So, with part 2 in mind, how do we invite children into a relationship with Jesus Christ?
Do we view children simply as non-members until they come of age? Do we consider them 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, but discussing openly can bring us to new understandings. 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.”
One study bears this out. Twelve years old is the average age for baptism among students in a study by David K. Lewis, Carley H. Dodd, and Darryl L. Tippens.[vi]
But the age is really not the most interesting nor most important element of the study. The goal of the study by Lewis, Dodd, and Tippens was to examine how children in Churches of Christ come to faith, not to pinpoint a particular age to be baptized but to discern how to help shape young lives into the image of Christ. That’s huge.
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.
Are children in our churches really taking a U-turn in conversion, or are they instead coming to a Signpost? 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.”[vii] 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.”[viii] 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 significance placed on their baptism, however, grows in their late teen years. The language of 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’ 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 12 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 16-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 baptism?
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. Their faith will bring them to the river.
One last thing . . . 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, John Mark Hicks, my friend and co-author of Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work, baptized his daughter at the age of eleven. If for some reason she had died the night before, he said, “I would have ‘preached’ her into heaven as though I had baptized her the day before.”
John Mark’s daughter 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.
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[i] Timothy George, “The Reformed Doctrine of Believer’s Baptism,” Interpretation 47 (July 1993), 248.
[ib] Infant baptism is difficult to consider here, because it involves more the faith step of parents and the fulfilled mission of the church than it does the faith response of a believer.
[ii] Thomas Halbrooks, “Children and the Church: A Baptist Historical Perspective,”Review and Expositor 80.2 (Spring 1983), 179-188.
[iii] Halbrooks, 180.
[iv] Halbrooks, 183.
[v] Lewis Craig Ratliff, “Discipleship, Church Membership, and the Place of Children Among Southern Baptists” (Th.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1963), 130, 137, 140, 143, 181. I am grateful to Thomas Halbrooks’ research in this area, and I relied on his reading of Ratliff for this particular point about the age of “disciple-ability.”
[vi] David K. Lewis, Carley H. Dodd, and Darryl L. Tippens, The Gospel According to Generation X: The Culture of Adolescent Belief (Abilene, Texas: ACU Press, 1995), 138-162.
[vii] Lewis, Dodd, and Tippens, Gospel, 148.
[viii] Lewis, Dodd, and Tippens., Gospel, 142.