I’ve seen a number of blog posts, Tweets, and such that discuss how to craft a salvation message so kids will raise their hands, walk down the aisle, make a profession of faith, and accept Jesus into their hearts. I have no problem with experts sharing their best practices for effective evangelism. What sends up red flags is the reduction of the important salvation decisions down to some easy formula, which often come quite close to sounding like marketing ploy to get more numbers to spur a budget increase. These posts almost feels like we are being sold a magic formula—“If you do this, then you’ll get numbers, and when the deacon board sees your success, they’ll give you more money for your programming!”
I work with kids. I write and edit children’s ministry curriculum. All I want is for kids to come to know Jesus, believe in Him, accept God’s free gift of salvation. The more I work with kids and families and the more I study how kids learn and what motivates them, I’m starting to believe that creating environments where kids make faith decisions should be more strategic than a simple formula provided through a wordless book, bracelet, app, or the latest Gospel gadget on the market.
The problem of the “salvation message with results” is that it’s too easy. I have no doubt that I can create the right environment to stir kids’ hearts to put their faith in Jesus. Pick the right songs, add the right stories, mix in some lighting and atmosphere, and you have them in the palm of your hand. They will do what you ask them. They will walk down the aisle, pray the prayer, cry the tears, and exude the emotions. But we’re not called to put them in the palm of our hand… we’re called to point them to the One who already holds them in the palm of His.
And when kids make decisions about their faith in the high of an emotional experience, how transformative is that moment in the child’s life. Will that moment support the everyday-faith that kids should experience?
So what does that mean for crafting salvation messages? We need to build in authentic moments where we communicate what it means to begin a relationship with Jesus and why that matters in the first place.
5 Principles of a Great Salvation Message:
1. Be biblically authentic. Don’t force a salvation message with a Bible story where it doesn’t make sense. Research shows that kids can handle one idea at a time. If it takes three steps from your story to get to a salvation message, kids can become lost as to what you were talking about in your story. Use a passage of scripture where the Story of Jesus is obvious even to a child, not just the person in the room with the seminary degree. Now, let me clarify something. Please don’t take this out of context. The Bible speaks through and through of the Story of Jesus. However, while some speak to Jesus the Son of Man, Messiah, Rescuer, others are clear pictures or distinct promises of the sacrifice Jesus would make. For example, while Micah 5:2 is surely speaking of where Jesus would be born, making a gospel presentation from that verse would need several steps of explanation before getting to the point of the gospel. It definitely helps prove that Jesus is who He said He was, but it doesn’t give you a clean line (in the mind of a child) to the Salvation Message. The key here is to view the passage through the eyes of a child, how they think, and what they can grasp. The Bible is full of many passages, especially throughout the Epistles, that unpack the idea of salvation through Jesus, but the language can be confusing and difficult for even adults to understand, let alone children.
2. Be personally authentic. A salvation message is the perfect opportunity to make it personal with sharing moments from your own faith journey. I shouldn’t have to say this, but just in case: be sure the personal stories that you share are appropriate for the audience. You may in fact have a sordid past. But instead of going into graphic detail, simply say something about the choices you made that went against the best plan that God had for your life. Kids will learn from people who share not simply the outcome of the story (I trusted Jesus as my savior) but the journey to the outcome (I made some bad decisions along the way, but then this amazing thing happened, this person invited me to church, etc.). This helps concrete thinkers understand that there’s often a process to making a decision to follow Christ.
If you’ve never written out your own faith story, take some time right now and jot down some ideas that you might share with the kids in your group.
What was your life like before you came to follow Jesus?
Who were the people who helped you come to faith? How did this person help you come to know Jesus?
How has your life changed since believing in Jesus?
How do you continue to grow in your relationship with Jesus?
3. Be clear. Think about that idea of child-like faith. Children don’t need a full understand the theology behind their salvation moment. Even if someone defines them, words like propitiation, sanctification, atonement, etc. will get lost on them. As concrete thinkers, kids have little to nothing from their previous understanding where they can hang abstract, theological concepts. When kids have questions, or you’re explaining the plan of salvation, use words and phrases that they can understand without much unpacking on your part. Use ideas they already understand (follow, trust, took your place, etc.) to help them make sense of their decision to believe in Jesus.
Related to clarity is an understanding of how children learn. Consider combining two or more learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) in your presentation to hit multiple senses at the same time. When you do this, the chance of kids staying engaged with the material exponentially increases. The clearer your presentation of the Story of Jesus, the better kids will understand and take steps towards putting their faith in Jesus.
4. Give them an action step. Altar calls create an emotional moment where many kids respond because they are swept up in all the feels of the message. I am sure that many people over the years have made authentic decisions for faith in this sort of atmosphere, but many times the kids make these decisions because they see their friends going up to the front, they want to be part of the action, or they want to make an adult happy.
Instead, give kids clear ways they can respond to the Salvation message.
Talk with a small group leader or parent.
Stay afterwards and talk with an adult.
Talk to your mom or dad or a trusted adult when you get home.
Giving children a chance to talk with an adult will give them a guide to help them work through their questions. The adult/parent should be able to help them discern the authenticity of the decision and connect the child to next steps they should take.
5. Get the family involved. If the child is from a family where someone is a follower of Christ, invite them into the process. Don’t steal a parents’ thunder by being the person who prays with a child to receive Jesus. Always give parents the opportunity to have this conversation and experience this important moment in their child’s life. If they seem like they aren’t equipped to handle this situation, by all means step into the conversation and help them, but it’s a good rule of thumb for us to default to the parents when it comes to this big questions and decision about faith in Jesus. Orange created a great resource called “Start Here” that not only clearly presents the gospel but creates a shared experience for parents and kids to have great conversations about what it means to accept God’s gift of salvation.
The one exception to this might be a sleep-away camp experience. If a child is ready to respond in faith to Jesus, don’t make them wait for pick up when their parents are around. But figure out a way to involve mom or day in that moment. Maybe have them call home afterwards to talk about it or send home a “Your Child took a step of faith” packet with “now what” next steps to do as a family like a devotional or conversation guide.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions about these five principles. Comment below.