned this is my entry or not), kids even younger - even 4-year-olds - understand what sin is. So that's half of it right there (and I believe that's all the faith God requires of them at that age). I'd say it is a rare 5 year old who can think abstractly enough to understand repentance and the exchanged life - but I'd be willing to concede it is possible, at least theoretically. But as you said, leading them to simply repeat a prayer (that they have a very superficial understanding of) is not true conversion.

Now, on the other hand, if we're doing our job as parents, that's going to be the logical next step - understanding repentance and salvation. When my older son was barely 7, (he'd been in Sunday School since age 3), he asked me out of the blue during bedtime prayers how to ask Christ into His heart, so I knew he was ready. He has always been quite bright for his age, so I explained the Gospel and he "got it" well enough to make a profession of faith (and prayer of repentance). He then wanted to get baptized, and we saw no reason to forbid him (nor did the pastor). But I don't see that as the sum and substance of his faith - I expect his conversion was real, but the fruit will show up later.

So glad you're reading & contributing! :)