We’ve been looking at how we approach our children with our faith in Christ. We are called to nurture them in faith and lead them to discipleship in Christ.
But how do we begin? Part of the answer to this question depends on our view of humanity and our children. Do we believe they are lost from birth or at an early age we might call “age of accountability”? Or do we view them as already saved partakers in faith gradually being transformed and sanctified in Christ?
Must we view our children as lost before they can be found? We do, in fact, nurture our children to honor God from the time they can sing, “Jesus loves me this I know” to the point when their faith leads them to baptism. But, are they converted, nurtured, or both?
A study of Southern Baptist methods of evangelizing their children helps to frame the discussion. In the study, four ways emerged as the primary historic approaches of the church to sharing faith in Christ with their children. Over time, children were viewed in the Southern Baptist churches in one of four ways:
•Prospects for evangelism
•Maturing participants in the faith community
First, early in the history of the Southern Baptist movement children were considered non-members. Though Baptist roots are found in English Puritanism, Thomas Halbrooks, author of the study, said that one major difference was the Baptists’ insistence on adult baptism. Founder John Smyth said the church “is a company of the faithful: baptized after confession of sin and faith.” Consequently, baptism “does not belong to infants.”
Second, children were also viewed as prospects for evangelism. Revivalists such as Charles G. Finney encouraged parents and teachers to instill Christian character and hope for traumatic conversion at “the earliest possible moment.” Many revivalists did not baptize infants, but they did want to bring children into the fold as quickly as possible, viewing children as young as five-years-old as prospects for evangelism. By 1960, the normative age for responding to the gospel among Southern Baptists had dropped from “Juniors (ages nine to twelve) to Primaries (ages six to eight).”
Third, in the mid-1900s, children were increasingly viewed as potential disciples. The revivalist’s idea of children making decisions at such tender ages was called into question in light of developing ideas of educational psychology. Children in some churches were deferred until they were of the “age of disciple-ability.” In 1963, Lewis Craig Ratliff wrote a doctoral thesis discussing the quest for “disciple-ability” in children, rather than “age of accountability.” While accountability focuses on knowing right and wrong, disciple-ability requires the child to have an “ability to understand abstract ideas, the development of selfhood and independence from parents, and social maturity.” Ratliff pegged this range at somewhere between 13 and 15, and in this window of opportunity the child would be able to profess faith, follow Christ in baptism, and become a member of the church. Before this time the child is viewed as a potential disciple.
Fourth, Southern Baptists the last several decades have begun to view children as maturing participants in the faith community, according to Halbrooks. This approach focuses more on nurturing children within the context of the church. William E. Hull, in a paper presented at the meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in 1980, said Baptists need a theology of the child that recognizes and follows more of the Hebrew insights into the nurture of children. Three major stages of development, says Hull, are “infancy” (birth to 9 years) when children ought to be taught their religious heritage, “childhood” (9-12 years) when children ought to affirm this heritage and commit to faith, and “adolescence” (12 years and up), when children ought to take great responsibility in the life of the church and own their faith completely.
This study of Southern Baptist views of children is significant because it describes four historic approaches to sharing faith with children in one denominational body. Most Evangelical churches today land near the maturing participants view. Stone-Campbell churches, on the other hand, come closer to the third view but some churches and individuals seem to be moving toward the maturing participants view as well. Generally, however, most Churches of Christ view children as potential disciples until they reach an age where sin can be discerned and a decision to follow Christ can be made independently from parents.
Tomorrow, I’ll illustrate with a few examples of practices and beliefs in churches I’ve experienced and discuss this idea of maturing participants more.
How do we view our children? Do we view them as non-members until they are baptized? Are they lost until they are baptized? Or do we view them as prospects for evangelism? Potential disciples? In a household with Christian parents, can we call this a Christian family when not all the children are baptized? What is the church’s role in leading our children to faith? Do we instead nurture faith from early years?