The following is excerpted from the book KEEPING THE KIDS: HOW TO KEEP THE CHILDREN FROM FALLING PREY TO THE WORLD, which is available in print and eBook editions from Way of Life Literature. (See complete summary at the end of this article.)
When we think of “keeping the kids,” salvation is foundational. I was amazed at how few of the 250 responses to our questionnaire mentioned this as a factor, but it is absolutely essential.
Some who did emphasize this point wrote with great conviction. Consider the following examples:
“The biggest reason why so many ‘Christian’ youth are not present after reaching adulthood is they are not saved. I graduated in a class of 12 from a ‘respected’ Baptist Christian school in southern Virginia. From those 12, who by the way were praised as the best class from this institution in years, some were missionary kids, pastor’s kids, and deacon’s kids. After 10 years only two were still attending church, and I was the only one working in a ministry. What happened to the others? In a nutshell, drugs, sex, music, cults, and no remorse! All but one was planning upon attending a Christian College, and did, but only two graduated and the others dropped out. I have had contact with many of them, and the stories are all too redundant. They graduated and when the MAN-MADE restraints were removed they plunged into sin and have not to this date returned. All leaders can share similar stories. However, no one seems to think about their lost condition! ‘But, little Johnny prayed and accepted Christ when he was in Sunday School!’ Was his sin dealt with? Or was he just told something like this, ‘You want to go to Heaven one day, right?’ Everyone wants to go to Heaven! But not everyone wants to deal with his sin! Thus, many thousands of ‘decisions’ are made, and they are not made biblically. Child after child goes off to camp, is convicted of some sin, told to come pray about it, and talk it over. In this sequence, the child is told that he has done wrong and urged to make a decision to do right. Children make these decisions and go off in their lostness, fail, and become hardened and bitter. If the law of God is not applied so that there is personal conviction of sin, that child will never see the horrible aspect of his sin. He will be flippant about it! After all, he is going to heaven one day because he prayed a prayer, or believes in God. See how that transpired in James 2:19 and elsewhere in the New Testament. Christ and his followers sought to bring conviction of sin. Consider the Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19. The problem is created by those teachers, pastors, parents, and leaders who do not deal with sin when salvation is approached. After the ‘prayer,’ salvation is never questioned and the child is dealt with as a fleshly or carnal Christian, even though no fruit has ever been present proving salvation. Christ is victorious, and a fruitless scenario should not take place if Christ is present (Romans 8)!”
“A certain percentage simply say a prayer and conform to get along and then show their real self once they are on their own. I believe that in our children’s ministries we push for ‘professions of faith’ and the children/youth respond by emotion, peer-pressure, guilt trip, etc., and not with true repentance. Then they just hang on to that little ‘prayer.’”
“I believe the key is salvation with our youth. Most churches are just social clubs, and holiness and godliness are not the theme. Salvation brings a change in a person that leads them toward the Lord and away from worldliness. For a true believer, his faith affects all areas of life. Our faith should be obvious to those who are without.”
“We all need to be doing a better job in teaching and explaining what it means to be saved. We have watered down salvation to the point where I believe that a high percentage of our children and teenagers have never been genuinely saved. (I think this might also be a concern with a higher than I would like to admit percentage of our adults as well.) Seeing kids genuinely saved would without a doubt lead to a lower dropout rate among the young adults and teens.”
“We need to stop kidding ourselves about true conversion by counting all those who have said a prayer. Instead, we should look for fruit from those who have truly repented. The race to throw them in the baptistry when they don't even know what sin is, is why we have so many false conversions.”
“Many have been swept into the ‘damnable heresy’ that teaches repentance is not necessary for salvation.”
“I wish pastors and people would stop telling our children to say a little prayer and be saved. Salvation is change of mind, not a prayer. God tells us to choose who we will serve. Christ saves us, not a prayer. We make salvation nothing in their eyes. You do it; you’re done. When they get older they no longer wish to please Dad and Mom so they quit church, and the reason is that they were never saved in the first place. The greatest reason is because no one is crying in the wilderness; there is no accountability in the church; and frankly many old members are not saved. Why do I say that, because after 50 years they still do not know their Bibles.”
I agree with these testimonies and observations. Unless young people are truly born again, they will not have spiritual discernment and power and they will not be able to withstand the fierce attacks from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Bible commentator Charles Bridges made the following wise comment on Proverbs 2:10-22:
“The various snares for the young, about to be detailed, furnish a fearful picture of the temptations to which our children are exposed. Will it not awaken our earnest cries for their deep and solid conversion to God; that wisdom may indeed enter into their hearts, and its pleasures be really enjoyed; that they may have a religious taste, as well as a religious education; that they may know the Gospel, not only in the conviction of their conscience, or the excitement of their feelings, but in the entire renewal of their hearts before God? This, and nothing less, will preserve them from the snare of their cruel foe. Every town and village swarms with his emissaries.”
Of course, we cannot produce the new birth in young people, but there are many things that parents and churches can do to see that young people experience God’s miracle working power.
Bobby Mitchell, pastor of Mid-Coast Baptist Church in Brunswick, Maine, is a second generation Baptist pastor. In fact, he and his father started this church together. When I asked them to get together and discuss the question of “why kids leave our churches,” they sent me 14 points, the first of which is the following:
“Many are not genuinely converted because of the watered down Gospel presentations that are so prevalent. They are told to acknowledge a few facts; they are led in a prayer; then they are told to never doubt their experience. Of course, over time, if they are never genuinely converted, they either continue on trying to ‘fit the mold’ of their church, or they just walk away from it when they are able.”
The church that I grew up in was a typical Southern Baptist congregation. Only a few of the young people “stuck.” Most left church when they reached adolescence. As I look back, I can see that lack of salvation was a major problem. My “conversion” was typical. I made a profession of faith at about age 10 during a summer Vacation Bible School, but it was void of spiritual reality. There was no change in my life. There was no passion for Christ; no love for the Bible; no earnest seeking after God’s will. My passion was pleasure and my God was self. As soon as I could, I quit church. Why? I had never been born again, and that was the condition of most if not all of the members of the youth department. I cannot remember even one young person in that church that was serious about the things of God.
My best friends were worldly, and I recall an occasion when I was walking in an orange grove with two church kids and another kid who didn’t attend church. He was our “ring leader.” We ran around together and got into a lot of worldly mischief together, but for some reason we were trying to get him to attend a special meeting at church. He turned around and exclaimed, “Why should I? You don’t live any different than I do.” That stopped our mouths, because he was dead right!
The thing that was missing was biblical repentance. I “believed” in Jesus, as the devils believe in God, but it was not a saving belief. Repentance is mentioned 60 times in the New Testament. It was preached by John the Baptist, by Christ, by Peter, and by Paul. Christ commanded that we preach repentance as part of the Great Commission (Luke 24:47). The message that the apostle Paul preached was “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Repentance is a change mind about God and sin that results in a change of life. It means to turn around, to change directions. It involves surrender to God’s rule. Repentance is not works. It is a change of mind, not a change of life; but true repentance will result in a change of life. Many who “believe” and “pray the sinner’s prayer” have no intention to change. They are not interested in being a disciple of Christ. They remain self-centered, merely wanting a ticket to heaven that keeps them from hell but allows them to continue to live as they please, but that is not biblical salvation.
Repentance is illustrated in many places in Scripture. The Prodigal Son “came to himself” (Holy Spirit-wrought conviction and enlightenment), humbled himself, acknowledged his sin against God and against his father, and turned around so that he was facing in a different direction (Luke 15:17-20). Zacchaeus was converted so dramatically that he became an honest man who paid back those he had cheated (Luke 19:8). And this change occurred in one moment! The Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). That is biblical repentance.
Jesus said that salvation is a conversion experience. “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). He said, further, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The new birth conversion is not a life-long process; it is a dramatic, supernatural, life-changing event!
This is what young people need. This will change their lives and set their feet in a new direction and give them spiritual conviction. When you are born again, you receive the Holy Spirit as your Teacher and Helper and Convictor. You can still sin, but you are changed and you don’t want to sin. And when you do sin, the Lord chastens you. The Bible says that “if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (Hebrews 12:8). Those who leave church and go out into the world, as I did in high school, and do not return, have never been saved. It is that simple.
The Bible warns that it is possible to profess Christ without possessing Christ. Consider the following powerful Scriptures which describe multitudes of young people in Bible-believing churches:
“They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (Titus 1:16).
“He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).
One man replied to our questionnaire with the following sad but all-too-typical testimony,
“Having taught in my church’s Christian school, I truly believe that out of an enrollment of 40-50 kids, most likely more than 95% were lost. It breaks my heart to see so many young people have a head knowledge of Christ, but they have never truly believed from the heart. What concerns me even more than that is that many parents and even church leaders seem to not want to acknowledge the reality of the situation. We comfort ourselves with the fact that our kids memorize Bible verses and come to church, when in reality most of them come because Mom or Dad makes them, and then during the services most of them are sleeping, laughing and talking to their friends, or checking their cell phones. Most youth groups in Independent Baptist Churches are an absolute joke. My wife and I spent 20 months on deputation visiting Independent Baptist Churches, and we could not believe some of the things we were seeing from the youth groups. It is high time that Independent Baptist churches face the issue of our unconverted youth, because if we don’t our churches are headed for disaster.”
It is not enough to “believe in Jesus.” Even the devils believe (James 2:19). In fact, the devils tremble, which is far more than the average “Christian” young person does!
The Bible says that many believed in Jesus but He did not commit Himself to them, because He knew they weren’t saved (John 2:23-25). They weren’t believing in Him as Lord and Saviour; they were believing in Him as someone to provide their needs and protect them from their enemies.
Jesus warned that many of those who claim to know Him are deceived.
“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:22-23).
No sinless perfectionism
Let me hasten to say that when I talk about a genuine spiritual conversion, I am not talking about attaining some level of sinless perfection. The apostle John plainly declared that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Biblical salvation is not sinless perfection in this present life; it is the impartation of new spiritual life that must “grow in grace” (2 Peter 3:18). Salvation has a positional aspect and a practical aspect. There is relationship and fellowship. On the one hand the believer has already put off the old man with his deeds positionally (Col. 3:9). This refers to his new position in Christ. Before God the believer is clothed in Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). On the other hand the believer is instructed to put off the old man and put on the new practically (Ephesians 4:22-24). This is in the sense of his walk in this present world. The true believer will give evidence of this by his changed life and his new attitude toward God’s Word (John 8:47), but the daily battle with the “old man” is still a very real thing in his life.
Not saying that children can’t be saved
I am also not saying that a child cannot be saved at an early age. Jesus said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). I believe that many children that grow up in Christian homes do come to Christ at an early age, but then they surrender to the Lord in a more conscious, informed way when they reach adolescence. One pastor wrote,
“When kids grow up in Christian homes, they may accept salvation at an early age, but they aren’t really old enough yet to make a decision to commit to follow God instead of the world. Both my wife and I remember vividly deciding NOT to follow the popular folks in our high schools and to try to follow the Bible. She was saved at around age five, but she remembers vividly deciding in 11th grade to follow the Bible. I grew up on the mission field and was saved in second grade, but I, too, remember the moment I decided not to run with the crowd and to go with God. In my opinion, signing up to follow Christ occurs sometime in high school even though salvation may occur many years before. Christian parents who themselves were saved as adults may not be aware of this two-step process.”
I am convinced there is much truth to this testimony and that this “two-step process” does happen in some cases, but we must hasten to add that salvation involves repentance even if it occurs in childhood and it will make a difference in the child’s life.
Receiving Church Members
One key in this issue is for churches to be very careful in receiving members. Too many churches are careless about this most important matter. They accept a “profession of faith” regardless of how empty. In our church in South Asia, we try to be very careful about this, not only to keep the church pure but also so that we do not give unsaved people a false hope of salvation by receiving them into membership. When someone professes Christ, we deal with them as carefully as possible to ascertain if they have been saved. Next they go through a baptismal class in which they are again taught about salvation and baptism. At the end of that, the individuals who are seeking baptism come one by one before the church leaders and their wives and give their personal testimonies, and the leaders have an opportunity to ask questions if things aren’t clear. If the leaders are not united in their opinion that a certain individual is saved, we do not baptize him until the doubt has been resolved. Those who are accepted, then stand before the church and again give their testimonies. Only then do we baptize them and bring them into membership. Man cannot see the heart, and we cannot be 100% sure of anyone’s salvation, but we can hear the testimony and see the life.
One of the reasons why I am committed to this system is my own sad experience as an unsaved church member.
The Quick Prayerism methodology that has permeated most fundamentalist churches has contributed greatly to the acceptance of empty professions. I call it Quick Prayerism because it is quick to get someone to pray a sinner’s prayer before they have had an opportunity to thoroughly understand the gospel and quick to give them assurance and report them as a salvation statistic when there is no evidence that they have actually been saved.
This was the methodology that I was taught as a student at Tennessee Temple in the 1970s. I worked in the church’s huge bus ministry and pastored one of its 60 chapels. We were taught a form of salesmanship. We were shown how to manipulate people into praying a sinner’s prayer. As a result, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the surrounding area for a radius of a hundred miles was filled with people who had “prayed the prayer” but lived like the devil. In those days Highland Park Baptist Church, the home of Tennessee Temple, reported massive numbers of “salvations” each year, but if you examined the statistics, you found that they were largely empty. Of every 100 that “prayed the prayer,” a frightfully high percentage gave no evidence of possessing biblical salvation.
We shouldn’t rush when it comes to this most important thing in life. I’m not saying that there is no urgency about salvation. I’m saying that we should take the time to do the job right. The farmer who wants a good crop has to honor the laws of sowing and reaping. Instead of trying to get people “saved” in a few minutes time at a church altar and being forced to be hasty, why not take them into another room and deal with them for as long as it takes, whether that means an hour or several days or weeks? Why rush people into praying a sinner’s prayer when we have just met them and have presented a brief Romans Road salvation plan? Why not spend some time with them and explain the gospel clearly and try to make sure not only that they understand but that they have repented and put their faith in Christ in a saving manner?
If an individual is not willing to listen to the Bible’s teaching, he certainly isn’t ready to be saved. You can’t trick someone into be saved! In South Asia, it typically takes a Hindu weeks and months of hearing the gospel and attending church before he is ready to be saved. And, typically, people in North America, England, Australia, and Europe today are as biblically ignorant of the gospel as a Hindu in Nepal. We need to make sure that they properly understand such foundational things as God’s holiness and justice, the fall and sin, and Christ’s atonement. We need to make sure that they are not merely reinterpreting what we are saying in light of what they have previously believed. It is one thing for a person to admit that he is a sinner in the sense of not being perfect, but it is quite another for him to acknowledge that he is the sinner that the Bible says he is, that even his righteousness is as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). It is one thing for a person to “believe in Jesus”; it is quite another for him to acknowledge from the heart that Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Saviour.
To get back to our subject, the very first thing we must do, if we want to keep kids from dropping out of church, is to do everything we can to make sure that they are saved. We must not gloss over this. We must not accept an empty profession as salvation. If a young person is a rebel toward authority and his heart goes after the world and he has no passion for Jesus Christ, he is probably lost, it matters not how many “professions” he has made.
This reminds us of the importance of prayer. Salvation is a miracle that only God can perform. We must therefore bathe our soul-winning efforts with prayer so our evangelistic activities do not consist of empty religious works devoid of spiritual power. I am thankful that I had a grandmother that could get hold of the throne of grace through prayer and fasting in behalf of a wayward grandson.
Dealing with Children
We must especially be careful when dealing with children. They naturally want to please adults and are easily manipulated. A helpful book on child evangelism is How Can I Except Some Man Should Guide Me? by Pastor Kerry James Allen (currently out of print). Following is an excerpt:
“Never tell your children they are saved, even after they make a decision. You don’t know that for a fact. Many a well meaning parent has told a child what a child did, when the child doesn’t even know what the child did! Be patient! Many a young person has been convinced of their conversion by a well meaning parent, when the young person himself is not totally convinced. Allow the Holy Spirit to give assurance; that is one of His functions. Never try to lead them in prayer if they do not understand, are not under conviction, and are just not ready. You can’t beg, arm wrestle, or shove someone into the kingdom of God. Give God and His Word a chance, and allow Him to work. He promised He will!” (How Can I Except Some Man Should Guide Me? p. 47).
In the following testimony, Pastor David Sorenson, Northstar Baptist Church, Duluth, Minnesota, explains how easy it is for a young person growing up in church to make a false profession of faith:
I believe one problem in many Christian homes is that the children have made professions of faith, but have never actually been born again. ... A child who has a divinely created new nature within his or her heart will be spiritually sympathetic to being trained in righteousness. ... Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we carefully instruct and coach our children about salvation. ...
[I have known of many young people who] professed to be saved in their childhood; but in reality, they were never born again. They went through the motions and walked an aisle. They learned the language, but they were never regenerated. ...
As a boy of five, I had gone (or been taken) forward in an evangelistic meeting. I do not know who the preacher was. I do not remember what the sermon was about. In fact, as I recall, I slept through much of the service. I have absolutely no recollection of who prayed with me or how I was dealt with in the prayer room. ... After that meeting, I was coached to tell others that I had gotten saved. Therefore, over the next fifteen years, if someone asked me if I was saved, I would reply, ‘Oh yes. I was saved when I was five years old.’ Now, I believe that five-year-old children can be saved, but I do not believe that I was saved then. If it had not been for faithful parents who continued to pray for me over those years, I may not have been genuinely converted when I was in Bible college. I believe in my case and in many others, there was a lack of conviction about sin and its consequences in both heart and mind. It is a crucial prerequisite to the new birth. ...
In Bible college, I was searching spiritually. I went to a spiritual leader and told him of my heart’s confusion. He dismissed my concern and told me I was just seeking assurance of my salvation. Well, as it turned out, what I really was seeking was salvation. ... If your children come to you and tell you they are not sure that they are saved, treat it as though they have never made any profession of faith. You do not know their hearts; only God does. Beware of saying, ‘Oh, honey, you took care of that a long time ago. Don’t you remember?’ It may be that the Holy Ghost is dealing in his heart. Do not assume that because he has gone through the motions that he is born again. ...
[Saving] faith includes repentance. Repentance is not doing anything. It is not a deed, act, work, or rite. Rather, it is a change of the direction of one’s heart. It basically means an attitude of the heart in turning from sin and self and turning to God. That’s what Paul was referring to in Acts 20:21 when he referred to ‘repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Saving faith is the human heart turning to God and then trusting in Jesus Christ. ... Even as there is the part of trusting Christ, there is also the part of turning to Him. That may seem inconsequential, but I believe that here is a spiritual reason that some go through the motions of believing in Christ but are not really born again. They seemingly want the fire escape but there is no interest in turning to God. There is no interest in repentance. They have the attitude, ‘God, gimme salvation, but I’m gonna keep on doing my own thing.’ ... However, if there is no real turning to God from the heart, they have missed the prerequisite for actually trusting Christ. ...
As a young man in my junior year at Pillsbury Baptist Bible College, God convicted me. I had never really been saved though I had been a professing Christian for the preceding 15 years. ... I began to think back over my life to that point. I knew that the Bible taught that ‘if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I knew that if a person was really saved, there would be an interest in the things of God. There would be some sort of internal aversion to sin. Anyone who knew me during my teenage years would have remembered me as a rebellious preacher’s kid.
I had absolutely no interest in the things of God. I only went to church because my dad was the pastor, and I had to go. I could not have cared less about the Bible. Things like witnessing and having a testimony were about as alien to me as living in Afghanistan. I loved the things of the world. My mind and my vocabulary were as foul as any one else in the world. I thought like the world thought. I liked what the world did, and I wanted to do what the world did. Only the strictness of my upbringing and of the college I was attending prevented me from actually doing a significant amount of it.
I lay there on my bed that morning in November 1966. As I mulled all of this over in my mind, I knew that I had no recollection of conviction when I went forward as a boy. I reflected over the fact that there had never been any change in my life spiritually that I could remember. I knew the sinfulness of my heart as a 20-year-old college student, and I considered the lack of interest in the things of God in my life.
Slowly that November morning, the Holy Spirit convicted me of the fact that I had never really been saved. I had gone through the motions of it as a small boy and had professed salvation all those years. For the first time in my life it was dawning on me that I was not saved, and for someone who had assumed himself to be saved for the past 15 years, it came as quite some shock. ... As I thought about the situation, it suddenly dawned upon me, ‘If I am not saved, then I am on my way to hell.’ I had never in my entire life given any serious consideration to that fact. It kind of shook me up. ... I realized that I was dealing with a serious matter. After wrestling spiritually with the conviction of the Holy Spirit for some time, I knew I had to settle the matter. I knelt beside my bed and prayed, ‘Dear Lord, I know I am a sinner. I really don’t know what happened when I was five years old. But I don’t think I really was saved then. Oh Lord, please save me and cleanse me of my sins and give me eternal life.’
There were no bolts of lightning or thunder claps, but a peace swept across my soul. I knew I had settled the matter. There no longer was any doubt. I had trusted Christ and I knew it. I claimed Romans 10:13, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved.’ This time there had been a clear understanding of my lost condition, and this time there was a deep willingness to turn to Christ and trust Him. Praise the Lord, He saved me.
Very soon thereafter, my life began to make some radical changes.
The foundational element in “keeping the kids” for Christ is in doing everything we can to make sure that they know Christ personally.
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