Summer is here, and with it countless intentional and creative efforts by churches to evangelize children. As someone who first trusted Christ as a result of a Backyard Bible Club, I have a deep level of appreciation for such outreach events — Vacation Bible School, kids’ camp, or whatever activities or events your church puts together.
Because of my love for this kind of ministry, I also come to this season with some measure of concern. Having lived as a minority in a Muslim nation, I’ve watched how the majority religion in a culture can exert its power and influence in unhealthy ways. I’ve seen neighbors whisk their children off to summer Quran school so mom could have a break from restless kids. And I’ve watched imams pass out candy on the doorstep of the local mosque to lure children in off the street.
The scene, while foreign to my childhood in many ways, looked eerily familiar.
The Golden Rule in Evangelism
What frustrated me in those moments were how children and parents were being manipulated and misled. I knew I would never want a non-Muslim child to be influenced through such an event. The scene made me rethink my home culture and Christianity’s approach to evangelizing children here. While I certainly don’t think we should abandon preaching the gospel to kids, I’m convinced such efforts should be done while practicing the Golden Rule.
We all likely know the Golden Rule, but perhaps we’ve never thought of it in the context of evangelism. Jesus said, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Taking that principle and applying it to a summer kids’ program at church, we should do for parents and children what we wish others would do for us — and I’m not thinking primarily in terms of providing free childcare.
The Narrow Road Through VBS
We should, instead, ask the question from the perspective of a non-Christian family sending their children to us. Are they okay with us evangelizing their children? Do they know that we’re doing this VBS, or similar event, with the intention of explaining the gospel to — even converting — their children?
Those of us who’ve grown up in a Christian subculture might assume our neighbors would know as much, but what about someone in our community from another country or culture? Or what about the disadvantaged family who is looking for free childcare or a free camp experience? Does your advertising, website, or event information accurately and clearly communicate your purpose?
More and more, I’ve noticed churches going away from VBS or Bible clubs, presumably because they think secular or non-Christian parents are less likely to send their kids to a program that has “Bible” in the name. They might be right. Churches prefer to run art camps, sports tournaments, or dance clubs that they think will attract more children and offend fewer parents. But in these programs, we run an even greater risk of all-out bait-and-switch tactics, especially if our goal remains to evangelize children and families.
Such an approach could easily trespass the law of neighbor-love. It’s not ultimately loving to parents or their children if we mislead them in the process of evangelism.
A Few (Golden) Rules for Child Evangelism
The Great Commission does not conflict with the Golden Rule, but we do need to ask how we love our neighbors as ourselves and still pursue child evangelism. Here are a few applications of the Golden Rule as we approach the season of outreach to kids.
1. Beware of Manipulating Children
First of all, we should not manipulate children in any way. This will take much wisdom and care, in part because children are more impressionable and malleable than adults. Different contexts and different ages will require different approaches. But we must not be guilty of preying on their emotions or forcing their response.
We should be cautious not to lure children with fun and games to hook them with our message. We also can’t communicate, verbally or nonverbally, that participation in a program or event comes with the admission price of praying a prayer or raising a hand. Most certainly, we shouldn’t tie tangible and immediate rewards to a positive response to the gospel. All of these would be ways of manipulating kids. Such efforts don’t represent genuine love.
2. By All Means, Preach the Gospel
Some might ask, then: Does this mean we should redefine our goals and avoid gospel presentations with children altogether? Does adult evangelism of children always introduce an improper power balance? I don’t think so. In fact, I would argue that to apply the Golden Rule necessitates our evangelism of children.
Jesus desires for them to come to him (Matthew 19:14). We must explain the gospel to people of all ages because, put in their place, we would absolutely want someone to articulate the good news of Jesus to us. Christian evangelism, provided we’re careful not to coerce or confuse, is the most loving thing we could do for anyone. So, one way we practice the Golden Rule is to continue preaching the gospel to kids.
3. Communicate Clearly with Parents in Advance
Long before children step onto our property, we can practice the Golden Rule. It begins with communication. Just as Christian parents expect to know the ideas and values their kids are taught at school (on topics such as religion or sexual ethics), non-Christian parents have the same rights when they entrust their kids to us.
First and foremost, this is an issue of love. We should outdo others in showing the honor we would desire (Romans 12:10). But this is also increasingly an issue of self-protection. As cultural Christianity fades in America, churches will likely need to be pre-emptive on this front in order to avoid unnecessary censure or litigation. Here again, different situations will require different applications. But I think we should go overboard in communicating our intentions, providing full disclosure to parents and youth in advance.
One way to do this could be by including clear language about the content of our teaching as part of a normal waiver that parents sign. In fact, such an approach would likely afford us the wonderful opportunity to personally explain the gospel to unbelieving moms and dads prior to serving their kids. In so doing we may lose some participants, for sure. But we will be loving our neighbors as ourselves and might, in the process, make Christ known to even more people.