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How to Share the Gospel with Children

One of the church's greatest privileges and responsibilities is ministering to children. Whether the context is children's church, Sunday school, AWANA, VBS, or something else-and whether it's evangelism or discipleship-our greatest priority is teaching the gospel. Responding to Christ's work in repentance and faith is how children begin and mature in the Christian life.

Sharing the gospel with children, however, is not simply presenting a flannel graph lesson and asking for a show of hands. In fact, statistics indicate that most children raised in the church abandon the faith after high school. This raises a question: Did these kids really understand and respond to the gospel, or were they merely inoculated against genuine Christianity?

Three Concerns

I have three concerns about how we share the gospel with children:
  1. That we not replace the true gospel with false or distorted versions
  2. That we not confuse the gospel with a child's response
  3. That we not equate a true, inward, spiritual response with an outward physical or emotional response
True or False?

In Galatians 1, Paul sternly warned of those who distorted Christ's gospel, saying: "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:9). We cannot and must not modify, amend, or distort the saving message of the cross. But there are many false or distorted versions that masquerade as the truth.

We also must not confuse the gospel with a call to moral obedience. This means that it is insufficient to teach children to live by the Sermon on the Mount, practice the Golden Rule, obey the Ten Commandments, or simply love God and others.

Of course, we want children to obey Scripture, but if this is all we say, we are giving the law, not the gospel. As Tim Keller has pointed out, "The gospel is good news, not good advice."

Even worse is a message that focuses on self-esteem, self-help, or health, wealth, and prosperity. You don't have to be a TV evangelist with big hair and a luxuriant set to fall into this. If we just present Jesus as affirming our selves or solving our difficulties, without talking of sin, judgment, and the cross, then we're portraying Jesus as a spiritual genie, not a saving Lord.

Neither should we think we've shared the gospel when we have said, "If you ask Jesus into your heart [accept or receive Jesus], you will go to heaven when you die." While it's true that those who receive and believe are God's children (John 1:12), it is false that "asking Jesus into your heart" brings salvation. For one thing, that statement includes nothing about:
  • Christ's death, burial, and resurrection
  • Jesus' identity as Messiah, Lord, and God manifested in the flesh
  • Sin, the nature of salvation, and the need for repentance
So the problem with equating "asking Jesus into your heart" with the gospel is that it shifts the focus away from Jesus Christ's atoning work onto the child's subjective work or experience.

What is the gospel, then? Paul defines it in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." Very simply, the gospel is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) through His death, burial, and resurrection.

Responding to the Gospel

My other two concerns are that we not confuse the gospel with a response and that we not equate a true, inward, spiritual response with an outward physical or emotional response.

A true response involves both repentance and faith (Acts 20:21). Repentance is turning from sin, self-righteousness (Phil. 3:1-10), and idolatry (1 Thess. 1:10) to serve the true and living God. Faith is trusting in the crucified and risen Christ to save us.

When sharing the gospel with children, we need to emphasize faith and repentance. But we must always remember that these are responses to the gospel; they are not the gospel itself. Ask for a response, but only after making the message clear.

But don't confuse repentance and faith with a response to an invitation, such as:
  • Raise your hand if you want to go to heaven.
  • Pray the sinner's prayer.
  • You need to be baptized.
  • Make a decision about Jesus today!
These methods have, no doubt, resulted in genuine conversions, but there are dangers. It's easy to raise your hand or say a prayer without truly turning from sin and trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord. On the other hand, it is possible to have repentance and faith without any physical or noticeable demonstration at that time.

Making It Practical

We all share a passion to make sure our children understand the gospel and turn to Christ in genuine salvation. Following are some points of emphasis to keep in mind as you guide young people to understand spiritual truth:
  • Talk a lot about who Jesus is (God-Man, Savior, Lord, King) and what He has done (died for our sins on the cross, rose from the dead).
  • Make it clear that all people need their sins forgiven and will be judged for their sins if they are not saved.
  • Urge children to turn from their sins and trust in what Jesus has done.
  • Invite children to talk to you further about their relationship with God.
  • Motivate parents to pursue further discussions with their children.
  • Think long-term about how you can continually disciple children, vs. how many "decisions" you can record.
  • Pray for the children, and expect God in His grace to use the gospel to bring them to true, saving faith in Christ.

14 comments:

Brian @ voiceofthesheep said...

Brian,

Excellent article, brother!

I am the teacher for our small church's kids' Wednesday night program, Kids Rock. One of my main focuses with these children is the gospel, and I teach it and present it to them the same way I would to an adult.

I have found the best format with them is to present the gospel in four parts: God, Sin, Jesus, Response. Here is a non-exhaustive look at the gospel I teach our children at church.

We start with how God made everything and that it was good, but that man did not obey God and thus died spiritually (and eventually physically as well) and fell into sin and became unreconciled to God, resulting in the whole human race being condemned by sin as well, since Adam represented the whole human race.

We then move to the person and work of Jesus Christ (how he did what we could never do - obey God perfectly, and then died a sacrificial death for the sin all those he cam to save), followed by the fact that God commands (not asks or offers) that all people everywhere repent of their sin and believe on Jesus Christ.

I have presented this gospel numerous times over the past couple of years, and I have never ended with an invitation or show of hands or anything that would be the result of some emotional or peer-pressure response.

The last I want is to be accountable before God for leading a child to falsely believe they are saved when they are not.

Great post!

Brian G. Hedges said...

Thanks, Brian! Keep up the good work in your ministry to kids.

Peter Churness said...

Thank you to both of you "Brians" for two great posts!

I just launched out recently on a cell church plant and have suddenly found myself with three totally unchurched families in my living room. It's been wonderful and the adults are coming to faith.

Well, as adults we all take a turn with our kids slot time and this Sunday is my turn (yes, even the pastor takes a turn :)). I've been wrestling with how to share the gospel to kids who have no church background. I see it as a great opportunity and want to steer away from just cloning the kids like seems to happen so often in our churchy culture (i.e. coax them into saying the right words at the right times).

@Brian Hedges - I so appreciate your warning against simply having kids "ask Jesus into their hearts". For a long time I've felt the gospel needs to be presented to kids in much the same way as to adults (thanks here to "the other Brian"). This thread is encouraging me to do so this Sunday.

Thanks again for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,
Thanks for this. I would like to share this with my pastor and recommend that we make copies of the last section to give to all of our children's teachers. Would that be OK? (I'm not sure how else to get a hold of you other than to leave a comment).
Thanks,
Bob

Brian G. Hedges said...

Of course, Bob. Use it in any way you find helpful.

Anonymous said...

As I am preparing for the children gospel meeting while their parents having their own upstairs, I got the insight from your sharing. I would like to present what Jesus has done for us in 5 colors. I will use drama and children involvement to present the message.

In the beginning God created everything for us. Satan came into tempting the kids and named something bad they had done. Satan wearing black handed out black cloth to each kid who admitted they had done wrong. Then God became Jesus dressed in white (He had not sinned). He came to die and then put on red clothes. Children were encouraged to allow Jesus to replace their black cloth with the white cloth. Jesus bearing all the black cloth died and resurrected while he put on a green clothes representing new life. He then put on a golden crown and promised to come back to judge the world as King.

Thank you for reminding us to focus on what Jesus had done for us.

Jordan said...

Thanks, I'm speaking to some children this week and your article helped alot!

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian and more friends that have posted in this blog, many blessings!

My name is Luis and I serve in Mclean Bible Church in Washington Dc. I serve in various ministries as a evangelistic coordinator. However, this Saturday I was asked to prepare a gospel message for our christmas activity where we give away toys for kids in need.
However,this is where I dont know where to start. Im supposed to prepare a message for all the family, including kids. I have never done that. Ive been reading all the comments in your blog (as well as your recommendation) but the part that I dont know how to address is to tell the kids that they are sinners....

I dont have any problems talking with adults (that is what I do) but I feel challenged to just talk to kids as well. Could you give me any guidance on how to approach the kids and tell them they are sinners as well? (because that statement that is true, how can it be said to the kids?).

More info, we will ahve kids of all ages, from 5 to 15 and their families. We expect 400 families at least.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian and more friends that have posted in this blog, many blessings!

My name is Luis and I serve in Mclean Bible Church in Washington Dc. I serve in various ministries as a evangelistic coordinator. However, this Saturday I was asked to prepare a gospel message for our christmas activity where we give away toys for kids in need.
However,this is where I dont know where to start. Im supposed to prepare a message for all the family, including kids. I have never done that. Ive been reading all the comments in your blog (as well as your recommendation) but the part that I dont know how to address is to tell the kids that they are sinners....

I dont have any problems talking with adults (that is what I do) but I feel challenged to just talk to kids as well. Could you give me any guidance on how to approach the kids and tell them they are sinners as well? (because that statement that is true, how can it be said to the kids?).

More info, we will ahve kids of all ages, from 5 to 15 and their families. We expect 400 families at least.

thank you!!

Brian G. Hedges said...

Ask them the right questions and they'll tell you themselves. Are you sometimes disobedient to your parents? Do you ever lie to not get in trouble? Are you selfish with your toys? Do you every get angry when you don't get your way? These are all common expressions of childhood selfishness/sinfulness.

Lisa said...

I love that this post is packaged as a directive of how we should present the gospel to our children but it's really just good solid advice and wise words of how the Gospel should be presented to everyone, period. I so appreciate and respect you for writing this piece, thank you.

Rebecca T said...

I appreciate your post as I am preparing VBS lessons. Often I am stumped on word choices to use with kids. I never say "ask Jesus into your heart" which cna weird kids out. However, still challenging are words like "reconcile", "grace", and "Justification". I'm working on teaching them those doctrinal truths as their vocabulary level.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic conversation! I, too, will be sharing this with our children's ministries to add to the training of teachers and workers. I would like to add one comment to previous anonymous who suggested using colors: Please consider the other associations our culture places on various colors before applying this tool. We do not want to associate all things white with being pure nor all things black with being sinful. This is a particularly sticky situation to place yourself when you share the gospel with African-American children (and other children who will interact with African Americans). Please remember that the Bible never associated the color black with sin (it's always some form of red). I've seen some curriculums substitute "speckled" for sin, but I think Brian's message was to stick to the gospel in clear language in the first place.
Thanks
@altarego77

David Carter said...

I was thinking the exact same thing as Lisa; I'm printing this out for our next evangelism meeting.