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Children in the Church

by Roger Fellows Pastor
Leyton Drive Chapel Bradford, England

In almost every congregation a considerable number of children are to be seen. In our own church children make up about 35 to 40 percent of the morning congregation. The fact that these disappear during the sermon indicates that the church treats them differently from the adults. Rightly or wrongly they are placed in a different category.

The last 100 years or so has seen a considerable change in emphasis from adult to children's work in the church. There are many organizations devoted exclusively to the evangelisation of children, and in many evangelical churches there is a disproportionate amount of time and energy given to children's work.

Why is this?

Some have maintained that the age at which people are being converted has dropped, so we must go where God is working. This is questionable, and I suspect that the main reason for this thinking is that it is easier to get "results" with children. It is easier to extract a profession of faith from a child than from an adult, though even with children that is becoming more difficult in these days. I fear though that one reason for the shift is the failure to recognize the barren state of the church in general, and rather than cry out to God to have mercy on us and visit us in our sin and weakness, we have simply chosen to work in an area where more results can be seen, and therefore we do not appear quite so impotent.

I am not advocating that we abandon children's work, but we do need to keep things in perspective. It may be helpful to evaluate our efforts to reach children in and through the church.

(1) Our Attitude Towards the Evangelisation of Children

We are thinking here about pre-teen children. But perhaps we should ask first, what is our attitude towards evangelism in general? Do we take seriously the great commission? If so then we will be concerned to reach all ages with the gospel. As Wesley wrote,

Happy if with my latest breath, I might but gasp His name, Preach Him to all and cry in death, Behold, behold the Lamb.

Jesus said, "Let the children come to me . . . ." We must certainly accept the fact that children are to be the subjects of evangelism. Children have souls. They need the Lord. Without the gospel they will perish.

Some will agree, but insist that the evangelism of children should only take place within the context of the family. Hudson Taylor's father evidently held this view. Children are committed to the parents not the church. Now, children are the responsibility of their parents, and this 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.

Another consideration is children from non-Christian homes. 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 in Sunday School, youth clubs or other such meetings within the context of the local church? We must avoid the mistake that many have made in making the Sunday School the main thrust of the church, but there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water.

(2) Principles for the Evangelisation of Children

Is child evangelism any different from adult evangelism? We cannot give a sweeping answer. In many ways it is no different at all, but in some ways, it is very different.

(a) Ways in which it is no different

i. Children have the same need to be born again. What Jesus said of Nicodemus equally true of every child they must be born again. What is born of the flesh is flesh, whether that flesh is 80 years old or only 8. They all need to be born of the Spirit.

To look at it from another angle:

ii. They are sinners and need salvation. They are born in sin. The wicked are estranged from the womb. Any with children know that. It is true of them also that their sins have separated between them and their God (Isa.59:2). The curse on all who do not continue in everything written in the book of the law (Gal.3:10) applies to children as well as adults. So they need to be converted. The fact that adults must be converted and become like little children does not mean that little children have no need of conversion; children also must be converted or they will not enter the kingdom.

Conversion involves repentance and faith. It is at this point that there is the greatest failure in the evangelisation of children. This is true of adult evangelisation too, especially in the matter of repentance, but particularly do we see a great lack in presenting the gospel to children. Repentance and faith are often considered too complicated for children, and they have been replaced by a call to ask Jesus into the heart. Jesus is presented as a lovely person. "Surely you would like to know Him? Just invite Him in." This can be and often is done with no mention of sin, no understanding of the cross and no knowledge of who Jesus is, save that He is a wonderful person.

God has not given us two forms of evangelism or two kinds of salvation, one for adults and another for children. Paul preached repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. See especially Acts 26:20,

First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.

It is clear from the preaching recorded in Acts that the apostles usually sought to bring people under conviction of sin. Some may object that you can't expect to see great conviction of sin in children, because most have not known deep sin. This may or may not be true, for conviction is not necessarily proportional to the depth of sin. What is certain is that there must be an awareness of sin.

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 (Spurgeon's Autobiography, The Early Years, p.53).

Without doubt children can experience deep conviction of sin. In one of Thomas Charles' letters he writes:

Here at Bala we have had a very great, powerful and glorious outpouring of the Spirit . . . especially on the children and young people. . . . Children that were aforetimes like jewels buried in rubbish, now appear with divine lustre and transcendent beauty. 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. The Lord hath done great things for us, and to Him be the praise. . . . . That it was the work of God I am not left in doubt to the least degree. It carries with it every scriptural satisfactory evidence, such as deep conviction of sin, of righteousness and judgment. Great reformation of manners: great delight in the Word of God and prayer. These, even in young persons, occupy the time that was spent in vain diversions and amusements (Banner of Truth, Issue 7, p.26).

This may be rare, but I repeat we are justified in looking for some sense of sin and subsequent repentance. Even children must repent.

Children too must believe. People are not saved by a warm feeling towards the Lord. I am disturbed by much Sunday School material for younger children. The aim seems not to be faith but affection, to get the children to have affection for Jesus. His life and ministry are described. Who wouldn't want to love Him? But we must be careful to avoid mere sentimentality. You could get the same result talking about Florence Nightingale or Mother Theresa! Children must understand something of God, of sin, of the work of Christ, therefore they must be taught the Word. Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ (Rom.10:17).

So in these ways there is no difference in the evangelisation of adults and children.

(b) Ways in which Evangelisation of Children is different.

i. There are differences that are advantages.

1. Children are more teachable. Jesus said in Matt.18:3 that all must change and become like little children. Children then presumably have an advantage. They don't have to become like children they are already there. They are naturally teachable, eager to learn. I am not suggesting that these advantages are the chief factor in conversion. God is sovereign. But they are certainly a factor that God in His sovereignty uses (see Eccles. 12:1).

With advancing age it gets more difficult. It is a plain fact that most are converted in early years before the age of 20 anyway. Age is a factor. Children have agile minds. They are receptive. We must not mistake their natural gullibility as an absence of depravity, but we must take advantage of their willingness to listen and learn.

2. Children are less hardened in sin. There are, of course, occasional exceptions here; but most children have not been deeply involved in sin. They are no less candidates for hell, but their consciences are more tender. Most of us have things in the back of our minds that we would give anything to erase. We are forgiven but still defiled. Children have less scars of this kind.

Some think there is an advantage in going deep into sin. They think it is harder if children are raised in a Christian home. Was it harder for Timothy having a Christian mother and grandmother than it was for the Philippian jailer? Was it harder for Spurgeon with such a godly upbringing, than it was for George Whitefield who was raised in a pub? If true, why bother about Christian homes? Whatever our view of covenant children, we surely believe that it is an immense advantage to be brought up in a Christian home.

ii. There are differences that are disadvantages, even dangers.

1. Because children are so teachable, they are easily influenced and can be prevailed upon to make a profession of faith. This is great for statistics, but how many deceived souls are there that have been assured they are in the kingdom of God because they have been induced to make a profession of faith? Again this is true of many adults, but particularly is it true of children. Children have a desire to please. If they are fond of a Sunday School teacher or youth leader, then they know it will please them if they are converted. This is a particular danger with Christian camps, which are well known for their ability to effect "more decisions."

Balance is required at this point. There is need for real discernment. We need to impress upon them the urgency of salvation, yet we must not allow them to think that true conversion comes by "making a decision." Be very cautious in giving assurance (more of this later).

2. The difficulty of communication. The younger the child, the greater the difficulty. To teach them the doctrines of the atonement in a way they can understand is not easy. On the one hand, we must beware of complexity; but in our attempts to be simple, we must not neglect the essentials of the gospel. They don't have to understand predestination in depth, nor all the fine points of justification. But they do need to know something of the character of God, the nature of sin, the work of Christ, repentance, and faith. Some are more skilled in reaching children than others, but we should all labour to achieve simplicity in this area. Need to get down to their level of understanding. Some are very insensitive in this area. The Holy Spirit can hardly apply what the children do not understand. It is good too to bear in mind that younger children in particular cannot grasp abstract concepts. Parables are sometimes not clear to them, and object lessons often fail to make their point.

(3) Reaching children with the gospel. I'm sure we are all agreed that there is basically one instrument for the conversion of children the Word of God. They will not be born again except by the Word. But in view of the difficulties, particularly in communication, and also of the advantages in terms of their teachableness and receptive minds, we must seek to teach children the Word in a way they can readily understand.

Religious instruction of children can take place in three basic areas: in the home, in the regular services of the church and in meetings especially geared for their age group, such as Sunday School or children's clubs.

(a) The home. I take it for granted that for children in Christian families, the home should be the chief place of instruction for them. Nothing can relieve parents of their responsibility to teach their children the Word of God and to present the gospel to them. We need to help our people to teach their families. We can recommend suitable helps in this area Bible story books, catechisms, Leading Little Ones to God. We also need to set the example by teaching our own children while they are still under our roofs. (I won't develop this as the topic is Children in the Church.)

(b) Regular services. Some churches have the Sunday School at a time other than the sermon. We could discuss the merits of this later. Some parents prefer their children to be in the main service rather than in Sunday School anyway. Then some families bring their children out to the evening service when there is not usually any special provision for the children. I feel strongly that we should encourage them to do this.

So we often find ourselves preaching to children as well as adults. How do we handle that? How much do they understand our sermons? Some would argue that we cannot expect to gear the whole sermon to children. Perhaps not, but there is great merit in speaking in such a way that children can understand much of the message. We should always labour to be understood by the whole congregation, bearing in mind that some will only be of average intelligence or below. It is also good to make a point of addressing a few remarks specifically to the children a number of times during the message. This keeps their attention, and shows them that we are interested in them. If we can find the time, question sheets could be given to the children.

(c) Meetings geared specially for children. Most churches will have a Sunday School and youth groups for various ages.

(i) The Sunday School. Obvious questions that need to be addressed are:

What ages should the Sunday School cover? My own feeling is that children over 12 should be in the main service if it is run at the same time. Sometimes even younger children will benefit more from the sermon than the Sunday School. The choice will be up to the parents.

Another important question if the Sunday School runs concurrently with the service, is how do you arrange the teaching schedule? If teachers are involved all the time, there is the obvious problem of their missing the service every week. If they are used on a rota (as in our own church), then there is no continuity of teaching. Children cannot say "that is my Sunday School teacher." Perhaps a compromise could be having people teach a month at a time.

Sunday School material. Many of the large publishers have well produced material, but the spiritual and biblical quality leaves much to be desired.

(ii) Youth groups. It is hard to be specific because the age groups and type of programme will vary according to each church's situation. If a group is composed largely of unchurched kids, then it is not reasonable to expect them to sit still for an hour's Bible study. In some cases it is not even reasonable to expect them to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. Obviously our desire is to win them for Christ, but if they have no understanding at all of the Scriptures, we are in effect dealing with pure heathen, and our approach will need to be that of the apostle Paul in Lystra and Athens. With unchurched children you would expect to have more activities that they participate in, such as sports, games.

(4) Assessing the spiritual state of children. If children show a concern for their souls, or express a desire to be converted, we must urge them to repent and believe, seeking to explain what these things mean. But how can we know if they are genuinely converted? Ultimately we cannot be certain. There will always be spurious converts as there were in the early church, and we need to be cautious. Once again balance is called for. We must encourage them to believe, without putting undue pressure on them. We rely on the work of the Holy Spirit. We must not seek to do the work of the midwife. On the other hand, our pleading with them can be used by the Spirit to bring them to the Saviour.

One thing we must be careful of, is pressing assurance upon them. This is a common thing in modern evangelism with all ages, but it is a source of great evil and confusion. Typically, today, when a person professes to believe in Christ, he or she is given immediate assurance. "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. You have everlasting life and no one can ever take it from you." It is not uncommon to meet people who made a profession 20 years ago, have not shown any spiritual interest for more than 19 years, but they have never forgotten what they were told, "once saved, always saved," and they believe that. Of course we believe that too, provided they were really saved. What that expression has come to mean is "once make a profession, always saved."

In the N.T. I believe there are only two cases where people were given immediate assurance when they believed. Zacchaeus and the dying thief. We may certainly assure people that if their faith is genuine, they have eternal life, but there is always that "if." The Holy Spirit can give assurance by His inward witness. Their assurance will increase as they understand the gospel promises and they grow in holiness, but we must not give them assurance apart from these evidences. It will take time. Particularly in the case of children we must not seek to do God's work in giving assurance. But can we not be fairly confident of someone's salvation? Yes, and we should seek to ascertain where they stand. How can we tell? Remember Acts 26:20. Paul taught universally irrespective of race, class or age that people should repent, turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. The latter point is very important. We cannot observe when a person truly believes or repents, for we cannot see the heart; but we can see the evidence of these things. What is the evidence? What are the marks of saving faith? What are the marks of grace, particularly in a child?

(a) Some negatives

(i) A mere profession of faith is no guarantee of salvation. Parents in their delight to see a child profess are often blind to the possibility that it might be spurious.

(ii) A thorough intellectual knowledge of salvation is no guarantee. This is especially true in Christian homes.

(iii) Being deeply concerned even to the point of tears is no certain evidence. Esau was moved to tears, yet never truly believing (Heb. 12:16-17). Children too are easily moved.

(b) The marks of true conversion.

(i) Saving faith. Some might think this is not a reliable mark. The demons believe . . . . And there are other examples of spurious faith, such as in John 8. But saving faith is more than believing about Christ. It is believing in the heart. It is a resting upon Him for salvation. It is trust. It is a conscious relying on Christ for salvation.

You will keep him in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you (Isa.26:3).

In other words, in saving faith there is a personal relationship with Christ. This affects the whole life. When a person is courting, they think of everything in relation to that special person. How much more so with Christ? All of life will be related to the Lord career, friends, everything.

(ii) A change in behaviour. 2 Cor.5:17. The change is not entirely perfect yet, but it will affect the whole person. It is more difficult to see a change if a child is raised in Christian home. He has been graciously shielded from gross sin. But still, there will be a radical change, a change that affects the inner man as well as the outward man.

1. Sinful practices will be broken off. Not just outward things (e.g. stealing, lying), but also attitudes. We would expect to see a cheerful obedience and respect for parents.

2. Will no longer be self-centered. The essence of sin is that life revolves around ourselves. A Christian has Christ on the throne, and this should show in a child's life (e.g. in sharing toys, in games, sports, etc.).

3. New appetites. Every nature has to be fed. The lion eats meat. The cow eats grass or hay. For a lion to eat grass, there must be a drastic change of nature (Isa.11:7). The lion will eat straw like the ox. The old nature feeds on sin and the things of the flesh. New nature has spiritual appetites. Children should exhibit a love for the Bible, for prayer, for Christian fellowship. It is entirely reasonable to look for that.

4. Concern for others. Not always great, but it should be there.

One more thing must be added: their experience must last. The Parable of the sower shows the reality of things. It is not how people begin that counts, but how they finish. Many adults do not continue in the faith, and the same is true of children. I mention again the danger in Christian homes. Parents are often not willing to face up to the fact that their children might not be genuinely converted. Keep giving assurance even when no evidence of true faith. Even when the child loses all interest, the parents are unwilling to face the truth. Nothing to be gained by that attitude. But there is everything to lose.

We need to pray much for our children. Those in our own families, and those in our churches. Because there has been too much emphasis on children's work in some circles, does not mean that we should neglect them. 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!