Read an Excerpt
Leading Kids to JesusHow to Have One-on-One Conversations about Faith
By David Staal
ZondervanCopyright © 2005 Willow Creek Association
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Game Is One-on-One
Some seek the thrill; others cringe in fear. The world consists of two types of people - those who like roller coasters and those who don't. I'm in the latter camp. So I felt a genuine jolt of panic when my son, Scott, met the minimum height requirement to ride a giant coaster during our annual trip to a nearby theme park.
The line for the premier attraction, one of the largest wooden roller coasters in the country, lasted ninety minutes. During this slow march to self-inflicted torture, I pictured every worst-case scenario we might encounter. Or so I thought. Finally, we stepped into the little car that would hurl us toward certain death. At least that's how I viewed it. Scott, on the other hand, jumped in and squirmed with excitement. As the iron safety bar lowered and locked across my lap, I grabbed it and told him, "Scotty, hold onto the bar like Daddy and do not let go!" My breathing was rapid and shallow, and veins on the top of my hands popped out as I clamped onto the bar of life.
The train of cars slowly ascended up the first hill, paused at the top, and then screamed down the track toward the ground. (Okay, it was not the car screaming, it was me!) Despite the growing gravitational force that invisibly pushed my head back, I managed to squeak out high-pitched words, "How ya doing, Scotty?"
"Not too good right now, Daddy," was the alarming response I heard.
Pure adrenalin washed away my fear when I saw what had happened. While the iron safety mechanism remained locked in place across my lap, a gap existed between Scott's much thinner lap and the bar. This resulted in my son slipping forward, barely on the seat at this point, with hands still clinging to the bar that was now at his neck.
Immediately I unglued my fingers from the bar and, in one big heave, pulled him upright and pressed the locking mechanism down farther. This meant the iron bar was now holding him securely but cutting off circulation to my lower body. I wisely reasoned, "Better to experience excruciating pain than to tell my wife I let our son fly off the roller coaster!"
I held onto him with one hand for the rest of the ride, while the other hand resumed its grip of life. As we climbed out of the car, I tried to control my trembling as Scott asked, "Can we go on it again?"
I share this story to illustrate an important point. Despite all the wonderful activities taking place throughout that theme park, and even surrounded by workers responsible for our safety and fun, I had to take appropriate action. And I had to do it alone. My response to my son made a big difference to him - possibly a life-or-death difference. Scott needed me.
In like fashion, crucial opportunities exist for anyone who spends time with kids. There will be times when you can make an eternal impact based on how you react - and someone will need you to do that well. Maybe you won't ever have to tighten a safety bar for a child, but you might play a role in locking in their salvation. And the purpose of this book is to prepare you to meet the challenge of those situations.
For sake of clarity, the focus of Leading Kids to Jesus is to equip adults to help kids start a life of faith by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. To that end, we'll examine how to do this as an individual - not through large outreach programs, elaborate presentations, or clever illustrations.
Specifically, preparation will focus on personal interactions - one-to-one conversations - with kids about key spiritual matters. This topic nearly bursts with importance because incredible and unpredictable opportunities for personal talks about faith exist both at church and at home. If you are a small group leader, Sunday school teacher, ministry director, Christian education worker, or children's church volunteer, this book is for you. Likewise, if you are a parent you'll find the concepts work well at home with your own kids, which is another reason this book is for you. And just as a ride on a coaster goes by fast, the time we have to impact youngsters also flies by quickly. So the time for preparation is now - because the urgency is real.
Salvation at an Early Age
Respected pollster George Barna conducted studies to determine the probability that people of various ages will ask Jesus to be their Savior. The results heavily favor children five through twelve years old:
Barna's conclusion? "If people do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior before they reach their teenage years, their chance of doing so at all is slim."
Author and speaker Karyn Henley agrees that kids are more inclined than adults to accept the gospel. She writes, "Children are more likely to express a matter-of-fact faith in God than we adults who only believe in what we can experience with our five senses."
The Bible dispels any skepticism about the validity of a kid's matter-of-fact faith. Just look at Acts 2:39 in which Peter says, "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call" (emphasis added). The Greek word used in this verse (teknon) literally means "child" - as in a daughter or son. The promise Peter speaks of is that of salvation, and clearly it's available to kids. Romans 10:9 reveals the criteria for salvation: "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." This verse articulates the inclusive nature of God's saving grace and mandates no minimum age.
Of course the ability to comprehend the promise and the timing in which it happens varies by person - whether child or adult. Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson describes his salvation experience at age three. Moody Bible Institute's former president, Joe Stowell, accepted Christ at six. Evangelist Billy Graham made his decision at sixteen. Although I hesitate to mention my name in the same paragraph with the previous three, I gave my life to Jesus at age twenty-nine (although still a kid at heart).
So armed with assurance from Scripture that kids can enter an authentic relationship with the Lord, along with numerous examples that children do commit their young lives to Jesus, the question becomes how?
A Personal Approach
Many children's ministries answer that question with clear and relevant lessons, accompanied by creative Bible teaching. Incredible salvation messages for kids have become plentiful and readily available, and certainly enjoy success. But they represent only one approach. Because when one of these programs or lessons ends, little eyes frequently scan for adults in the room while their little minds formulate big questions.
What happens next contributes mightily to a ministry's ability to reach its full impact. The adults in that room can help individual kids cross the line of salvation by engaging in simple conversations. Oftentimes, the situation calls for clear, plain talk about a relationship with Jesus. Or maybe answers to questions about God and heaven. These simple exchanges at church (or home) can have profound effects - but they call for preparation, because the stakes are high.
Sure, when my son or daughter expresses interest in hearing about how someone gets to heaven, I could schedule a meeting with a staff member at my church and let the "professional" do the talking. No one would call me a bad parent. Or as a kids' small group leader, when one of the boys in my group asks me what it means to be a Christian, I could find one of the large group teachers or the ministry director to offer an explanation. But do either of those approaches fully serve the child involved?
Deferring to someone more qualified or experienced feels more comfortable, because I avoid an encounter with my own fearful thought, What if I don't say the right thing? But consider the child's viewpoint. If the adult she is close to hesitates to talk about Jesus on a personal level, will Jesus seem close by or far off? Even if the reason for the handoff stems from the adult's uncertainty about how to say what he knows in a kid-friendly way, the impact is equally confusing.
Conversely, imagine the potential impact on a child who listens to his parent's from-the-heart story of faith. Or the potential unleashed when an adult at Sunday school offers a simple clarification of what it means to be a Christian, answering a question the child didn't want to ask in front of everyone. It's easy to believe that a child in either situation might be encouraged to start a relationship with Jesus right then and there.
Now imagine you are that parent or that children's ministry worker. Sometimes you will enter moments with kids when their eternal destinies are as close as the air you breathe, if you can simply speak the right words. In their language. Because the terms and analogies mature Christians use to discuss faith issues with each other are likely to be lost on kids.
This scenario is easy to remedy - simply prepare to say the right words whenever the right opportunity arrives. Scripture points out that deliberate attention to language will benefit both the recipient ("A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver," Proverbs 25:11) and the speaker ("A man finds joy in giving an apt reply," Proverbs 15:23).
But don't let those Bible verses take you to the conclusion that what's needed is for adults to hand kids a heavy load of theology. Yes, fluency with Paul's conversion on the Damascus road serves as a useful reminder of how Jesus changes lives. Even more valuable, though, is the confidence to describe the path you took to become a Christ-follower - or how the child you're talking with can walk the same steps. Eager willingness to engage in the latter could change the world of a young one - and you'll need to hold onto a safety bar to handle your excitement!
A Willow Creek sermon series titled "Just Walk Across the Room" focused on developing a willingness to be used by the Holy Spirit for spiritual conversations with others not yet in God's family." I enjoy [doing] many things in life," said senior pastor Bill Hybels. "But I don't know if there's anything I like better than that moment when someone says, 'I'll be grateful for all eternity for what you did when you walked across that room....' That's as good as it gets." Confidently engaging people provides exhilarating benefits.
The payoff - the thrill - Bill describes is real. Double the thrill if that conversation is with a youngster trusted to your care as part of a small group or Sunday school class. And triple the thrill if the child is your son or daughter.
So if you work with kids at church, determine now to become even more prepared for unscripted, unplanned scenes when you talk with a child about faith - his or hers and your own. No workbooks, no notes, no kidding. Or if you're a parent, commit to becoming fluent with simple personal faith explanations so that you're ready for any bedtime conversation that may become a real-time salvation opportunity. Even if you feel fairly confident in your ability to have such conversations, commit to polish your skills further. You'll celebrate your readiness when a child needs you.
Such a need materialized for Beth, a ministry team colleague, while in the family car on an errand.
One day while in the car, my four-year-old daughter asked what would happen if I died. I was caught a little off guard since we went from talking about the weather to dying in the same brief exchange. Maty, very distressed, said, "Mom, I don't want you to die." I tried to comfort her. "Maty," I said, "you know I made a decision a long time ago to ask Jesus to be my forever friend. The Bible says if you love God and Jesus then you can go to heaven when you die. So you see, I'm not afraid of dying because I know that I'm going to heaven." For the next couple of moments, I really felt like time had stopped. "Mom!" she said, with much excitement, "I love God and Jesus!" "Well," I said, "have you ever asked him to forgive you and be your forever friend?" She quietly said, "No."
I couldn't believe how God had prepared me to ask the next question. I had participated in some training at church a few times that readied me for exactly what to say next. I continued to navigate through traffic, and with my hands gripped tightly on the steering wheel, I said, "Would you like to pray right now?" She answered, "Yes." As we began to pray the salvation prayer, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. My own daughter was the first person I have ever had the privilege of praying the prayer with. I will be glad forever that I was prepared for that conversation - God used me!
Beth knew the right words to say, but it's a safe bet that many of us would have succumbed to a variety of self-doubts. What if I say something wrong? What if I'm asked a tough question? Do I know enough about the Bible? Can I put my faith into words? Finding the right words can be a challenge. But that need not be the case.
Booker T. Washington once shared a story about a ship lost at sea for many days that sighted a friendly vessel. The crew of the unfortunate vessel signaled, "Water, water: we die of thirst!" An immediate answer from the friendly vessel came back: "Cast down your buckets where you are." They answered a second, third, and fourth signal for water: "Cast down your buckets where you are." The captain of the distressed vessel finally heeded the advice, and the buckets came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.
The thirsty crew in Mr. Washington's story learned that the solution to their challenge lay close at hand and within their ability to grasp. Similarly, I'm confident that finding the right words to share with kids will be as easy for you as finding water proved to be for those sailors. And toward that end, this book provides practical guidance on what to say, tips on how to say it, and even ways for you to communicate in profound ways without saying a thing. The best part is that you can accomplish all this without radical changes to your ministry or enrolling in theology classes. If you have regular proximity to kids in church or at home, opportunities for important one-on-one spiritual conversations will likely present themselves more often than you think.
This simple, personal adventure of preparation will change your perspective about how evangelism to kids takes place. Consider for a moment the deep difference between asking God to use your ministry to reach kids for Jesus and asking God to equip and use you personally to reach children for him. For parents, it's the difference between the prayers, "God, please help my child know you," and "God, please use me to help my kid start a relationship with you."
So if life seems like a roller coaster with the kids close at hand, or even if you're still waiting in line for that excitement, together we'll find the words kids need to hear. Hold on tight and keep turning the pages. In fact, when you turn this one, you'll head back to the theme park to learn the basic principles of effective communication with kids. Get ready for what could be the ride of your life!
Excerpted from Leading Kids to Jesus by David Staal Copyright © 2005 by Willow Creek Association. Excerpted by permission.
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