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Evangelism as Child Abuse?

(photo originally uploaded to Flickr by redwoodparkchurch)

I ran across this post by Michael Spencer (a.k.a. InternetMonk) while I was perusing one of Scot McKnight’s Weekly Meanderings.

Someone had brought up the issue that proselytizing anyone under 18 is manipulative and tantamount to child abuse. In response, Spencer brings up some interesting thoughts about evangelism and how he approaches it.

When I deal with students, I am straight up about evangelism. If they take my class, I will occasionally explain the Gospel to them. I stress that their beliefs are welcome to be shared as well. I use no decisional tactics and I have no personal interest as a teacher in what a student does with the claims of Christ. I pray for these students, and would find it impossible to pray for them without praying that they come to know Christ.

I am just as honest about preaching. I give full permission to ignore or reject whatever I say, but I am straightforward that my calling and vocation is to proclaim, explain and apply the Gospel. I use no altar call. I use no tactics or manipulations of any kind. It’s the Gospel, an appeal to believe, a prayer and I leave it with them and the Holy Spirit.

I tell my students that I am completely open to being evangelized by them. I invite questions and I ask questions. Because I am in a Christian school with a missions focus, I have many non-Christians in my Bible classes and preaching services. We have dialog constantly. It’s a natural outgrowth of the diversity of our school.

While Spencer is talking about older students, I think we need to be even more careful when speaking with younger children. We all know that young children are trusting and impressionable, which is what makes children’s ministry so critical. Children’s ministry can be damaging for the same reasons, though. Kenny Conley is posting a series on leading children to Christ, and he talks about how easy it is for those of us in CM to lead a child to pray THE prayer. It is! He makes a great point:

It’s not about leading a child in a prayer! It’s about understanding what it means to be a Christ Follower, a slave to Christ. I asked Jesus into my heart when I was four. Why? My teacher told me that I would go to hell if I didn’t. Brilliant! Any dope can do that. Being clear and concise and helping a child to make the decision on their own is harder. Allowing the child to make a thoughtful decision on their own isn’t just a good idea, it’s what is right.

Is it child abuse when we aren’t careful about how we lead children to Christ? I don’t know. I can understand those who claim that it is. Even Christ warns us about the dangers of leading a child astray, and I think that even applies to giving a child a false idea of what it means to follow Christ.

So what does that mean for evangelistic presentations to children? I think that each faith community will have to define that for themselves. The key, though, 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.

For more resources on leading a child to Christ, check out David Staal’s Leading Kids to Jesus or Leading Your Child to Jesus. I’d also suggest taking a look at Kenny’s posts.

  • What do you do in presenting the gospel to children?
  • What do you do for follow up?
  • Do you offer resources to parents? If so, what and how?
  • How would you respond to the allegation that proselytizing children can be psychological abuse?

9 Responses to “Evangelism as Child Abuse?”

  1. Robin Dugall June 22, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    Again H – good post and very important discussion…as a person who did youth ministry back in the "day" of a massive emphasis on the second coming of Jesus (Jesus movement days in the early '70s! yes, I'm that old), I know how easy it is to manipulate children and youth…especially in a culture that is able to persuade with media and technological bells and whistles…I believe that Jesus is "watching" carefully…so good work…as usual!


    • Henry Zonio June 23, 2009 at 2:51 am #

      Thanks Robin. Wow! So you must've shown those scary rapture movies! I saw those in junior high, talk about traumatizing :)

      It's scary sometimes to think about the responsibility we have as youth and children's workers. That's why I've been so fascinated by the spirituality of children and how they view God and heaven and salvation and such.

  2. Daniel June 22, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

    This really struck a chord with me; child "evangelism" definitely is something that brings out strong feelings from me, and not the good kind. I might not characterize it as child abuse (if only to reserve that term for the truly horrendous kind of child abuse), but I definitely harbor strong resentment toward it. I'm still trying to figure out why, though.

    I suspect a lot of my hesitance toward "evangelism" – and most especially, the cheap tricks and emotional preying that often come along with it – is that it discounts the actual child.

    Evangelism, at least as we know it mostly today (evangelism = neat tricks & proselytizing), doesn't recognize the child fully as a person. It refuses to recognize the unique, wonderful life and character of each child. The evangelism movement also comes decidedly from a deficit-oriented perspective, a perspective not of what children have but of "what they lack" (in this instance, spiritual salvation). Proselytizing and evangelism, I feel, cheapens the profound, vibrant and alive relationship that child can really have with Jesus Christ.

    I think, as with everything, it largely depends on context. My first instinct – whenever I work with any children, inside or outside of the church – is to let the children guide me. I don't like to put a lot of my adult stuff and ideas on them. When the time is right, though – when I feel I know them well enough and that I have won over their trust, when I recognize that they're in a good spot where they want and can use this information, and when they honestly display a desire for it – then I'm okay with sharing with them whatever spiritual knowledge or thing or fact or whatever in an appropriate dialogue. I sense that's probably a very similar process to Michael Spencer's – especially in that chiefly it matters most upon both the cultural and relational context.

    • Henry Zonio June 23, 2009 at 3:05 am #

      Thanks Daniel for contributing! I tend to lean more in the direction of building relationship. I do, though, try and present to children, in the most age appropriate way possible, who God is, how much he loves them, how they can best follow God and how they can change the world around them as they follow Christ. I really like the ABC's way of presenting it. When it comes to an actual decision or actualization of a decision, I leave that to smaller group or individual settings where relationships have been established.

      While I don't agree with "traditional" approaches to child evangelism, I do try and give that approach the benefit of the doubt that they are passionate about children following Christ. I just wish they understood that they are setting up those children for a false sense of who God is and what it means to follow Christ as they grow older. Anyway, that's for another post :)


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