After a children's ministry service that was filled with emotion and the feeling of the presence of God, I had just finished a large group prayer time in which two kids gave their lives to Jesus, and I dutifully filled out the "Response Card" and met the parents of the kids after the service to tell them, "Your child accepted Jesus today!" One parent looked confused and said, "... Thanks ... My son has already done that. But good to know he did it again today." The other parent looked a mixture of joyful and disappointed. "That is wonderful ... I only wish I could have experienced this with her and prayed with her. It's something we've been talking about." After that day, I started reevaluating how I did "altar calls" in children's ministry. When I say "altar calls," I am referring to a large-group salvation invitation during a children's ministry service. I don't believe this is always the best way to lead kids in their faith journey. Before you cancel me and ban me from the children's ministry community, let me explain.
Here's what I'm NOT saying:
As a children's pastor, I used to help facilitate emotion-filled experiences in which kids may have felt pressured (whether by their peers, their leaders, or the environment) to raise their hands or come forward, whether or not they understood what they were doing.
I did not grow up in the church, and once attended a church camp with a friend when I was about 8-9 years old. I had no knowledge of the Bible or the gospel, but when they asked who wanted to raise their hand and get saved, I thought, "Sure! Why not?! Sounds great to me!" So I raised my hand. I remember that I had no clue what was happening, then they told my parents, "She's been saved!" I never went to church or read a Bible or did anything to do with God or Jesus after that. There was no follow-up. There was no real heart change, discipleship, or understanding at all. I just didn't want to be the only one not raising my hand. Years later, as a teenager under the mentorship and discipleship of a youth pastor and his wife, I spent months diving into the Bible and asking questions and feeling the nudge of the Holy Spirit as I began to understand the gospel. I gave my life to Jesus at the age of 16, and I was in a church, surrounded by community and spiritual mentors, accountability, and discipleship opportunities.
While I don't think it harms kids to make a decision for Christ without fully understanding it or receiving follow-up and discipleship, it doesn't nurture their faith journey and provide opportunities for true faith formation.
Here's why I stopped doing large-group altar calls ...
So if not in large-group altar calls, how do we present opportunities for kids to know Jesus as their Savior and grow in their faith? We can make the Bible the center of everything we teach, and show kids how it's all connected to God's big story. As we teach Bible stories each week, we can show kids how the stories connect to God's big story and show them their place in God's big story: that they are created by God, loved by God, known by God, loved by Jesus, and that they can be forgiven and saved when they trust Him as their Savior. When that happens, they are redeemed and made new through the Holy Spirit and are adopted into the family of God. We can communicate those truths to kids over and over, and give them continued opportunities to respond to God within that context. We can remind them that their faith is journey of knowing God and becoming more and more like Jesus. . We can provide opportunities for them to worship, pray, experience God's presence, and grow in their faith. We can equip and partner with parents to lead and disciple their kids. We can always be ready to talk with kids, answer their questions, lead them, and point them to the only One who can truly change them: Jesus.
So in those times I presented a large group salvation call in children's ministry and joyfully reported to my pastor that "13 kids got saved today!" Do I think it was ineffective, or not real? I don't know. I don't know how many of those kids understood and received follow-up and discipleship. I don't know if their parents are leading and nurturing their faith at home. God could have planted a seed in their hearts in that time that would get watered later down the road in their lives. Do I think it's bad or harmful for those who DO present large-group altar calls? Not necessarily. But I think with some reevaluation, intentionality, and purpose, God can use children's ministry to help grow faith in kids that is powerful and truly life-changing!
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Children are a Gift
kidmin leader, mother, and servant of the Lord.
These are the views of Lynne Howard, and are not necessarily the views and opinions of David C Cook or any church.