Let the little children come to me

Lilium martagon seedlingChristians sure do love themselves some childhood indoctrination. This was never more apparent to me than while working through the ACT training course called “Seedlings,” all about how to share the gospel with children. In my opinion, children should be taught to think for themselves — they should be allowed to consider all sorts of things that other people believe as well as to take the time to come to their own conclusions. Suffice it to say, the value of critical thinking is not shared by Larry Moyer’s ministry.

Of course, they advise evangelists to relate to children using language and concepts they can understand, and caution them to “respect appropriate boundaries,” whatever that means. Probably my favorite paragraph in the training documents was this — emphasis mine:

Certainly there is good reason for caution when leading a child to Christ. When interacting with a trusted adult, children can be easily persuaded or respond in order to please others. But we must not let these fears stop us from inviting a child to respond to the gospel message.

(Naturally, much of the rest of the guide contains instructions on exactly how to be seen by the child as a “trusted adult.” Convenient.)

The overall lesson for children is broken down into five components.

  1. God’s Love: “God loves you and created you to be with Him forever.”
  2. Our Problem: “God is perfect and we are not. We have all disobeyed God and broken His rules. The Bible calls that sin.”
  3. Our Punishment: “Since we have disobeyed God, we deserve to be punished forever. That means we cannot be with God because of our sin.”
  4. God’s Answer: “But God made a way for you to be with Him forever. God sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross to take your punishment.”
  5. Your Choice: “Trust in Jesus alone as the only One who can give you the gift of life with God forever.”

Interestingly, the ACT lessons do stress that people couldn’t possibly have lived up to God’s rules, because God’s rules require perfection which is something only God has. It’s supposed to be reassuring — it’s not anything you did wrong, really, because you couldn’t help it! Except … we’re supposed to believe that God made impossible-to-follow rules, and then thinks we deserved to be punished forever for not being able to follow them? And this god also loves us?!

I was not very impressed with their attempt to make penal substitution (part #4) sound like a reasonable concept to a child. They basically just said it — someone takes your punishment for you — and gave no insight at all as to why that would be fair and just. It also seems to double as an awkward just-so story about why there are so many African-Americans in US prisons. (Click to enlarge.)

And after you’ve explained that everyone’s a sinner who deserves to die and that’s why God killed his own son, you’re supposed to ask the child if they are ready to “trust” the zombified Jesus and get saved from how wretched and disgusting they are. Apparently that’s clear and easy to understand…? I really don’t have any words to express how creepy this is to inflict on a child (click to enlarge):

Yep! No frightening manipulation of the inexperienced and easily persuadable here! Just move right along! (whistles)

Of course, the idea that children should be the focus of evangelical efforts is both old and well-acknowledged by Christians. We can go back as far as Luke 18:

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Or we can look as recently as the Barna Group’s report on born-again Christians’ ages when they had their born-again experiences (emphasis mine, again):

The current Barna study indicates that nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born again Christians (64%) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday. …

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the research, in [George] Barna’s eyes, is the prevalence of decisions made during childhood. “Families, churches and parachurch ministries must recognize that primary window of opportunity for effectively reaching people with the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is during the pre-teen years. It is during those years that people develop their frames of reference for the remainder of their life – especially theologically and morally. Consistently explaining and modeling truth principles for young people is the most critical factor in their spiritual development.”

Think about it. If your best chance of convincing someone to agree with you is to find a young, immature person who has likely not even developed abstract reasoning skills, that should be a clue that something is fishy with your belief system.

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  1. All I can really say is “yuck”. What an awfully creepy, underhanded way to treat children.

  2. Questioning

     /  April 12, 2011 at 9:50 am

    I grew up under this sort of teaching–I can’t tell you how many times I “asked Jesus into my heart” (a phrase and concept that is no where in the Bible), because I wasn’t sure if I really, really meant it the last time, and I was so afraid of going to hell. Really, none of it makes much sense, but after researching it a few years ago, infant baptism makes much more sense than this.

  3. *shudders* it’s just so… dirty.

    having been raised with pretty close to this kind of indoctrination, I can understand some atheists stances claiming this is child abuse. It would certianly look that way to me if I didn’t have to deal with it for so long.

  4. Aristarchus

     /  April 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    When something we call a “cult” does exactly the same thing, people find it super creepy and scary. This is just one of the numerous ways that cult behavior becomes completely acceptable/normal once your cult is big enough.

  5. Isn’t “get them hooked while their young” also a tactic of the tobacco industry? The idea of hooking children while they are still willing to blindly accept authority and are incapable of proper reasoning is commonplace. I’m sure the church wants to be seen using the same tactics as the tobacco industry.

  6. @Questioning: I was actually sort of surprised to see that, in fact, this course discourages people from saying things like “ask Jesus into your heart.” They also specifically warn you not to say “redeemed through the blood of Christ” in one of their interactive questions. Here’s an excerpt from the fourth handout in Seedlings:

    A word of caution: Be careful how you close your gospel presentation. Unclear and unbiblical language often confuses children and adults.

    Phrases to avoid:
    • “Give your heart to Jesus” or “Invite Jesus into your heart”: This is a very confusing term for children who understand the heart as a physical organ that sustains their life.

    • “Give your life to God”: This is a very confusing concept for children because they think, “If I give my life to God, what will happen to me?”

    • “Would you like to pray to receive Christ?”: The Bible does not ask anyone to pray to receive Christ. Prayers do not save. The only thing that saves sinners is trust in Christ alone.

    “Trust” is the word they prefer. So, I guess it’s nice that they realize the “heart” thing is a bit scary … though I don’t think that really removes the “scary” factor from their approach. I’m also not sure that their understanding of prayer is quite consistent with the Bible — at least, there are plenty of verses they’re ignoring. But anyone who fixates on the “saved by grace through faith” message is necessarily ignoring many other contradictory teachings.

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