Do Not Use Children for Evangelistic Outreach

Do Not Use Children for Evangelistic Outreach January 23, 2017

Unfundamentalist Parenting

Image: Pixabay

When I wrote How I Kissed Evangelism Goodbye, my main point was that evangelism turns people into projects instead of treating them with dignity. I believe it is counter productive to loving others when evangelists try to convert others when instead, we should love them by listening and learning from them.

If we pull back the lens and take a look at the broader landscape in which this type of evangelism takes place, we can see that it is the larger culture of consumerism that reduces our relationships into transactions. The church has not been immune to this sort of captivity, as many produce programs meant to attract consumers instead of living prophetically against the dehumanization of consumerism.

Most thoughtful adults are aware of this deep programming and we are rightly skeptical of being sold stuff. How many of us are wary of telemarketers, annoying ads, and of zealous religious folks trying to convert us? I mean, we all are susceptible to the occasional upsell (listen, a good deal is a good deal, sometimes a girl’s gotta get some new boots), but for the most part we learn our lessons eventually and keep marketers at arm’s length in order to guard our wallets and our humanity. We know, deep in our souls, that we are more than consumers.

However, children are much more vulnerable. My 10 year old son experienced his first scam last week. With his Christmas money he decided to spend $3 buying an app online. After thorough research reading online reviews (which were written by bots), he made the decision to buy it only to find out it was worthless. He was crestfallen and teary as he wondered aloud why people would do that, scam others? The marketing machine doesn’t treat my son like a human being worthy of dignity, it treats him like money signs. In fact, children are considered one of the most powerful forces in the market as researchers found they directly impact more than $286 billion of family purchases. Marketers have figured out if they can get the children’s attention, they can entice the children to persuade their parents to make purchases. $16 billion dollars a year are spent on advertising to children. $16 billion dollars are used to manipulate children, and use them as a means to grow the bottom line. There is a strong, booming voice in our families who are trying to dictate the narrative of our children’s lives. The voice calls out to our children through various media channels, telling them they are worthless until they buy, buy, buy.

There exists this beautiful opportunity for those of us with Christian faith to speak a vastly different story. To tell our children they are worth so much more than how many dollars they can inject into the economy. To love the children for the simple beauty of being. To never use them as a means to an end, but to be cherished as inherently worthy people just as they are.

And yet.

I see churches not resisting the urge to treat children as consumers but coopting the same model. Just as marketers view children as direct targets AND as means to an even larger market, so churches evangelize directly to children and use them as a method of attracting more people to their church.

I think there needs to be a conversation regarding the ethics of evangelizing to children who do not yet have developed cognitive abilities. Is it just, for religious adults to convert children who have their own vibrant spiritualities into a system of religious parameters to contain their faith? This is not to say churches should not welcome children, they should, with wide open arms, but they should be mindful of consistently giving autonomy back to children in every way for them to make their own decisions about their own faith and practice. I’ve said this before, but using fear of hell as a tactic to convert children should never be done. We must be extremely careful not to take advantage of our power over children as adults to insert our ideas and beliefs into their minds without giving them their own voice to engage freely with us.

And we certainly should not be using children as a means to evangelize others. A prominent case in point is a viral video of children narrating the Christmas story enacted by adults in a video produced by a megachurch, Southland Christian Church, in Kentucky. This 2015 video went viral then and again in 2016. It is adorable because children are so delightful, but here’s what this Christianity Today article says,

“Hundreds of fellow churches, youth groups, and ministries have contacted Southland about using the video in their on services and outreach.”

“…churches like Southland have involved their youngest generation in evangelical outreach. Its annual videos are created as special features for Christmas Eve services, when congregants are more likely to bring friends and families.”

When you are showcasing children with the hopes of an underlying agenda such as attracting families to your church, you are placing your concern for the agenda over and above the dignity of the children who aren’t yet old enough to decide how to use their voice.

Can we imagine a different way? Can we show and teach our children to discover an identity outside of consumption and being consumed? Can we love them without an agenda or using them for an agenda?

We need to consider whether the church, when she behaves like a marketing machine, has become the thing that Jesus says hinders the children from coming to him.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Cindy, thank you for your post; as someone who was involved in Vacation Bible Schools and Sunday School for many years I really appreciate your thoughts and will definitely be pondering them further.

    I was struck by your comment about putting the fear of hell into children. I think this is something that can persist into later years and I’m only starting to be aware of the danger of it. One day a couple of years ago when my daughter was about 16, I noticed her in tears. She told me she was upset about a coffee date she had had with her youth leader (a woman in her 40s, I’ll call her Cathy). Basically my daughter had come away from this date feeling afraid of hell, wondering why God sent people there, and worried about other people who might be going there and about going there herself. I reassured her that God was loving and merciful and that there were many different opinions about hell in Christian tradition, and I suggested she read Love Wins For Teens (since I knew our local library had it). She replied anxiously, “But Cathy doesn’t like Rob Bell.” I told her she was free to read what/whoever she wanted on this subject or any other, and that we could talk about it anytime. I came away from that conversation thinking “If a teen comes away from a coffee date with her youth leader terrified of hell, there is something wrong.” It really opened my eyes to how we convey theological issues to kids/teens and the frightening emphasis sometimes put on “if you died tonight” etc. Your post reminded me to keep my eyes open about all that. Thank you.

    • I personally internalized a damaging fear of hell as a child which is why I try to advocate against it now. I find the “if you died tonight” strategy awful. It’s emotionally manipulative and preys on children’s fears. Thank you for your comment.

      • No Shrinking Violet

        Totally agree!! It took me years to “de-program” from doing things out of fear as well, which, as mentioned earlier, inevitably shifted me away from organized religion. Weirdly, my belief in God actually “humanized” and became a positive idea and I was able to pass that along to my son as well – who, incidentally, is allowed to believe what he wants about God.

  • Dalaina May

    I always enjoy getting your posts, Cindy. Thanks for putting them out there for thought.

    I am in the middle of a class on ministry to children at risk at Fuller and this very topic has come up this week as we discuss the UN convention on the rights of a child. One relevant point is that the CRC
    names one right as the right to participation. I am hesitant to say that kids have no right to participate as agents in their faith community. That the church can only act upon them as guides and teachers but never with them as co-image bearers. Doesn’t the example of Christ invite them to the table as full participants as well?

    It’s a fine line because participation must be at their leadership and even defined by them. NEVER coerced and never for the purpose of exploiting their youth for gain. And certainly, there are enormous differences between a 5year old and a 15 year old.

    But in the end, I feel like true respect for children leaves the door open for their participation and doesn’t require them to be adults
    Before becoming full members of the body.

    • Hi Dalaina, thank you for bringing up a very good point. Yes, I would agree with you that it can be a beautiful thing for children to participate in a faith community, but like you said, it should never be coerced and exploited. It isn’t clear cut and that’s why we need to consistently reevaluate whether we have or are crossing that line into exploitation and coercion. Appreciate the work you are doing!

  • Chris Schene

    “” think there needs to be a conversation regarding the ethics of evangelizing to children who do not yet have developed cognitive abilities.”

    The Little Children and Jesus
    13 Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

    14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

  • Brandon Roberts

    don’t use kids to help advance political agendas period.

    • No Shrinking Violet

      Like Pelosi surrounding herself with children while signing unpopular bills?

      • Brandon Roberts


  • Robert Conner
  • No Shrinking Violet

    This one really caught my eye. Having grown up in a religion that, in my opinion, programs children from day one on what to believe and how to live their lives – some biblical basis and some just cultural – once I started evaluating what I was going to pass on to my son in the way of my beliefs, that’s when I started moving away from organized religion. I allowed my son to be baptized by his own choice only because he believed it availed him something spiritually. I was criticized that he was not baptized sooner but when organizing his baptismal service came around, it was an uphill battle for the “powers that be” to allow him to speak at his own baptism. It was amazing to me (not in a good way) that there would be so much pressure to make this kid believe a certain way and practice religion a certain way but not let him speak on his own behalf at his own baptism to express what he thought of baptism and why he was doing it. The farther away I get from organized religion, the more it appears it is most threatened by free will and free thinking.

  • Agabu

    God’s grace and love to you.

    I’m surprised (and a little troubled) as a Christian that evangelism is being sidestepped in the name of love defined as listening and learning. The spreading of the Gospel of Christ by public preaching or personal witness, which is what evangelism is, is the great privilege of the Church and one of the great ways we actually show our love to our neighbour. I understand that some Christians may misuse evangelism or not be very good heralds of the Gospel of Christ. But the problem is never the Gospel of Christ itself. The methods to articulate it may be mishandled or maybe even the Gospel itself maybe mishandled, but the Gospel remains what it is, and the responsibility to pass it along clearly and faithfully remains. The whole point of evangelism is to win converts to Christ in order that they may be saved through believing the Good News about Jesus Christ. All non Christians are in great peril not only from the grip and corrupting power of sin over them as individuals in this present life (which is a gross indignity all sin confines every person to) but also from the penalty of eternal punishment, which God justly imposes on the day of Judgment on everyone who delights in wrongdoing and does not turn from it towards Christ.

    I agree to a point that Christians shouldn’t be so zealous as to ignore what someone is saying about their own life. Some good listening and learning habits are warranted in most person to person conversation. Jesus certainly showed that brilliantly particularly in His conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the Gospel of John in the fourth chapter as an example. But even in that episode, Jesus talked a lot more than the woman did. Sure, she asked questions and made a few comments to which Jesus promptly responded with truth. But He was always in the drivers seat with respect to communicating the truth of the Gospel message. He led her to the truth about Himself. The story ends with her converting to Him, which was actually His goal all along. Christ showed His love for that woman not by listening and learning from her but by speaking plainly and truthfully about her real need and pointing to Himself as the Christ the Son of God who could save her from her many sins (her adulterous behaviour being specially exposed but wisely never used as a shaming device against her). The fact is Jesus positioned Himself as the Christ she should particularly place her trust in for her salvation through His wonderful use of water and thirst as metaphors for great spiritual truth. He spoke the truth in love to her without compromise by gently and firmly correcting everything she was mistaken or wrong about with regard to God and how He is to be worshiped. He loved her with discernment by showing knowledge and understanding of how things were like in her life at that point and who the real remedy to her condition was.

    We Christians should always seek to win any non Christian to Christ with gentleness and respect as we faithfully pass on the Good News about the death and resurrection of Christ, because that is the loving thing to do. We are the ones with the story that can actually change as well as save people’s lives and not the other way round. Listening and learning are really a matter of prudence while in conversation in order to lead anyone to the truth about Christ. God sent Jesus Christ into the world to save those who put their trust in Him from their sins and from the everlasting contempt those who reject Him will endure forever after judgment on the great day. Not everyone will listen to this mind you, but if we love people at all, we must and should let them know about it. To not do so is not only unloving, but downright hateful of the unbelieving. Yes, everyone has their story but the only story that has the power to change lives and to save any one of us is the story of Christ in His death and resurrection when believed. This is the story every Christian is an appointed emissary for in this world. This is the only story worth losing one’s reputation, family, friends, career or one’s life over should the occasion ever arise when circumstances beyond us assail us. Why? Because Christ is worth that much.