I mentioned a while ago that I went to a conference on working in multi-cultural areas which was run by CURBS in Birmingham. It was an excellent day and I came away with lots to think about. One thing I have continued to wonder about was some comments that Revd Andrew Smith made about how we understand conversion in children. He was, of course discussing this issue in the light of his experiences of people from other faiths exploring Christianity but his ideas seemed to me, to have a wider resonance to children’s ministry.
He basically said that among children’s ministry resources designed to be used in a evangelistic way he only ever really saw becoming a Christian described as repentance for ones ‘old life’ and the adoption of a new life and values. He said that he realised the problems with this model when he found himself telling someone who faithfully prayed five times a day that they had to change! For him this illustrated the need to see different types of conversion and he said that he reckoned on their being about three.
1. YOU’VE GROWN UP WITH IT, NOW MAKE IT YOURS
For those of us who work in churches this is an especially valuable thought. It is my hope that the children who grow up in our church communities will never remember a time when God wasn’t a significant part of their life and our job is to nurture that and allow it to deepen.
This means that as the child gets older and their thinking develops they are able to choose to carry on in the faith they grew up in rather than slightly bizarrely repent from it. This may come in a moment of decision but is likely to be a slow process that John Westerhoff would characterise as the movement from ‘affiliative faith’ to ‘owned faith’ through a time where faith is described as ‘searching’.
2. CONTINUE DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING BUT WELCOME JESUS INTO IT.
This is a model that Andrew suggested had great value when working with people coming from other faiths. It acknowledges the good in their current practice and seeks to place Jesus in the heart of it. So don’t repent of praying five times a day but instead pray in the name of Jesus and the power of the spirit.
3. STOP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND FOLLOW JESUS
This is the model that Andrew reflected is applied to children the most but may well be the least appropriate. I’d agree with him; please hear that I’m not saying children don’t need to decide to follow Jesus but we need to be careful about how we present this. The danger is that no matter how well we explain to a child that God loves them all they will hear is that they have done things that make God so angry that he can’t be their friend until they say sorry. For some children they won’t hear about grace because they won’t get past that first image of an angry and judgemental God who is actually pretty scary.
It’s worth having a think about this and seeing how it effects the way you work. Conversion and children is a tough issue and there is more to think about than at first we realise. As a result we often see resources that are essentially resources for adults turned into language that is easier for children to understand. However by doing this we risk being left with something that is rather superficial or worse inappropriate for the children we love and serve. So have a ponder and let me know what you think.