Continued from February 2 post . . .
Children as non-members
How, then, do we approach our children with our faith in Christ specifically in terms of their decisions of public faith? Do we view them simply as non-members until they come of age? While in some families or Christian cultures children are intensely noticed and attended and taught, some churches still function with an unspoken view that children are non-members until they make a decision to follow Christ or become adults. This is like the first view in the Southern Baptist study: children as non-members, but the latter three views are more dominant today in Christian communities.
A Christmas letter from friends who are members of a Church of Christ illustrates one of the four views of children. In the letter, our friends described how they are teaching their pre-school children the Ten Commandments and the books of the Bible. They also described ways in which the children participate in the life of their church. While they do not view their elementary school-aged children as Christians in the sense that they have decided to follow Christ on their own and have been baptized, they do view them as needing instruction and seek to bring them into the life of the church as nurtured participants. Our friends teach and nurture their children, yet they are viewed as too young to be baptized. They have not reached the age of accountability or disciple-ability. They would likely view their children in the third category: as potential disciples.
While views of children vary according to culture and churches worldwide, many parents and churches in the Stone-Campbell Movement view their children as potential disciples. This would be true of particularly Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ and to a lesser extent in Disciples of Christ, which would likely lean more toward the maturing participants view. The closer a child comes to the age when she is convicted of sin and affirms Christ as her Savior and Lord, the more she is viewed as a prospect for evangelism. For example, a Bible class full of children eleven and twelve years old is ripe with potential disciples in the typical understanding of Churches of Christ in the United States.
Prospects for evangelism
We have talked with conservative Baptists and Evangelicals who view five and six-year-old children as prospects for evangelism. As soon as the children are able to reason and know right from wrong, they move to convict their children of their sinfulness and their need for a personal Savior. For instance, we have Baptist friends who confessed Christ and were baptized at age five. Many in Churches of Christ would say this is too young. Catholics, meanwhile, baptize infants. For them, the process of maturing and confirmation begins as early as the child is able to comprehend the rites and teachings of the church. This is an example of the prospects for evangelism view.
Do we consider children prospects for evangelism as soon as they can reason and are able to say a prayer of repentance and submit to baptism? If we believe five or six years old is too young and we choose to wait and view our children as potential disciples, what age is right for disciple-ability or accountability? At what point do they become utterly sinful and ready for initiation or conversion? Or do we view our children as maturing participants in faith and nurture them?
These are not easy questions to answer, but there is more truth in the asking and reflecting on these ideas than in remaining quiet and continuing to allow these concerns to go unspoken. When we do not ask these difficult questions about our children’s spiritual development, we fall back to the least common denominator within our particular tradition. The current least common denominator in Churches of Christ is the unwritten and rarely spoken idea of the “age of accountability.” Twelve years old is the average age for baptism among students, according to a study by David K. Lewis, Carley H. Dodd, and Darryl L. Tippens.
The goal of this examination of how children in Churches of Christ come to faith was not to pinpoint a particular age to be baptized but to discern how to help shape young lives into the image of Christ. The 1995 report shows not only how adolescents view God but also proposes ways to build vital spiritual foundations in them through their experience in the community of faith. In one chapter they explore the influences on baptism, reasons for baptism, life change at or after baptism, and ways to enrich the emotional and spiritual power of this ritual.
Dodd, Lewis, and Tippens ask whether our children really take a U-turn in conversion, or are they instead coming to a signpost along a maturing faith path? Is conversion language of Scripture lost on our children? How can children developing faith in a Christian community identify with moving from darkness to light and condemned to justified? Adolescents, say the authors, “convert in a manner that is more appropriately ‘Jewish’ than ‘pagan.’ Most choose to be baptized after having been believers for years. Thus, the changes in belief and behavior are incremental, not radical.” They do not view baptism as a dramatic darkness to light experience because most were raised in a faith community. More than half of the adolescents surveyed, however, did say that baptism changed their lives by helping them display the fruit of the Spirit. So they view their baptism seriously but do not typically view their conversion experience in the same “dramatic terms our theological tradition holds up as normative.” The report points to a gap between the “theology of dramatic baptismal change, and the fact of change that is comparatively subdued, incremental, and colorless.”
The language of Apostle Paul is applicable to the situation. Paul reflects on baptism as an event in the past that is continually significant. This reflection is vital to teens’ and adults’ understanding of their baptism. It becomes more and more important in hindsight. At the same time, the authors make it clear that nothing in their research would suggest that those baptized at age twelve are less likely to remain faithful than those baptized later. Those baptized in their late teens do show a more immediate response to the meaning of baptism. Among unbaptized sixteen-year-olds, however, only eight percent viewed God as important in their lives.
We must, therefore, prayerfully plan spiritual and faith formation in our children. When children can think independently, have a primary understanding of God’s redemptive story and have faith in Christ, what prevents them from going down in the river to pray?
Faith in our God will bring our children to baptism when the time is right. The process of discipleship does not begin and end with a string of questions administered on a church pew the day of a child’s baptism. While this call to count the cost is important, the church’s role is deeper than simply discerning what a child knows before baptism. Our role is to nurture faith, to call our children to discipleship.
My children are twelve, nine, and six. If I baptized any of them today, I would not be baptizing them because I believed they were lost the day I baptized them but more because baptism is a sign of the faith in Christ who they have loved and served from the day they could first sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I do, however, point out that their behavior toward me, their mother, siblings, friends is sinful when hate, lies, and cruelty–to name a few–are in their hearts. I’m not suggesting that my children are without sin. Instead, if they are ones called by God and willingly enter baptism at an age of discipleability, they are passing a signpost on the road to God that they’ve been on many years.
So when we baptize our twelve-year-old believers, we do not baptize them believing that they would have been lost the day before because they were unbaptized. For instance, my friend John Mark Hicks baptized his daughter, Rachel, at the age of eleven. If for some reason she had died the night before, John Mark says, “I would have ‘preached’ her into heaven as though I had baptized her the day before. She did not move from lost to saved as much as she owned her own faith and matured in her relationship with the faith community. When we baptize our children, we are initiating them into the full narrative of their faith and conversion over a long period of time.”
These last two posts have been adapted from the book I co-authored with John Mark Hicks, Down in the River to Pray. To order click here