Praying the prayer to ask Jesus into their hearts with children is the seminal moment in evangelical families. It is believed to be the moment they are saved into securing eternity in heaven, and a commitment to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives. It is a significant and momentous event, one worthy of celebrating. And yet, even though my husband and I are both Jesus-following Christians raised with evangelical backgrounds, we have decided to not pray the sinner’s prayer with our two kids. Here are three reasons why:
1. Children are children before they are sinners.
One of the more harmful teachings of fundamentalist families is to interpret children’s normal behavior as sin. For example, toddlers test boundaries because of the curiosity wired in them — it is a necessary developmental stage to establish their growing identity. And yet, I have seen Christian parents define normal toddler defiance as evidence of sin inherent in children. I believe this is driven by the desire to get children to a place of recognizing a need for the saving grace of Jesus as quickly as possible. Define the problem → provide the solution.
I think this has potential to do much damage to children’s psyches by denying their natural, human inclinations and judging that behavior as sinful. It becomes difficult for children to listen to their own intuition and God-given conscience because they have been taught to be self-abasing and self-denying.
I believe in sin and its many profound manifestations, and I believe Jesus is the answer to our problem of sin. But I think we must honor children’s natural developmental stages and broach the subject of sin with much care. A life of faith can be nurtured without introducing sin as the foundation of that faith. Jesus welcomed children into his presence and declared that the kingdom of heaven already belongs to them.
We want our children to develop a life of faith, but not with sin as a starting point. Rather, we teach them that they are created in the image of God, worthy of love and dignity.
And we skip the sinner’s prayer.
2. Assurance of salvation? Not so much.
Growing up evangelical, I was taught praying the prayer would become the mark of assurance, our get-out-of-hell card. I remember praying it with as much sincerity as I could muster, hoping God heard and received it. Then I remember praying it again, and again, and again. If praying the prayer was supposed to be reassuring, it certainly did not work on me.
Part of the problem was how much I was afraid of going to hell. The prayers were uttered in panic, superstitiously slipped in here and there to be sure the magic worked. The second reason we did away with the sinner’s prayer is because we desperately don’t want our children to fall into this fear.
I don’t think that God sits up in heaven with a salvation log, and when little kids “pray the prayer,” God checks off a little box and plucks their soul from damnation to heaven. Rather, I believe God moves in the hearts and lives of people surrounding children to compel them with love. Assurance of God’s love doesn’t come packaged in a tidy little prayer, it is delivered through consistent provision of tender care by the children’s caretakers.
3. Belonging > Believing.
Every child develops at their own pace, arriving at different times to the point when they are able to consciously make a meaningful decision to follow Jesus (or not). This is the reason why baptism for children has been an issue of controversy within the Church, where denominations arbitrarily declare various ages for when salvation becomes efficacious in children.
I think every parent needs to be sensitive to their child’s spiritual development and provide the freedom and autonomy to travel the faith journey according to their own timeline. However, particularly when children are young and need structure, as Christian parents we don’t want our children to flounder without a spiritual identity.
For us, this means we have provided the Christian identity for them because they are our children: children of Christian parents. Therefore, before they are old enough to make their own faith decision, their participation in Christian traditions with us as a family is our invitation to them to come alongside us, as our family.
This is also a way for our family to live out a prophetic critique against the radical individualism of western Christianity, where faith is isolated in an individual’s personal relationship to God rather than via participation in community. Our spiritual identity is defined not only through intellectual belief, but also through taking part in something bigger than the individual.
Our hope is that this provides a secure environment for our children, but also gives them the freedom to depart from our tradition should they desire to as they grow into adulthood.
Are our children Christians? Absolutely. Not because they’ve prayed the prayer, but because for now, we’ve given them a place to belong, under the leadership of Christian parents who are doing our best to demonstrate the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
And for us, that is Christian enough.
About Cindy Brandt
Cindy writes from Taiwan about faith and culture. She blogs at cindywords.com. She is the author of Outside In: Ten Christian Voices We Can’t Ignore, which you can download for free by signing up for her newsletter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.