Child Evangelism – A Theological Oveview
A study of the Biblical basis for the evangelism of children and the implications for ministry practice with children.
Can young children make a solid decision to trust the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior? At what age should we present the Gospel to children and give them an opportunity to respond? Should we evangelize children in our churches and neighborhoods? Do children need to be saved—are they really lost? The controversy surrounding these and other related questions continues to be debated in evangelical churches today as it has been in ages past.
However, the evangelization of children is clearly supported by Scripture, personal testimony from Christians saved as children, perspectives from theologians and great Christian leaders and from research studies which establish that young children can make a solid decision to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. This wealth of support should lead Christians everywhere to one conclusion—that the Gospel should be presented to the child at an early age so that as the Holy Spirit works, he will come to know Jesus as personal Savior. As a result, the child can begin to develop Christian character, which is the outward expression of a new inward life.
The Bible clearly teaches that it is God’s divine purpose that everyone should have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and be saved. The Lord Jesus’ last commands to His followers were, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). On the day of Pentecost Peter declared, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39). It is clear that God’s intent is that the Gospel be shared with all people regardless of race, national origin, gender or age.
Key Scriptures help us understand that a person without Christ is lost. Psalm 51:5, Isaiah 53:6, Jeremiah 17:9 and other Old Testament passages show that all of humanity is sinful from birth, including children. Paul declares with authority in Romans 3:10 that, “There is none righteous, not even one . . . ” and in verse 23 “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” He further states, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned . . . ” (Romans 5:12). The unsaved person is dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Children are not specifically mentioned in any of these passages but that in no way changes the conclusion of the matter. Scriptures do not qualify the meaning of “all” or “everyone” or “none” or “whoever” with reference to age, gender, skin color, or ethnic background. Sam Doherty, theologian and Christian educator, reminds us, “It is important to remember that the Bible does not teach a theology of childhood which is separate from, and different to, a theology of adulthood. Instead, the Bible gives a theology of man which includes both children and adults. While there are many differences between the child and the adult physically, psychologically, socially and, in some ways spiritually, their position before God is the same.”1 All of humanity stands sinful before a holy God, including children.
Children are sinners but when can they understand the Gospel and be saved? When a child commits sin consciously and deliberately, he is held accountable for it before God. There is no specific age mentioned when a child can receive Christ, however, James 4:17 gives insight, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” (NIV) Canadian evangelist Lionel Hunt commented, “If a child is old enough to sin and old enough to die, it would be a strange thing if he were not old enough to be saved. It is not for us to fix ages—for it is as easy for the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ in the heart of a small child as it is for Him to do so in an older person.”2
Saving faith is a work completed by the grace of God alone as the Holy Spirit works (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Westminster Confession states, “the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace (John 1:12; Acts 15:11; 16:31; Galatians 2:20).” The cross work of Christ, His substitutionary death, burial and resurrection, has paid for the sin of the whole world (John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:19; I John 2:2). The responsibility of the individual in salvation is the recognition of his sinful condition before God and repentance from that sin, the heart belief that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, and personal faith in Jesus Christ alone as his Savior. The only condition placed on humanity for salvation is to believe. There is no qualifier of age, either a beginning age at which it is possible to believe or an ending age after which it is too late to believe for salvation since it is the divine work of the Holy Spirit. Young children can make this critical decision before their hearts are hardened by sin.
Old Testament Teaching
Throughout the Old Testament God clearly commanded parents to diligently teach their children the Word of God (Deut. 4; 6; 11; 18; 31). The result was that the little ones would learn to love, obey, fear, honor and put their trust in the One True Living God. In Psalm 78 the psalmist is very explicit that the next generation should be taught the “praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” (vs. 4). The purpose was that “they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds, but would keep his commands” (vs. 7). It is obvious that God, who created all people, knew that children could respond to Him in faith and trust even at early ages.
New Testament Teaching
One of the most convincing passages in the New Testament that establishes the need of child evangelism, the ability of young children to have saving faith and the responsibility of adults regarding their conversion is Matthew 18:1-14. Within this passage we see our Lord not only teaching that adults must be converted as children do but also affirming young children as believers, having saving faith in Him.
The disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus used a child as an object lesson to illustrate truth. The original text uses two Greek words, “paidión” (found in Matthew 18:2-5) and “mikros” (found in Matthew 18:6, 10, 14) to describe children. The Greek word “paidión” means a little or young child, an infant or a half grown boy or girl, a child under seven years of age.3 “Mikros” means little or small and is used of persons with regard to station or age, size, rank or influence and time.4 In the context of this passage the child was young enough for Jesus to take him in His arms (Mark 9:36).
The first part of this discourse reveals a key element. Before addressing the question of greatness, Jesus first addresses the requirements for entrance into the kingdom. He exhorts the disciples, “I tell you the truth, unless you be converted as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (vs. 3). He then gives the requirement for salvation—to be converted with the faith and humility of a little child. The word “converted” (“strephō” in the Greek) means “to turn, an active and voluntary turning from sin.”5
It means to be converted to God with all your heart; a supernatural change that man by himself cannot make. It is far more than a mental acknowledgement of the truth or intellectual assent. It is a change which God Himself produces as the Holy Spirit bestows divine grace. Jesus is teaching that a young child is capable of having saving faith. Why would He tell us to become as a child and be born into God’s kingdom, to have a childlike faith if little children are unable to understand the truths of salvation? The child is the key to heaven. If it were impossible for children to be saved, Jesus’ object lesson at that point would be worthless. Adults who have childlike faith can enter the kingdom of heaven. Children who have childlike faith can be converted.
After explaining the requirements for entering the kingdom of heaven, Jesus then answers the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” In verse 4 He says, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The child is the model of faith and humility. The question is answered. Now Jesus continues with the little child in His arms to teach several great truths concerning boys and girls. He declares, “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (v. 5). To serve or minister to a child is to serve Christ Himself.
In verse 6 Jesus shifts the conversation to discuss the seriousness of offending a little child who believes in Him. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” The word “believe” in the Greek is “pisteuo.” This word means to have faith in, upon, or with respect to a person or thing, especially one’s spiritual well being to Christ.6
“Pisteuo” is used in Scripture of saving faith. It is the same word used in John 3:16 “whosoever believes in Him” and in Acts 16:31 “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. . . .” Jesus assumes that little children can savingly believe—that they can exercise a faith in Christ that leads to eternal life. He then gives a stern warning about causing one of these little ones who believe to sin. It would be better to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to cause a child to stumble by looking down on his faith or giving him wrong teaching.
Some theologians believe that because Jesus changes the term to “mikros” for little ones, which has a broader meaning to include young or humble Christians, He is no longer speaking of children. However, from the hermeneutical perspective of context, there is no reason not to believe Jesus was still referring to literal children. To close the discussion, Christ uses the illustration of the one sheep that goes astray. Without doubt, the sheep is the child. Clearly the implication is that even a child, an insignificant member of society, is lost and worthy of seeking and of value to the Great Shepherd.
In a dynamic conclusion to His instruction, Jesus declares God’s will regarding children, “It is not the will of the Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (vs.14). The word Jesus uses for perish is “apollumi” in the Greek. Apollumi means to destroy fully, literally or figuratively. The same word is translated as lost, destroyed and perish throughout the New Testament.7
It is the same word used in John 3:15-16 when Jesus says, “that whoever believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God’s will must be the will of all who are His children. His will is that we should diligently present the Gospel to the little ones, giving them an opportunity to respond to the life changing message of the Gospel so that they will not perish. Mark 10:13-16 is one of the most beautiful passages regarding children. People were bringing their young children (“paidión”) to Jesus for Him to bless. Obviously, the disciples had not learned the lesson about the importance of the children to Jesus. As they sent the children away He was “greatly displeased” that the disciples kept the children from Him. The Greek work “aganakteo” is used here and means “greatly afflicted, indignant, sore displeased, moved with indignation.”8
It carries a sense of grief. There is only one other occasion where this word is used in the New Testament to imply anger of Jesus. The fact that Jesus was angry suggests the seriousness of excluding children from the blessings of the reign of God. Jesus rebukes, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (vv. 14-15).
Jesus couldn’t have made a more emphatic statement about children and conversion. He commanded the disciples to “let the children come” and reiterated His teaching in Matthew 18:3. Some would say that Jesus is teaching here that children are already members of the kingdom of heaven. However, that would not be consistent with Scripture since each person must personally believe in Christ for salvation. Children and those who believe as children in simple faith can receive the kingdom of heaven.
There are strong indications that the early church was leading children to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church is addressed “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1-3). Paul is clearly addressing believers, those who had made a true profession of faith. After giving instructions for practical living, Paul addresses wives and husbands. Then in Ephesians 6:1-3, he specifically addresses the Christian children, “teknon” (small sons or daughters).9
He exhorts them, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother. . . . ” When Paul says for children to obey the “Lord,” he used the Greek word for Lord, “kurios.” This word means “in authority that is, as controller; by implication God, Lord, master.”10 Paul is expecting the children to obey so as to please God. Only those who have the indwelling Holy Spirit are under the Lordship of Christ and are able to submit to His control. In addition, Paul’s letter to the Colossian church opens with, “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse. . . . ” (1:1-2). Paul then instructs believers in Christian living.
In Chapter 3 he writes a beautiful description of the character of the new man and summarizes with the words, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (3:17). He then gives specific ways for each group within the church to put on the character of the new man. In the middle of the list are the children. They, as believers, are to obey their parents “in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (vs. 20). While the Epistles do not discuss child evangelism as such, it is evident that children were being taught to put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and to obey Him as part of the body of believers.
In the book of Titus Paul gives instruction for the selection of leaders in the church. When describing the office of an elder, the qualification is that a man be “blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” (1:6). The original (tekna pista) may mean “faithful children” but “believing children” is intended here, referring to those who are old enough to have made a personal decision for Christ and reflect it in their conduct.11 Paul acknowledges that a man who would be a leader in the church must first lead his own children to put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is another indication that the early church taught their children to put their faith in Jesus as their Savior.
Testimonies of Christian Leaders
In addition to the Scriptural evidence for child conversion, there are a host of Christians who have come to know Jesus as their personal Savior as young children. Leaders such as Dr. James Dobson, Christian psychologist, author and founder of Focus on the Family was saved at age 3; Amy Carmichael, missionary to India was saved at age 3; Jonathan Edwards, well-known preacher was saved at age 7; Matthew Henry age 11; Dr. Isaac Watts, hymn writer, saved at age 9; Corrie Ten Boom was saved at age 5; Bill Gothard was saved at age 10; Jim Elliot was saved at age 6; Max Lucado was saved at age 10; Dr. Charles Stanley was saved at age 12; ; Henrietta Mears was saved at age 5; the writer, a child from an unsaved home, was saved at age 7 and the list goes on! These individuals made solid decisions for Christ as children and have been used greatly of God for the furtherance of His kingdom.
Perspectives of Theologians
Respected theologians and great Christian leaders have voiced their convictions about children’s evangelism. Charles Spurgeon, said, “A child of five, if properly instructed, can savingly believe as well as an adult. My conviction is that our converts from among children are among the best that we have. I should judge them to have been more numerously genuine than in any other class, more constant, and in the long run, more solid.”12
Dr. Francis Schaeffer, the great theologian and internationally renowned Christian writer, declared, “There is only one Gospel for both adults and children. Children’s evangelism is not a different Gospel but is a translation problem in which we must proclaim the great truths of the Christian faith in a very simple manner. The greatest reason for my belief that little children can really understand the vital truths of the Gospel is that I believe in the Holy Spirit’s ministry to communicate the message of salvation and sanctification to them. There is no adult, however intelligent, who can understand the Gospel without the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.”13
D.L. Moody stated, “You do not know how much infidelity there is in the church today with regard to child conversion. There are but a few who believe that children can become Christians; but thank God there is a bright day coming.”14
Formal and informal studies also confirm the fact that children can be saved and have a much higher conversion rate than adults. For over 60 years informal surveys conducted by Child Evangelism Fellowship workers as well as others have confirmed that 85% of Christians receive Christ as Savior between the ages of 4-14. In recent years Christian leaders have begun referring to this age group as the “4-14 Window” because of the high percentage of conversions that take place during these critical years of a child’s life.
Recent studies by George Barna indicate that children are much more likely to trust Christ as their Savior than adults. He found that lifelong moral values are largely in place by the teenage years. A series of studies confirmed the importance of children inviting Jesus into their hearts as Savior when they are young. Barna discovered that the probability of someone embracing Jesus as his or her Savior was 32% for those between the ages of 5 and 12; 4% for those in the 13-18 age range and 6% for people 19 or older. He found that if people do not receive Jesus Christ as their Savior before they reach their teenage years, the chance of their doing so at all is slim.15
Statistics confirm that children can and do make solid decisions for Christ and are therefore the most fruitful mission field in the world today. Historically evangelical churches have emphasized adult and youth evangelism but the children have very often been neglected. Children’s ministry leaders who have studied child development theories have made dogmatic statements that children cannot understand symbolism or abstract concepts and therefore cannot understand the truths of the Gospel until they are 11 or 12 years old.
They take an “intelligence-based” approach to evangelism which implies that a higher level of intellectual development must be reached before children can make a decision for Christ. Others believe that we should instill biblical knowledge from a young age and hopefully one day the child will make a decision for Christ. There is little or no emphasis on presenting the Gospel. These erroneous philosophies of child conversion have infiltrated many of our churches. Further, some children’s ministry workers are inhibited about presenting the Gospel to children and giving them an opportunity to respond because of faulty decisions or “recommitments” made in later life.
Unwise workers ask children, “How many want to go to heaven?” and seeing raised hands declare these children “saved.” Some children are told to just “pray a prayer” without any instruction about the Gospel. Some children’s ministries merely entertain children. These philosophies and faulty approaches to children’s ministry have caused children in our churches to grow up with a false security of salvation and/or head knowledge about the Bible but they do not know the God of the Bible personally. They think they are “saved” because they attend church, said a prayer or because they are “good.”
As a result, a large percentage of these children become involved in the “world” and eventually leave the church because the Bible and church are not relevant to them personally. If they do stay in church, their well-meaning teachers wonder why there is no spiritual growth evident in the children’s lives. 1 Corinthians 2:14 gives us insight into the reason: “The man without the spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Many of our children’s ministries attempt to teach children how to live for God when they have not yet received eternal life. Just as it is against physical nature for a dead plant to grow, it is against spiritual nature that spiritually dead children grow in Christ. The Biblical order is salvation and then spiritual growth.
Implications for Ministry Practice with Children
The greatest hindrances in the Church today to children coming to know Christ as their personal Savior are the unsound philosophies that have infiltrated many children’s ministries, the misunderstanding regarding the biblical view of child conversion and the lack of practical training in effective methods of child evangelism. To change this situation several things need to happen:
- Adults must first reject the erroneous philosophies about child conversion and become convinced that children are lost and need to be saved. They need to understand Jesus’ teaching and the biblical imperative for leading children to Christ.
- Adults must be convinced of the power of the Gospel to change children’s lives: “ . . . it is the power (dynamite) of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . . ” (Romans 1:16).
- Adults need to be trained in how to present the Gospel message in an age-appropriate manner, even to young children. They also need to learn how to give children an opportunity to respond to the Gospel and to be sensitive to the direction of the Holy Spirit. Further, they need to know how to counsel children regarding assurance of salvation, confession of sin, first steps of spiritual growth and other truths regarding the Christian life. This will help them to be wise counselors and to avoid faulty decisions.
- Adults must remember, while teaching children, that salvation is by simple faith, not by reason or intellectual development. In addition, it must be remembered that the first step in spiritual formation is salvation. “If you doubt the child’s ability to communicate with God, don’t doubt God’s ability to communicate with the child.”16
- Adults should present the Gospel in every class session and children should be given an opportunity to respond to the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives. Children’s workers should be trained to counsel by asking questions to determine the child’s understanding and to guide him in his decision.
- Adults should be trained to carefully lead children in a systematic process of spiritual growth as new believers.
When these crucial principles are put into practice, the ministry of child evangelism in the local church will be transformed.
Christian educators, children’s ministry workers and the Church in general need to reexamine their theological, philosophical and practical ministry approach to childhood conversion. In light of the Scriptural and other compelling evidence it is more than clear that young children can make a true decision to trust Christ as their Savior and be born into God’s Kingdom as the Holy Spirit works. Over one-third of the world’s 6.5 billion population consists of children under the age of 15. There is no doubt that as the Church strategizes to fulfill the Great Commission for world evangelization in the 21st century and beyond, child evangelism must become a major thrust.
When Jesus’ disciples were sending the little children away, He adamantly declared, “ . . . anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). Let us not be guilty of continuing to hinder children from coming to Jesus. There could not be a higher calling, for all evangelism is child evangelism!
1.Theologian, Christian educator and Child Evangelism Fellowship European Director retired.
2.Lionel Hunt, Handbook on Child Evangelism, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), 45.
3.Colin Brown, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 283.
5. Charles Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 1343.
6.Spiros Zodhiates, ed. The Complete Word Study New Testament, (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1991), 58 No. 4100 Greek Dictionary of the New Testament.
7. Ibid. 14, No. 622.
8. Ibid. 7, No. 23.
9.Ibid. 71, No. 5043.
10.Ibid. 930, No. 2962
11. Frank E. Gabelein, ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 430.
12.Sam Doherty, The Biblical Basis of Child Evangelism, (Kilchzimmer, Switzerland: European Child Evangelism Fellowship, 1986) 46.
13.From a speech given at the European Congress on Child Evangelism in 1972.
14.Sam Doherty, The Biblical Basis of Child Evangelism, (Kilchzimmer, Switzerland: European Child Evangelism Fellowship, 1986), 64.
15.George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, (Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2003), 34
16.Martha J. Wright, Vice President of Education, Child Evangelism Fellowship.
Note: This paper was presented at the Children’s Spirituality Conference at Concordia University in June, 2006.
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