I recently wrote an article about Five Principles for a Salvation Message, so when I spoke recently at junior high week at camp and talked about salvation, I was acutely aware of the words and phrases I was using. When talking to kids about how they can put their faith in Jesus, it’s important to remember how they hear words and phrases. Kids understand abstract concepts differently than adults do. In order to help kids clearly understand the decision they are making to follow Jesus, here are some caveats and phrases to avoid.
“Invite Jesus into my heart”
After giving a talk on creating meaningful Salvation messages for kids, a leader asked, “Why aren’t the kids responding to our invitation to have Jesus come live in their heart? Who wouldn’t want Jesus living inside them?!”
And while I agree with her intent, think about the reality of how many children might understand this concept:
Jesus—who you’ve just told them is a real adult human being—will somehow INHABIT THIER BODY.
How does he get in there? Do you swallow him?
Do I need a special surgery?
Where will He live? What will He eat?
Children have many questions about this phrase, which yield confusing and possibly disturbing answers. Kids attach what they hear to what they know. Kids have a hard time understanding metaphors and abstract associations. So for a child: Jesus + Inside + My + Heart = GROSS!
“Once you believe in Jesus, everything will be better”
Sure. Of course this is true, but it’s not true how a child might envision this being true.
Let’s say …
I’m living in poverty. I have one full meal a day. I sleep on the floor. And wear the same clothes every day.
Or my parents are separating with no hope of reconciliation.
Or I’m not that great in school. I can never get higher than a C on my test and quizzes.
Then one Sunday I hear a message about this Jesus who lived and died and rose again for me. And that when I put my faith in him, everything will be better because he is with me. I put my trust in him with all my heart. I believe that this, all that you just told me about my new life with Christ, is true.
And I wait…
Wait for my economic position to change.
Wait for my parents to reconcile.
Wait for my grades to improve.
After all, I was told that my life should be better, right?
But it’s not.
And now I start to wonder if this Jesus thing didn’t work, as if my prayer wasn’t the right prayer or I didn’t have enough faith.
Because I was told that my life would be better…
But. It’s. Not.
As adults, our brains can understand that “better” might mean something emotional, something closer to a peace with our situation or a new-found determination to help change it. “Better” might be having a community of like-minded friends who will help us through what we’re facing.
Jesus never promises that life will be “better”—he actually promises that life will often be difficult because of our faith in him. (See: Matthew 7:13-14, Mark 8:34-35, Luke 10:3, John 16:33) But he also promises that he’ll be with us. And that is what makes life better. We’re no longer alone. We have hope that Jesus has overcome the world, and that no matter what we face, we know that he has won and eventually all will be made new.
In the meantime, we’re promised a peace that passes understanding as we travel in a world still broken by sin. “Better” is true. But only in as much as a child can understand the abstract meaning behind that word. Be careful that the words you use don’t set your kids up for disappointment.
“Once you believe in Jesus, you’ll feel different and happy all the time.”
This is similar to the above statement, but rather than the outcomes of my life changing, our outlook will change.
And sure, maybe it will for a few days or months, but what happens when you don’t feel happy anymore? Kids may wonder if Jesus is no longer active in their life, or worse, if they’re still part of God’s family.
Tying our salvation to an emotional moment in time is dangerous. When this happens, a child may find himself rededicating his life at closing session every Snow Camp and Summer Camp. Emotions can be manufactured with the right environment or the right sermon. Emotions are a human reaction to what is happening in life. Sadness is real. Anger is real. Negative emotions are going to be part of life. Kids are going to grow up and not always feel happy or like everything is going to be OK.
Because something bad happened and they feel bad about it.
Because they have a chemical imbalance that is twisting their reality.
Because at that point in their life, it’s not going to be “OK” as they define that word.