“Yes, I’m saved. When I was seven years old, my teacher told us to repeat this prayer if we wanted to go to heaven when we die. I knew I was a sinner and deserving of hell. I believed that Jesus died for my sins, and I asked Jesus to come into my heart, and then I was baptized by my pastor… No, I don’t go to church. No, I don’t read my Bible, but I know I’m saved because I prayed that prayer and was baptized.”
Barna Research Group reports that three out of every five of our teens will walk away from the church after age 15. While many reasons are given for this, the Bible clearly teaches that one who is truly a child of God will be evidenced by these things:
Desire to know and live the truth of God’s Word (John 4:6; 8:31-38)
Love the fellowship of believers (1 John 3:14)
Bears the fruit of the Spirit in increasing measure (2 Peter 1:5-7)
Remains faithful to God in persecution (Matthew 10:22)
Follows the Spirit’s leading (Romans 8:14-16)
John wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” - 1 John 2:19
Many of these kids who are walking away from church not only made a profession of faith at a young age but were also baptized. There has been a disconnect between childhood professions of faith and true discipleship. Therefore, we must make certain that we are approaching the evangelism of children more intentionally and carefully.
Throughout Scripture, we are instructed to teach children God’s redemptive work. Moses instructed parents to discuss God’s ways in every facet of their daily lives (Deut. 6:6-7). He also taught that God’s Word was to be read publicly in the children’s presence (Deut. 31:12), and we see this taking place under Joshua (Josh. 8:35), King Josiah (2 Ki. 23:2), and Ezra (Neh. 8:2). Jesus rebuked His disciples for removing children from His presence (Mark 9:13-16), and Paul instructed parents to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).
The fact that our youth are walking away does not mean that we stop evangelizing them. Instead, it means that we need to teach the gospel with more clarity and intentionality that they may know what it truly means to be a child of God. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Let our teaching be more and more Scriptural! Fret not if our classes forget what we say, but pray them to remember what the Lord says...”
Paul told Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” - 2 Tim. 3:14–15
We are not told the age of Timothy when he was regenerated, but we are told that he was taught doctrine while he was still a child. As an adult, he faithfully served as an elder because God’s Word had trained him in righteousness and equipped him for every good work. - 2 Tim. 3:16–17
Jesus commanded His disciples to preach the gospel to all nations and to baptize and disciple those who responded to the gospel. The challenge in baptizing children, or adding a child to church membership, is not in the child’s ability to respond to the gospel but in discerning the reality of that profession. Children are immature (1 Cor. 13:11; 14:20), naïve (Pro. 1:4), foolish (Pro. 22:15), inconsistent and fickle (Mat. 11:16-17), and easily deceived (Eph. 4:14). Christ taught that not all who make a profession of faith are truly born again (Mat. 7:21-23). Then, He taught that the one who is truly a child of God will respond to His Word with obedience and repentance (Mat. 7:24-27).
In reality, a child who is raised in a Christian home and Bible teaching church where the gospel is constantly preached will most often give assent to gospel truths, but being converted requires a step of independent devotion to Christ. This can be difficult to discern in a child who is still largely dependent upon his parents, especially when the child knows the parents’ desire for him is to be a child of God.
Baptism and church membership are for those who have made a discernible profession of faith. Therefore, when the profession of faith of a child, or an adult, is not clearly discerned, the path forward includes further teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17), and in our evangelism of children, we must not discourage a child from following Christ, nor should we oversimplify the gospel to a recited prayer.
As Spurgeon wrote, “Be not content to sow principles in their minds which may possibly develop in after years, but be working for immediate conversion. Expect fruit in your children while they are children. Pray for them that they may not run in to the world and fall in to the evils of outward sin, and then come back with broken bones to the Good Shepherd; but that they may by God’s rich grace be kept from the paths of the destroyer, and grow up in the fold of Christ, first as lambs of His flock, and then as sheep of His hand.”