Over the years, we surveyed the children under our care so we could look after them better and target the ministry to where they were at. Time after time the same concerning result would come back. No matter what we did there was a hard core of 20% of our regular church children, raised in Christian homes, who believed that you had to be good to go to heaven.
Every month we made sure the Gospel message of God’s grace was included somewhere in our teaching programme. So much so that one seven-year-old even commented to his mum after church,
“Mum, I think I’m ready for adult church now.”
“Why is that dear?”
“All we talk about in children’s church is the cross and I know all about that.”
Long pause while the mother processed this fact. “But that’s all we really talk about in adult church too!”
Of course, we covered many topics over the months, giving the children as much of the meat of God’s word as we could, but this seven-year-old had clearly picked up our repeated emphasis on the message of God’s grace through the cross. We ran multiple outreach events where our regulars would come and hear the Gospel, yet still there was a hard core of children, who managed to unlearn the most essential message we had to share with them.
Why did they still think that you must be good to get to God?
I blamed the parents. I blamed the schools. Then I realized that we were partly to blame!
When we taught the Ten Commandments as a guide for living and as God’s standard for the Israelites, the children heard a list of rules that they had to follow to be accepted by God. When we taught the fruit of the Spirit, the children heard a list of ways they were expected to behave (to be loving, kind, patient and so on). Even when we mentioned that this fruit came as a result of being rooted in God, some children heard that they needed to try harder to please God and so be accepted by Him.
Some of the ways the children heard the wrong message were more subtle. When a leader struggles to keep discipline in the group, the children hear the desperate pleas of that leader to behave (perhaps even with a nod towards pleasing God with our behaviour). Before they even open the Bible and delve into the teaching the children have received the message: external behaviour is what we are looking for in this group, more than a relationship with Jesus.
None of this is what we intended to say (or indeed what we are actually saying), but it is what some of the children heard.
In fact, many of the Christian children’s DVDs do the same thing. If they are not retelling Bible stories, or even if they are, they are preaching good morals: love your neighbour, be kind to others, forgive other people.
Now we are certainly not talking against good morals, or against raising good citizens to live in this world. However, the emphasis of our faith is not about doing good works, but about being with God. Being good will not save anyone from the consequences of their sin, only Jesus can do that! If there were any other way, God would not have put his son through the pain of death that Jesus endured. Being with God transforms us to become like Him, reflecting His image and glory as God intended the human race to when he first created them.
In the New Testament letters we see this emphasis over and over again. The first half of many of the letters explain again the glory of the Gospel. This grace gives us freedom from sin. Take a look at Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Titus (chapter 3), Hebrews, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John to see this worked out.
Having emphasized strongly the message of God’s grace, urging God’s people not to depend on their works there is then a turning point in each of these letters. Bouncing off the springboard of grace they explain that because of this free gift of salvation we can now live in a way that honours the Lord.
Romans 6:1-2 1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
In Romans 12:1 Paul shows that a moral life is a result of a life with God, not a basis for it.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Take a look at Galatians 5:13-16 where Paul spells out the link between God’s gift of freedom and our desire to serve the Lord because of this gift.
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Every time we look at God’s plan for us to live lives pleasing to Him, we should always start by emphasizing God’s grace first. We love because God first loved us. Every time, our teaching should give this clear balance. Our children need to hear and know that now there is now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ. Let’s help our children grow with God, free from the bondage of religious expectations.
Then they will be free to live their lives in service to God.