How can children be nurtured into faith without being pressured?
My stomach wobbles. We’ve arrived at my parents’ house halfway through the week, and there are two days left for the vacation Bible school program at their church, two days for my daughters to participate.
I’m familiar with the ministry running it. “Do they try to get the kids to ask Jesus into their hearts?” I ask my sister, whose kids have been attending. She repeats the question to her older daughter. My niece doesn’t look up from her book: “Like. Every. Single. Day.” she says with an eye roll and the pauses of a tween fluent with social media.
Patting my older daughter’s thin back as she clings to me, I drop them off in the church basement the following morning. A young woman in jeans and a bright colored T-shirts signs them in. On a table, I see a large flip book with an illustration of a boy from India on the open page.
I did this once, was one of those teenage girls. Back then I was required by the ministry’s leaders to wear a skirt past my knees. I want this for my kids I tell myself. I want them here with their cousins scraping their metal folding chairs and their grandma serving treats at the end, sans the Kool-Aid of my youth. I want them to sing the songs and hear the story about the south Indian child and a Bible story on another flip book.
This is the faith of our family. But my insides squirm at the pressure my kids will feel to profess it.
Some contemporary preachers disparage the language of inviting Jesus into your heart, categorizing it as not biblical. I’m not as disturbed by that—we’re all grasping at metaphors in our relationship with God, although this one may be particularly flimsy.
I also tire of the numbers games in evangelicalism, as if a numeral can fully reflect what God is doing. A newsletter will go out to this ministry’s supporters in the fall reporting that a specific number of children were saved this past summer, and my daughters could join the tally. Although I wonder how many of those children will have invited Jesus into their hearts before, I have to admit that the Bible evidences an appreciation for numeric figures. When the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost after Peter stood up to speak, “about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
My concern is the emphasis on decision. I had a practiced testimony as a teenager—“Well, first, I asked Jesus into my heart at age five when my brother did, but then at age nine, I had a better recognition of my sin, and I did it again, and that’s when I tried harder to live as a Christian.” But it seemed a paltry thing compared to those of adult believers who had once committed the kinds of sins that could make their hearers recoil. As I read my own statement, I recognize the individualism of it now, the dependence on my own work—a statement of decision, and the neglect of a grace that I was raised in a family in which I didn’t have the wounds that come from a dramatic story.
I want my kids here despite the conversation we had in the car before we came in. That former young woman in her long denim skirt would never have dreamed she’d be saying such words to her own children years later.
“Listen,” I say, after I turn off the engine, and swivel my upper body around to face them. “Your teachers in there are probably going to ask you to invite Jesus into your heart, and I want you to know that you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” My younger daughter hears me calmly. She’s strong-minded and able to resist the entreaties of a soft-eyed sixteen-year-old. Not surprisingly, my five-year-old looks puzzled. “We’ve chosen Jesus as a family, and you’ll have other chances to choose Jesus again,” I add.
“But Mom,” my older daughter says, “asking Jesus into your heart sounds like a good thing.”
“Sweetheart, it is a good thing. And if you feel that God is telling you to do it, go ahead. But if you don’t feel like God is telling you to, you can say no thank you.”
They will have their opportunities to choose–if not in this musty basement–in our new church tradition when they decide whether or not to recite the creed on a Sunday or if they would like to undergo confirmation. There will be other times too that I cannot predict. Once in a graduate school, a young man who slipped research articles under my door expressed a romantic interest. I was lonely. But I heard inside of myself in the shower the next morning that I needed to choose Jesus over him. And I knew I did the right thing when he spent an hour that evening arguing reductionisticly that religion and its sources of sacred text cause all the world’s wars.
I believe in a God who speaks to each heart and hears its articulations as he did with mine. He is telling my daughters’ stories, not me. I trust they hear him in ways that I cannot. Until they are ready to profess their faith, may I partner with the Holy Spirit to provide hospitality for his work.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.