I recently wrote an article about Five Principles for a Salvation Message, so when I spoke recently at junior high week at camp and talks about salvation, I was acutely aware of the words and phrases I was using. When talking to kids about how they can put their faith in Jesus, it’s important to remember how they hear words and phrases. Kids understand abstract concepts differently than adults do. In order to help kids clearly understand the decision they are making to follow Jesus, here are some caveats and phrases to avoid.
“Invite Jesus into my heart”
After giving a talk on creating meaningful Salvation messages for kids, a leader asked, “why aren’t the kids responding to our invitation to have Jesus come live in their heart? Who wouldn’t want Jesus living inside them?!”
And while I agree with her intent, think about the reality of how many children might understand this concept:
Jesus—who you’ve just told them is a real adult human being—will somehow INHABIT THIER BODY.
How does He get in there? Do you swallow Him?
Do I need a special surgery?
Where will He live? What will He eat?
Children have many questions about this phrase, which yield confusing and possibly disturbing answers. Kids attach what they hear to what they know. Kids have a hard time understanding metaphors and abstract associations. So for a child: Jesus + Inside + My + Heart = GROSS!
“Once you believe in Jesus, everything will be better”
Sure. Of course this is true, but it’s not true how a child might envision this being true.
I’m living in poverty. I have one full meal a day. I sleep on the floor. And wear the same clothes every day.
Or my parents are separating with no hope of reconciliation.
Or I’m not that great in school. I can never get higher than a C on my test and quizzes.
Then one Sunday I hear a message about this Jesus who lived and died and rose again for me. And that when I put my faith in Him, everything will be better because He is with me. I put my trust in Him with all my heart. I believe that this, all that you just told me about my new life with Christ, is true.
And I wait…
Wait for my economic position to change.
Wait for my parents to reconcile
Wait for my grades to improve
After all, I was told that my life should be better, right?
But it’s not.
And now I start to wonder if this Jesus thing didn’t work, as if my prayer wasn’t the right prayer or I didn’t have enough faith.
Because I was told that my life would be better…
But. It’s. Not.
As adults, our brains can understand that “better” might mean something emotional, something closer to a peace with our situation or a new-found determination to help change it. “Better” might be having a community of like-minded friends who will help us through what we’re facing.
Jesus never promises that life will be “better” – he actually promises that life will often be difficult because of our faith in him. (See: Matthew 7:13-14, Mark 8:34-35, Luke 10:3, John 16:33) But he also promises that He’ll be with us. And that is what makes life better. We’re no longer alone. We have hope that Jesus has overcome the world, and that no matter what we face, we know that He has won and eventually all will be made new.
In the meantime, we’re promised a peace that passes understanding as we travel in a world still broken by sin. “Better” is true. But only in as much as a child can understand the abstract meaning behind that word. Be careful that the words you use don’t set your kids up for disappointment.
“Once you believe in Jesus, you’ll feel different and happy all the time.”
This is similar to the above statement, but rather than the outcomes of my life changing, our outlook will change.
And sure, maybe it will for a few days or months, but what happens when you don’t feel happy anymore? Kids may wonder if Jesus is longer active in their life or worse, if they’re still part of God’s family.
Tying our salvation to an emotional moment in time is dangerous. When this happens, a child may find himself rededicating his life at closing session every Snow Camp and Summer Camp. Emotions can be manufactured with the right environment or the right sermon. Emotions are a human reaction to what is happening in life. Sadness is real. Anger is real. Negative emotions are going to be part of life. Kids are going to grow up and not always feel happy or like everything is going to be ok.
Because something bad happened and they feel bad about it.
Because they have a chemical imbalance that is twisting their reality.
Because at that point in their life, it’s not going to be “OK” as they define that word.
We must free kids to feel emotions apart from being dependent upon their salvation. We can love God—trust Him even—and still feel the weight of the human experience. When we sweep those under the rug in favor of some false happiness we manufacture, we miss an opportunity to travel the shadow of death and feel the love of The Shepherd coming to find us and carry us home.
When you believe in Jesus, everything will feel different. Except when it doesn’t. And that’s ok. Those moments allow us to feel his love in tangible ways. When we set up kids to think that believing in Jesus makes everything happy and rainbows and magical unicorns, we are laying a weak foundation that will crumble when something bad happens in life.
“Pray the Sinner’s Prayer”
Don’t tie their salvation to a specific “sinner’s prayer.” There’s no “right prayer” for a kid (or anyone for that matter) to say. Kids will express their faith using words and ideas they know and understand at their age. Don’t get hung up on them having the “right words” but consider the heart with which the kids pray them.
In Romans 10:9, Paul says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’…” People often use this verse to prove that there is a prescribed way to receive salvation. Yet when you read through the rest of Paul’s Epistles as well as the salvation accounts throughout Acts, you can see that faith is a result of God’s movement in someone’s life. Declaring one’s faith is deeply personal and not a result of some magical prayer.
We don’t want kids think their salvation is tied to specific words they may or may not have said at some point in their life. As we get older, our memories fade. As we face crisis, our memories can get distorted. If we say that there’s a specific sinner’s prayer they should say to begin a relationship with Jesus, later on in life they may doubt they said the necessary words for that relationship to stick.
Trust takes on many shapes and forms and words. People express that trust differently throughout their lives. In so many words, the Bible informs us that we can come as we are. We must offer the same promise to the kids in our ministries. Don’t let anything get in the way of a child coming to faith. Allow faith to take root in that child’s life and let them declare that faith as they feel moved.
BONUS: If there’s anything that you’re not sure of DON’T SAY IT.
Let’s be honest, there are times when kids ask questions and we’re just not sure how to answer them. Yet instead of being honest with our own confusion, we decide to piece together some ideas and end up making up an answer that sounds good and makes them happy. It’s not that the answer is wrong, but it’s muddled. This is actually more dangerous to faith than admitting our own confusion and saying, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know” is a legitimate answer to questions your kids have about faith. Embrace the mystery of how God works and how the Holy Spirit enters our lives. Invite the kids into that mystery rather than giving them an incomplete answer they may not understand and may fall apart as they grow up and begin to have a better understanding of the decision they made.
Your Turn: What phrases would you add to this list? Let’s work together to present the Gospel clearly, so kids can come to know Jesus. Comment below!
Also published on Medium.