I would argue, practically speaking (perhaps not theologically), every Christian is a universalist at a funeral because I’ve never heard an eulogy describing how the person in the casket is burning in hell to the mourners. But especially at a child’s funeral—no one could fathom that a child who meets their tragic demise could belong anywhere but in the loving arms of our God.
Which begs the question my friend Ferg Breen asks: at what point does a child stop being a child of God? When does a child’s trajectory towards heaven change tracks and head the opposite direction unless the child accepts Jesus? What kind of a God would love, cherish, welcome a baby into God’s embrace only to reject their identity as God’s Beloved at an arbitrary age?
G. Shane Morris says in the Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies that the core of evangelical orthodoxy is that salvation comes from a specific conversion experience. This puts Christian families who are raising children in the Christian faith in a conundrum because the parents, in order to “save” their children, have to somehow compel their children towards a conversion experience. This creates several problematic and damaging consequences to Christian parenting:
- The parent has to sever any connection a child may inherently have with God, having sung Jesus Loves Me and been told they are Beloved of God, and convince them God actually detests their sin. Here’s how authors of Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus, David M. Csinos and Ivy Beckwith, puts it, it’s like, “blowing it [the divine flame in each child] out and then encouraging kids to light it again.”
- It inclines the parents to seek out every misbehavior in a child’s normal development and call it sin in order to save the child, which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a child is considered to be evil, they internalize this and actually misbehave believing that is their identity.
- The children who have been taught sound morals in a Christian family and yet have been forced to manufacture sin in order to pray the sinner’s prayer, have a sense they didn’t really have a conversion experience, so they repeatedly visit the altar, never quite secure of their standing before God.
- It places such a strong emphasis on conversion that the child’s faith identity is staked on that one moment or one prayer, and does not seek guidance on any other aspect of their lives nor understand the importance of it. Every kid who grows up Christian knows they can get away with doing the un-Christian thing as long as they repent and ask forgiveness. I see this dysfunction play out in Christian families over and over again—misbehavior (sin), shame, repentance and the pattern repeats.
Raising children as Christians parents does not mean we are to evangelize our children and call down fire and brimstone upon them. It means we are to follow in the way of Jesus in our parenting. We can invite them to live into the identity of a Beloved Child of God without first severing their connection with God and shape Christ-like habits with them without manipulating them into praying the sinner’s prayer.
Conversion experiences are real as are spiritual awakenings at certain moments of our lives. But we cannot force a narrative on children, especially the ones who grow up in Christian families, that end up perpetuating harm. Our best chance of giving them a vibrant spirituality is to be Christ-like in our way of parenting them; that is to give up our power over them. To trust in the words of Jesus that the least shall be the greatest, and lean into the smallness and openness of our children for our own spirituality.
Join us at Raising Children Unfundamentalist.