Children & Conversion: When is a Child Ready?

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Church, Evangelism, Ministry Tools, Theology, Youth Ministry

I’ve received this question as often as any: “Pastor, when is my child ready to be baptized?” Following Vacation Bible School or a children’s camp, the question comes in waves. Cautious Christian parents want neither to discourage a child from making a move toward Jesus, nor do they want to hurry a child into a premature commitment that will either be “redone” or abandoned later. Parents, who know their children thoroughly, still seem uneasy and often feel unable to determine if a child is responding to the message of the gospel and the work of the Spirit, or if the child is simply mimicking his or her surroundings in an evangelical culture.

I confess my own hesitation. Rarely do I feel such a strange combination of joy and fear than when working with younger children who express an initial desire to follow Christ—between the thrill of being a spiritual midwife and the danger of forcing a premature birth. I felt the tension immensely when, at six years old, my own daughter began pelting my wife and I with spiritual questions and began to solidify her faith in Christ. I struggle, even though I was saved at six years old and have never doubted the timing of my own new birth!

child baptismHow do we ease some of the tension we feel concerning children and conversion? First, let’s recognize that the tension is good. It keeps us attentive and careful. Second, let’s refuse artificial solutions. Some churches impose age-graded standards, requiring children to be at least 12 years old, or even 16 years old, before they may be baptized. This approach seeks to ensure that children are able to understand the gospel before proceeding with the initial rite and sign of conversion. Yet, it seems that age restrictions are confusing at best (by what standard do we choose a certain age?) and off-putting at worst (why must a new believer wait until an earthly birthday to celebrate the spiritual birth?).

Prerequisite to working through the issue is a clear, biblical understanding of conversion itself. Conversion is not walking an aisle, praying a prayer, or being baptized, and it is not necessarily concurrent with any of these. Conversion is turning from sin and turning to Jesus for salvation. It is responding to the gospel with repentance and faith. Conversion happens when God gives new life to one who has faith in Jesus.

So, fundamentally, we should deal with children in much the same way we do adults—looking for indicators that the gospel has taken root and that the response is real. What follows are three factors I consider when recommending children for baptism.

Initiative. Having heard the gospel, does the child take personal initiative to follow Jesus, or is he or she merely following the prompt of an adult, program, or component of a worship service? Is there evidence of conviction over sin and eagerness for faith? Does the child make intentional moves toward Christ? Such moves may include the child asking questions (concerning Jesus, faith, sin, salvation, heaven and hell, or baptism), displaying grief to God (not merely to parents) over wrongdoing, showing particular attentiveness to preaching, expressing a desire to learn more, or simply stating his or her desire to follow Christ and be baptized.

Clarity. Does the child have a lucid understanding of the gospel? The child does not need a comprehensive or exhaustive understanding (who has that?), and the child does not need to have solved every mystery, but the child should be able to explain basic categories of sin, separation from God, judgment, the accomplishment of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, repentance, and faith. Ask the child open-ended questions on these issues. Stay away from obvious “yes” and “no” questions. Parents may find it helpful to use a catechism (yes, Baptists can use catechisms, too), or other training resources. When I was converted at a young age, there was much I didn’t know, but I knew that I was a sinner, headed for condemnation, and hopeless unless God did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. I knew that, in fact, God had done everything to save me in Jesus, and I wanted Jesus desperately. Gloriously, it was enough!

Persistence. Is the child tinkering with a fleeting thought, or is conversion something that is constantly on the child’s mind and in his or her conversation? Does the child persist in desiring to follow Jesus? We took things very slowly when our daughter was moving toward Jesus, because she was very young. But, her initiative and clarity only increased, even to the point that she began to reason like the Ethiopian eunuch: “What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). At that point, we could no longer delay and maintain a clear conscience.

In watching for these indicators, don’t overlook the extreme importance of simple, Christian parenting. Pray for your child and pray for wisdom as your work with your child. Listen closely, and facilitate open conversation. Teach the Bible and basic Christian doctrines in your home. Don’t leave spiritual education solely to the church, pastor, or childhood minister. Parents are primary instructors (Ephesians 6:4) and pastors often defer to parents in discerning the readiness of a child. Never underestimate the power of participation in the local church. Keeping a child consistently under gospel teaching in the context of a church community is a powerful, clarifying, confidence-building, Spirit-filled force in a child’s life. Finally, encourage your child. Never make a child feel as though you are putting him or her off, ignoring the questions, or minimizing a desire for Jesus. Even if you must delay public commitment or baptism, be sure to celebrate and affirm every step along the way.