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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