Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
When most people think of “child evangelism,” what comes to mind is something along the lines of Jesus Camp. It recalls a very specific image of adults pounding the Gospel into children, who in turn take the message out on the streets and hand out tracts. We are, naturally, uncomfortable with the idea that children would be manipulated, frightened, or shamed into belief. I think perhaps I understand where it comes from. Many people have been deeply hurt by the church. As a result, they are on a mission to stop anyone else from being hurt by the church.
Whatever the reason, a current trend is to demand that parents stop “evangelizing” their children. This petition, for example, found on SignOn.org, is a call for cessation of evangelism under the guise of aid. This post on The Oatmeal likens religious indoctrination within the family to controlling a child’s color preference. Pressure from outside the church raises two important questions.
First, is it bad for parents to raise their children in the church? I don’t believe it is, for several reasons:
- This anti-evangelism campaign is nearly always directed at the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). I’m the last person you will ever hear crying “Persecution!” But even I recognize that this is out of proportion. Should we tell the non-religious to stop telling their children there is no God, just in case their children want to believe in one? I doubt that’s what anyone has in mind.
- I believe that all parents have the right to communicate their religious beliefs with their children. We don’t need to pretend we don’t have a set of religious beliefs and traditions. Provided we are taking care not to shame or scare our children into belief, I see nothing wrong will making it explicit that this is what we believe to be true. I think we can teach them about our religious convictions while simultaneously reassuring them that we will love them whether they agree or not. We don’t need to say non-committal things to them like, “Some people believe in God. Some people don’t. What do you think?” (Part of the problem with that is that it avoids the question. Young children ask questions about God and faith because they want to know what their parents believe. Using the phrase “some people” avoids taking responsibility for our own beliefs.)
- There is a difference between raising children among people with shared religious beliefs and forcing those same children to believe. I am actually in favor of keeping spiritual dialogue open in the home. Parents should, as their children grow, talk to them about the ways that other people believe—without making statements about the eternal fate of specific people. I personally am not going to flip if my children grow up and decide they don’t believe in Jesus, or in God at all. I’m not going to live in fear for their immortal souls or kick them out or make demands on them that they raise their children in the church. I’m not going to someday insist on bringing my grandchildren to church or religious activities, certainly not against the wishes of their parents.
The second important question is whether it’s wrong to evangelize children who are not our own.
I agree that this can be done in a scary, inappropriate way. I’ve seen it happen. Many years ago, when I was working as a camp counselor, we would deliver a message of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness to the campers. We would use a skit to illustrate what we were trying to communicate. I remember telling the other counselors that I refused to participate in the skit that explicitly stated that if our friends went to hell, it would be our fault for not telling them about Jesus. That particular skit had left more than one child in tears in the past, and I wanted no part of it.
Presenting a message to children about salvation can also take a disturbing turn when we use manipulation and fear tactics. Anyone who has ever seen the documentary Hell House (or been to an actual Hell House—yes, they still exist) can attest to that. Within some churches, there is extraordinary pressure for children to make a “faith commitment” at a very young age, including among those five and under. And mission work, particularly certain types of relief aid, can take the form of forced evangelism.
So, yes. I get it. Teaching kids about religious beliefs can be done in a pretty frightening manner. I think about how I would feel if anyone thought they had the right to take my children to a religious institution that wasn’t Christian and terrify or shame them into belief. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not all evangelistic endeavors leave children feeling that they need to conform in order to be accepted or loved.
In order to avoid the typical pitfalls, we as adults need to be aware of several things.
First, we must be careful not to attach our love for our kids to their faith. If we put pressure on our children to make early decisions about their beliefs, we risk having children who think we will only love or be proud of them if they agree with us.
Second, we must deliver the message in love, without the fear. Even if we as adults (and not even all adults agree on this) believe that faith in Jesus is necessary for entrance into Heaven, we should be cautious about how we share that information. The truth is, we cannot know the eternal fate of anyone else. Teaching children that they deserve Hell for their sins does more harm than good.
Third, related to the second, is that the message should be developmentally appropriate. One of the reasons it can be damaging for children to hear that they need to be saved from Hell is that it is confusing for young ones. Better that the kids begin with a solid foundation of love. There is no reason to go in-depth on the matter with a six-year-old.
Finally, parents need to be aware that their children may not find their childhood religion meaningful when they reach adulthood. We need to be prepared that not every child raised in church or who attended vacation Bible school every summer will end up being a Christian. We must be ready to give them the space they need to uncover their own spirituality.
My children attend church. We read the Bible with them every night. We pray before meals and we pray for people in need. They go to Sunday school, they go to a Christian camp, they attend the children’s ministry at our mid-week service. Do we hope they will grow into faithful adult Christians? Absolutely. Will we love them any less if they choose something different? Most emphatically, no.
What do you think? Should we avoid religious instruction and evangelism for children?