Discerning Childhood Conversion
A perennial question for evangelicals is discerning the presence of authentic faith among children who are raised in Christian families. In many cases, such kids are fairly well-behaved. They often know the right answer to every question about God, man, sin, and Christ. They are sometimes at church events all the time. How do you know when your children pass beyond embracing the culture of your family and church to resting in the finished work of Christ? It’s a question I think about frequently as the father of three small children, including a precocious five-year-old daughter who by all appearances “naturally” loves to attend church activities, sing songs about Jesus, and pray, yet has almost no understanding of the gospel itself.
It’s also a question I get asked all the time, both by college and seminary students and by members of my local church. I’ve participated in some lively discussions in both contexts. For those of us who are Baptists, a closely related question concerns the appropriate age to baptize children. I’ve addressed the baptism question before. While I don’t claim special insight, I want to briefly delve into the conversion question before pointing to a helpful resource.
In my own experience, I see two extremes when it comes to childhood conversion (and baptism). On the one hand, I meet some Christian parents who, in my opinion, are too quick to pronounce their child as converted because the kid has a sweet disposition, likes going to Sunday School, and is eager to pray a simple sinner’s prayer. While I concede it is quite possible for very young children to exhibit these traits and actually be converted, I think it’s difficult to discern whether these sorts of inclinations and actions constitute authentic faith or simply “mirrors” the faith of parents and teachers. I realize discerning conversion is an inexact science and even the most careful parents and pastors get it wrong sometimes, but I think we all agree we don’t want to push anyone of any age into a place of false assurance. I’ve seen many very young children, sometimes under age five, who’ve been rushed down the aisle and into the water, only to disappear as soon as they hit puberty, get a driver’s license, enroll in college, etc.
On the other hand, I meet other Christians who, in my opinion, are too hesitant to acknowledge that their child seems to be converted. Sometimes, they expect their kid to be a theologian before he can be considered regenerate. Other times, they expect their child to show remarkable progress in sanctification to prove whether or not she is converted. I think these tendencies tend to collapse discipleship into conversion, expecting more of children than we often ask of adult converts to the faith. I’ve seen many teenagers who were convinced they’d been Christians since they were nine or ten, but whose parents were hesitant to acknowledge this reality and were (in my opinion) artificially prolonging baptism until they discerned the “right” sort of fruit in their child’s life. Some of them aren’t baptized until well after their college years, even though their testimony is that they’ve been a Christian for a decade or more.
These are tricky questions, and even substantially like-minded families and churches debate the best way to handle childhood conversion, baptism, membership, etc. I’m thankful that Brian Croft has weighed in on this issue. Brian is gifted with unusual pastoral wisdom, which he frequently shares through his blog Practical Shepherding. His latest post is “How Do You Discern the Conversion of a Child.” Drawing on the insights of Jonathan Edwards, Brian offers some helpful thoughts on an important topic. I’d urge you to read the post. And while you’re at it, you ought to consider becoming a regular reader of Practical Shepherding.