Evangelizing Children Without Manipulation

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Welcome to another session of the Children’s Ministry Think Tank. The aim is to get different perspectives and help everyone to learn (including me). Please read through the responses and share your own ideas below.

Evangelizing Children Without Manipulation

How should children’s ministry offer an urgent Gospel invitation without emotionally manipulating children? When does child evangelism cross the line and become abuse? What principles guide you in this area?

Response From Jared Kennedy

How should children’s ministry offer an urgent Gospel invitation without emotionally manipulating children? When does child evangelism cross the line and become abuse? What principles guide you in this area?
Last week, I read the following words from Henry Zonio (http://elementalcm.com) regarding evangelistic presentations for children:

The key… is to help connect children and families to Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to do the work of conversion. It’s more than just praying a prayer, raising a hand or coming to the altar. It’s about life transformation, and that is something that can’t be manufactured or manipulated into existence.

Henry is right. Real conversion—life transformation—can’t be manufactured or manipulated into existence. It is God’s work, not the work of a minister or parent. When we seek quick decisions from children, we are in danger of manipulation. So, in the spirit of Henry Zonio, here are some principles for avoiding manipulative evangelism.
1. Be clear. Little children think literally, and they can be confused by figurative language. Be simple and concrete. Stress the facts of the gospel. We are sinners (Romans 3:23), but Jesus took the punishment we deserve for our sins by dying on the cross (Galatians 3:13). We can trust him to make us right with God and be our friend and advocate (Romans 4:25; 1 John 2:1).
2. Encourage children to think about their sin. Teach kids about their personal need for the Savior. Don’t flatter or deceive children by teaching them that their nature is good. Instead, tenderly teach a child about his or her own failures. Point out the specific sins to which children are prone (greed, pride in performance, lying, disobedience to parents, etc.). Be tender but true. Then, pray that the Holy Spirit will use the truth to bring conviction to the child’s heart and conscience, and ultimately to give the gift of faith.
3. Call children to trust Jesus for salvation from sin—not just salvation from hell. Children are impressionable, so fear tactics about hell or platitudes about heaven are certainly manipulative and possibly abusive. It is not wrong to teach a child about hell as God’s just punishment of sin. It is not wrong to teach about heaven as a benefit of trusting Jesus. But we must be extremely careful not to play on a child’s emotions.
4. Call children to trust what Jesus has done to save—not just their personal experience with Jesus. When speaking about the gospel to children, our temptation is to focus on the child’s personal struggles with sin and obedience. We’ll focus on what God is “doing in me” now, rather than what God did for me on the cross. The gospel is NOT primarily about Jesus’ work in our heart but about Jesus’ work in history. While it is a Biblical truth that Christ is present with the Christian by his Spirit (Colossians 1:27; Ephesians 3:17), the work in our hearts is secondary. Over-emphasizing a change of heart can actually discourage a child. When a child becomes become aware of his or her sins, the child may become introspective and worry, “How can Jesus live in my heart when I still get so angry?”
5. Call children to trust Jesus with their whole life—not just “have a relationship” with him. We are sometimes very adept at reaching people on an emotional level, but our personal faith is more than an emotion. While it is not wrong for faith to move us on an emotional level, it is not as right as it could be. Salvation is not just saying yes to a relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is finally resting in Christ. This involves a life change—conviction, illumination, and regeneration –not merely a decision.
6. Call children to admit, confess, trust, pray, commit, decide, but don’t assure them that these things save. Leading a child in a “sinner’s prayer” may give the child false assurance. We must never give our children the impression that a prayer for mercy (a “sinner’s prayer”) guarantees their eternal destiny. It does not. Human hearts long to find assurance in things that we can manipulate – our own knowledge, emotional experiences, prayers, or our works. We must discourage children from seeking assurance in such things, and we must never give false assurances. False assurances are certainly abusive because they endanger a child’s soul—leading the child to believe he or she is a Christian when this may not be the case (Matthew 25:31-46).

Jared Kennedy is a husband, a father, and the Director of SojournKids (http://sojournkids.com), the Children’s Ministry of Sojourn Community Church in downtown Louisville, KY.

Response From Brenna Phillips

Child evangelism must be age appropriate. We must think and speak in ways in which children can understand and comprehend. If they best understand the ABC’s, then use the A-Admit, B-Believe, C-Choose model for sharing Christ with them. If they live in a region where there is a bridge that crosses over a river or lake, then explain the bridge metaphor of how water flows in the river, picking up pollutants (sin) along the riverbanks and from the ships but Jesus offers a bridge to cross over that sin to get to the other side.
The important aspect to remember when choosing a technique or method for child evangelism is to remember to be age-appropriate. And let the children take the first steps toward asking questions. If they begin asking the questions, then generally that shows they have been thinking and pondering the concept and are ready to move further in the discussions and decisions.
In my experiences in CM, I have not offered an “invitation” in children’s worship sessions. Children are too likely to follow their friends and do what they do. Things work out better if each child is discipled on a one-to-one basis. It is preferred when CM leaders observe children and through relationships with each child they have knowledge of when the Holy Spirit may be working in the heart of that child.
When I was in the 5th grade, my church showed a church-wide video on the second coming of Christ. The video was not age-appropriate for every member of the family so the church offered a young children’s class; however, it was more of a babysitting group so I didn’t want to go in there. I opted to stay in the video room with one of my best friends. After all, we were 5th graders; that’s almost youth age.
I don’t remember much about the video, except there was one scene where a young boy was holding a red balloon, then a guillotine come down, then the red balloon floated up in the air. Yikes! Now that’s abuse…scaring people into choosing Christ.
Choosing Jesus’ way should not come out of guilt or manipulation. It should come from children having a full understanding of Jesus’ involvement in their lives and Him drawing them into a personal relationship. We must reach others as Jesus reach them, including children. We must teach that Jesus is the Way. He’s the only way. He’s the gentle way. We must teach Jesus as He taught people. He was gentle. He was kind. Scriptural examples of Jesus interacting with children show Him loving, playing, and relating to them on their levels, not pressuring or manipulating them.

Brenna Phillips is the Children’s-Family Minister at Mission Fellowship Church in Middletown, Delaware, and teaches 3-4 year old students at an early childhood learning center. www.brennaphillips.com

Response From Glen Woods

There is an important principle I have learned in witnessing to people of all ages for many years. The Holy Spirit is far better at convicting sinners of sin than we can ever achieve. Whether I am speaking to a crowd of adults, a crowd of children, or individuals of any age, I ask God to help me be a vessel of grace, rather than trying to do the Spirit’s job for him. This is especially important in the urban and equally modern/postmodern context in which I minister in Portland, Oregon. Also, I recognize that both those parents who attend my local church regularly and those unchurched parents who allow me the privilege of teaching their children have entrusted me and my staff to treat their offspring with respect.
In the early centuries, both in Europe, and later in the fledgling USA, revivalists called the people back to their roots, back to the faith they had abandoned. True, some had never given much thought to their spiritual heritage for a long while, but they had at least some background to understand the biblical stories. Even as late as the Billy Graham era we saw this dynamic in effect. But increasingly, the culture is changing. No longer can we assume that families and individuals have a biblical understanding of faith matters, even if they do not practice it. They do not know the basic stories. Many know Jesus only in the context of cursing, or as a baby during Christmas, or a slain itinerant teacher at Easter time. They have no faith to which we can call them home.
So then, emotional appeals to children to follow Jesus might succeed in getting them to raise their hands because they somehow perceive that is the desired response. But does it represent the birth of faith in a life? Does it indicate that a child has begun the process of following Jesus as a disciple, trusting him fully for salvation based on his righteousness, not theirs? I understand some of the objections which might be raised to my statement. Some might say, “Glen, you are making it too difficult. Just teach a child the basic truths of the gospel and then ask them to respond in faith. A child does not require a full understanding of all the nuances of doctrinal matters.” And I agree. But we cannot assume that every child understands to the same degree on their own.
As to the question about abuse, I think that any time an adult places his hands on a child and is emotionally praying over them to the point of placing pressure on their forehead, and speaking in glossalia without any interpretation (an unbiblical practice which I have seen over the years), and thereby causing them to cry and often become confused, that is a red flag. I have seen this particularly in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition of which I am a part. As a peer of these fellow laborers, I ask that they take a second look at their techniques and ask themselves if what they are doing is healthy for the child, much less obedient to Christ.
Likewise, I think that emotional group appeals to children that refer to Christ denying them if they refuse to stand up and follow him are unnecessary and manipulative. I will allow that there may be appropriate times for such statements when dealing with mature adults, especially those who understand the gospel but are not necessarily living it.
Over the years, I have veered away from group appeals, and now concentrate on small group or one-on-one discussions. I use every possible opportunity to have a believing child explain the gospel to other children. They often are more effective because they use a common vernacular to their peers. And they keep it simple.
Children desire to please adults, especially those they care about. The older they get, the more concerned about perceptions of their peers. If we try to manipulate them through emotions, public displays of angst, or even embarrassing them, typically it will hamper, rather than help our intended purpose.
The gospel is an urgent matter. The better prepared we are to remove obstacles such as outmoded cultural preferences from our religious backgrounds, the more effective we will be in communicating the hope of Jesus to the unchurched lost who have never heard the gospel, and who do not have the advantage of a Christian heritage. Many are quite spiritual, especially those with postmodern mind sets. But theirs often is a spirituality based on media, good feelings, and being a nice person. What they need is to be immersed in the grand redemptive story of God through Jesus Christ, and his love for all people.

Glen Woods is a Children’s Pastor and warehouseman in Portland, Oregon. He writes at Children’s Ministry Conversation.

1 thought on “Evangelizing Children Without Manipulation”

  1. My daughter recently attended a programme (her first time) at a church. We were informed it focused on character building and personal development. However the programme was a Sunday school involving religious content. Halfway through the programme, she was asked to go to private room with a cell leader. She was told John 3:16 and finally asked to choose between living forever and hell. The child got frightened and of course chose living forever. The cell leader then prayed for her for accepting Christ. When I heard this, alarm bells were ringing. Has my child been manipulated? As this is her first time in a Church, I am surprised to hear she was not given any time to learn more about God through biblical stories. Instead she was asked to make a choice. The church thinks this is a normal way and the child is given a choice but I feel otherwise. Please advise.

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