Okay, I have to be careful how to say this – and no, I haven’t seen this at our current church. Bethlehem is great on this issue.

 Also, I think this is a bit controversial. I’d like to hear from someone on the other side.

It is widely acknowledged that it is a tricky business trying to determine if your child is a child of God. I know it is a common occurrence for a parent to wonder if the statement of faith or a prayer uttered spoken by their daughter when she was eight (or six or ten) meant that she had truly experienced second birth or if she was merely saying words. This is a given.

So churches shouldn’t add to the complexity of the situation or make things more potentially confusing. And here’s one way that people in children’s ministries (often with good hearts and godly motivations) add to the confusion: by too aggressively encouraging children to make Gospel decisions at church.

I was once, for example, at a presentation to a group of first graders and at the end the pastor said “How many of you would like give your life to Christ? Please raise your hand and one of the leaders will meet with you.” Hands went up everywhere. But that’s what primary-aged kids do. They go along with things, whether they know what it’s about or not.

So now what are the parents supposed to think when their son or daughter, on the way home says “I prayed with a leader tonight. Am I going to heaven?” They may have no idea what the situation was or what the prayer was or what lead up to it.

Might not the mom or dad reasonably be troubled by this? The child’s heart is primarily the parents’ responsibility after all – not the church’s.

Now don’t get me wrong. If a parent, knowing their child’s heart, and the questions they’ve been asking and the behavior they’ve been showing, asks their son or daughter, “Would you like to pray to Jesus right now?”, it may be a very real salvation that occurs – or the beginning of a true process. But if a young child has been approached by a church volunteer to pray ‘the prayer’, and the child agrees and then does it – this signifies just about zero in the heart of the child. To the contrary, it may serve to confuse the child and his parents down the road. We never want to cause false assurance.

What do you think? Am I off base on this?

Other clarifications:

– Age matters, obviously. Teenagers are (or should be) approaching adulthood. They have much more maturity. Altar calls at youth retreats are not what I’m talking about here.

– I am not against teaching kids about their need. The Gospel must be presented to children of all ages (including saved adults – over and over again). They must be taught early and often that they are sinners in need of a Savior and Jesus is that Savior.

– Announcing to a class after the gospel is presented that all of the leaders are available to talk about these things at any time is different from approaching the children individually and asking them if they want to say the prayer.

– So the reader might be wondering – what would I do if a child came up to me* in the middle of a session with interest about how to be saved and wishing to pray. Well, first I would show my genuine interest (if you aren’t genuinely interested in a child’s wanting to understand the gospel, you are probably in the wrong ministry) and ask lots of questions. I would then say “Let’s talk about this with your Mom or Dad – can we do this after Sunday school is done?” and then follow through and talk with the child’s parents with the child present. I’d happily speak to them about the child’s interest. I’d tell the parents of my availability to be a part of the process if the parents wish it. And if the parents aren’t able to carry through with the process of shepherding the child’s heart I would make sure they get the right resources. This could be very helpful in the spiritual life of the parents as well. It would be an honor to be a part of this.

Update: My wife recalls being present with a first grade class where the leader “told the kids that if they wanted to ask Jesus into their hearts, they would get a little booklet which she held up for all to see, and I think ALL the kids raised their hands!”

Not good.

* I have been working with Wednesday night children’s ministries (K-1) for 10 years.