The children have come and gone. The props are stored. And though it took some doing, the glitter is finally extracted from the carpet in the senior adult Sunday School room. Another summer of Vacation Bible School is behind us.
VBS is traditionally the bread and butter of church outreach to children across the nation. Southern Baptists conducted about 28,000 VBS programs in 2012. But desiring to extend their influence in the lives of children throughout the year, children’s evangelism strategies are shifting, SBC experts say.
Baptist congregations are now extending their outreach with months-long ministries that engage children on a more consistent basis. While continuing to emphasize evangelism, many churches are rethinking the way children are led to Christ. A new trend embraces child evangelism strategies that help parents understand their role as the primary instruments through which the gospel must be communicated.
“The evangelization of the children happens in the home over time,” said Donna Peavey, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary associate professor of Christian education and lead professor in childhood education.
While children often “graduate out” of church when they become young adults, Peavey said, families continue to hold sway. “We have them for a season. They will always live in their families.”
Equipping parents to evangelize their own children is vital and necessary, Peavey said. “We should not assume that the parents who come to our churches regularly know how to do this most basic thing with their children.”
Peavey said even competent Christian parents can feel ill-prepared to answer spiritual questions, especially those related to eternal life, noting that parents have often asked her to teach their children the plan of salvation.
But whereas Peavey once gladly accepted that privilege, she now believes that a third party should not be the intermediary in the most profound moment of a child’s life. Parents, no matter how ill-equipped they feel, should not abdicate the responsibility of leading their children to Christ, she said.
Jerry Wooley, LifeWay VBS ministry specialist, said many parents want a church staff member to do the evangelizing.
“I’ve had too many parents say, ‘It’s the pastor’s job,’” Wooley said.
Peavey recently polled seminary and non-seminary parents to quantify the level of family engagement in the spiritual discipline of children. Parents were asked what they value and how often they transmit those values to their children. And while compilation of the data is still underway, initial results were convicting, especially for the seminarians, Peavey revealed.
“There is a high level of value,” Peavey said, “but not enough follow through.”
Trent Worsham, children’s pastor at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, has witnessed similar angst and lack of intentionality among parents. He uses a Lake Pointe-authored material called “The Faith Path” to walk parents through the steps of leading their children to salvation.
Designed to be introduced at age-specific milestones beginning with a baby’s dedication, The Faith Path initiative can be modified by the parents to meet their children’s specific needs.
“We equip and encourage the parents,” he said. “We don’t want to take that from them.”
The Faith Path curriculum provides parents with resources on how to begin enduring spiritual conversations with their children. In an introductory video, Lake Pointe Pastor Steve Stroope said Christianity is not a one-time event taking place at a certain age but a “journey that begins long before your child invites Jesus Christ into their lives to be their Lord and Savior.”
But when the Holy Spirit appears to be moving in the life of a child, what is a parent or church member to do? The answer is more easily answered by what not to do.
Most children’s ministries lead children in groups as small as a Sunday School class or as large as Lake Pointe’s 10,000-student VBS program. But Worsham, Peavey and Wooley all believe the group dynamics for children during “come down front” invitations can evoke emotional, rather than eternal, decisions. One-on-one counsel is the most effective tool in determining a child’s readiness to accept the gospel, they say.
During the course of any children’s ministry program, Peavey and Worsham direct children to fill out cards if they have questions or believe they are ready to make a profession of faith. The parents are then notified about their child’s inquiries. But all of the Christian adult leaders in a child’s life must be prepared to lead a child through the plan of salvation when the moment presents itself, they said.
With respect to a determinative “age of accountability,” each of the experts agreed that preschoolers are generally not intellectually and spiritually mature enough to understand the plan of salvation. Therefore, presenting the gospel must be couched in age-appropriate dialogue. The Passion story is a violent one, Peavey said, and it must be tempered so as not to “frighten children into the arms of Jesus.”
“For the youngest preschoolers we’re just trying to introduce them to who Jesus is, not have them walk down the aisle,” Wooley said.
He said children in second through fourth grade begin to demonstrate a grasp of the gospel and prefacing any salvation conversation with questions helps determine if the moment is right.
Worsham asked, “Do they understand what Jesus did? Why do they need salvation? Do they care about spiritual things? Are they mature enough to make a life-changing decision?”
Introducing children from a young age to key words in the plan of salvation prepares them to fully understand them in a gospel presentation context. Peavey said she intentionally used the words “obey, disobey, confess, repent, and forgive” when disciplining her daughter as she grew. Inculcating these words into a child’s vocabulary from an early age deepens their understanding of the gospel, she argued.
But the children’s ministry leaders say they are attuned to changing cultural dynamics in which many families appear too busy to attend church. An increasing percentage of children are raised in one-parent homes. If the parents are neglecting to tell their children about the Lord, churches must do so.
“VBS is the single largest outreach event that we do collectively,” Wooley said. “These families give us a gift with their kids and contact information.”
The follow-up after VBS is the beginning of the evangelistic work but most churches don’t use the opportunity to connect with children and their families. Wooley said, “If we, as Baptists, don’t know how to do evangelism, then who does? Man, we’ve got a big problem.”
LifeWay has since changed the “Follow-Up” portion of its VBS curriculum, calling it “Continued Connections” and recommending VBS directors recruit a team of workers—separate from those who work the VBS program—to commit to contacting children who attended the event and their families.
Peavey said some churches, though not abandoning VBS, are moving away from ministries targeting children toward those that meet the needs of the entire family.
Once a church determines what is needed by the surrounding neighborhood it can design an outreach. Addressing the needs of the ever-changing family structure has proven quite popular and effective.
Some initiatives popular with her church, First Baptist of Kenner, La., focus on empowering and encouraging parents. By enriching the marriage, parenting is improved, she said.
A Parent’s Night Out program gives parents down time while their children are cared for in a Christ-centered environment. Other events like a family movie night and fall festival serve to introduce families to the church in a non-threatening way. And a potty training class drew 75 parents who heard a Scripture-oriented lesson.
Worsham said Lake Pointe shares the same idea of drawing families to one of its four campuses as a way to introduce the church to its neighbors. Members are encouraged to invite unchurched friends to events—a tactic proven to be the impetus for church growth and a means to demonstrate its care for community.
Ultimately, child evangelism is the role of all believers, Peavey said.
“All of this goes back to the Shema” (in Deuteronomy 6:4-9), she said, adding that all believers share a responsibility to ensure the following generations know and love the Lord. “When we invest our lives in them, genuinely, that’s a powerful relationship. You never know the impact you are having on the life of a child.”
For more information on Lake Pointe’s children’s curriculum, The Faith Path, visit lakepointe.org/faithpath.