Communicating the gospel to our young people
In many evangelical churches there is a disproportionate amount of energy given to children’s work. Why is this? Some say that the age at which people are converted has fallen and we must work where God is working. More probably it is because it is now easier to get ‘results’ with children than with adults, and this helps to cover up our spiritual impotence. We must recover a biblical perspective and that means evaluating the following questions.
1 Why should we evangelize children?
If we take seriously the Great Commission then we will be concerned to reach all with the gospel. Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me…’ Without the gospel they will perish eternally.
Some will agree, but insist that the evangelism of children should only take place within the context of the family. Children are committed to the parents not the church. The responsibility of parents cannot be denied, but if in the church children can receive good Bible teaching that is particularly geared to their age, then it can be a valuable supplement to the teaching given in the home.
The responsibility may well rest upon the parents, but if the parents have no concern to teach their own children, how will the children ever hear the gospel? Why not seek to reach those children? Why not teach them within the context of the local church?
2. Is child evangelism any different from adult evangelism?
Children have the same need as adults to be born again. What Jesus said of Nicodemus is equally true of every child: that which is born of the flesh is flesh, whether eighty years or eight years old. All need to be born again of the Spirit. Like adults, their sins have separated them from God (Isaiah 59:2). They must come to repentance and faith.
It is at this point that there is the greatest failure today in child evangelization. Repentance and faith are often considered beyond children. Instead they are called upon ‘to ask Jesus into their heart’. ‘Jesus’ is presented as a lovely person, ‘Surely you would like to know him? Just invite him in!’ There is no mention of sin, no understanding of the cross and no knowledge of who Jesus really is, save that he is a ‘wonderful person’. But God has not given us two forms of evangelism or two kinds of salvation, one for adults and another for children. Paul only preached one message. It called for repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 26:20).
C. H. Spurgeon says of his conviction of sin as a young lad, ‘The great Husbandman came and began to plough my soul. Ten black horses were his team, and it was a sharp ploughshare that he used, and the ploughers made deep furrows. The ten commandments were those black horses, and the justice of God, like a ploughshare, tore my spirit. I was condemned, undone — lost, helpless, hopeless — I thought hell was before me.’
Thomas Charles wrote in a letter of God’s work in children, ‘Here at Bala we have had a very great, powerful and glorious outpouring of the Spirit… Little children from six to twelve years of age are affected, astonished and overpowered. Their young minds, day and night, are filled with nothing but soul concern.’
Such intense conviction is rare today in adults, let alone children, but we are still justified in looking for some sense of sin. Children are not saved by a warm feeling towards the Lord. They must understand something of God, of sin and the work of Christ.
Children are different from adults in being generally more teachable. It is a plain fact that many people are converted in their early years. Children are usually less hardened in sin although they are no less candidates for hell. On the other hand they are more easily influenced to make a false profession of faith. This is because they often have a strong desire to please adults, such as Sunday school teachers and youth leaders.
3. How do we overcome difficulties in communicating with the young?
To teach young children the doctrines of the atonement in a way that they can understand is not easy. We must beware of too much complexity, but not neglect the essentials of the gospel in our attempts to be simple.
There is just one instrument for the conversion of children — the Word of God. Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). We must seek to teach children the Word in a way that they can readily understand. Non-Christian children who have no understanding at all of the Scriptures are in effect heathen, and our approach towards them will need to be like that of the apostle Paul in Lystra and Athens where he began by directing them to God as Creator and Judge (Acts 14:17). If children express a desire to be converted, we must urge them to repent and believe on Christ, seeking to explain what that means.
How much do children understand of the sermons in our churches? Some would argue that we cannot expect to gear the whole sermon to them, but there is great merit in speaking in such a way that they can understand much of the message. Preachers should always labour to be understood by the whole congregation, bearing in mind that some will be of only average intelligence or lower. With some preachers it is necessary to hand out dictionaries as well as hymn-books at the beginning of the service!
4. How do we assess the spiritual state of children?
How can we know when the young are genuinely converted? Ultimately we cannot be certain. There will always be spurious converts, as there were in the early church. We must encourage them to believe in Christ, without putting undue pressure on them to do so. We must rely on the work of the Holy Spirit and have much discernment.
Pressing false assurance upon people is a great evil in much modern evangelism and the cause of much confusion. Typically today, when a person professes to believe in Christ, he or she is given immediate assurance by a counsellor: ‘You are now a child of God. Let no one ever persuade you otherwise. Whatever you feel or whatever you do, nothing can pluck you out of the Saviour’s hand.’ It is not uncommon to meet people who made such a profession twenty years ago and yet have not shown any spiritual interest since then, but they have never forgotten what they were told — ‘once saved, always saved’! Sadly what that expression has come to mean is — ‘once make a profession of faith, always saved’! We only assure people that if their faith is genuine and in Christ alone, they have eternal life! Giving assurance is God’s work in a child or an adult.
What are the marks of saving faith in a child? A mere profession of faith is no guarantee of salvation. This is especially true for those from Christian homes. Parents, in their delight to see a child profess faith, are often blind to the possibility that that faith might be spurious, and even fail to face up to the fact for years afterwards when a child shows no marks of grace.
The chief mark of true conversion is saving faith in Christ. This is more than believing about Christ; it is believing on him in the heart, resting and trusting upon him alone for salvation. ‘You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you’ (Isaiah 26:3). There is a personal relationship with Christ which affects the whole life and leads to a change in behaviour. ‘If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We need to pray much for the children in our families and churches. The fact that there has been too much emphasis on children’s work by some does not mean that we should neglect children. Their souls are precious — they are the future church. They may be converted young: God grant that we may seek to reach them while they are young!