Last week my son, who is six years old, responded to an invitation given at a vacation Bible school he attended at another church in our community. From what I understand, there were many who responded, and he left there expressing confidence that he was now saved because he had prayed a prayer. My boy is asking some very good questions concerning the gospel, and I believe that he is moving toward the point of having saving faith, but I don’t think he has an adequate understanding of his own personal guilt, the punishment it deserves, and Christ’s work in bearing that punishment in his place. By God’s grace, he will get there. He’s headed in the right direction.
But this episode has caused me to think about the practice of VBS invitations, and I believe there is much more caution needed than there is caution exercised in our churches when it comes to this issue. I’m aware of a church not far from where I serve where the pastor did something rather disturbing last year. When it came to the time for an invitation to trust Christ to be extended, all the younger children were dismissed, leaving only children in grades 4-6 in the room. This is commendable, and this step would make it seem that this pastor was understanding of the need to avoid emotionalism, and that he was trying to avoid false conversions. But what happened next was startling.
With only the older children now present, he outlined the ABC’s of becoming a Christian, and if you’re a Southern Baptist involved in VBS, you can sing these to at least four or five different tunes, courtesy of the freakishly talented Jeff Slaughter. After his presentation, he told everyone present to bow their heads, close their eyes, and repeat after him as he led them in a “sinner’s prayer*.” When he was done, he said that all who had prayed that prayer (which he had just instructed them to pray) should come to the front, publicly professing their new-found faith in Christ.
The following Sunday, this pastor stood before his church and announced that every single child in grades 4-6 who attended their VBS had been saved that week. Many of them were presented to the church that Sunday or following Sundays as candidates for baptism, and most were subsequently baptized. But not all.
I heard this story from the parent of one girl in that group, who responded as directed to the VBS invitation, but later recognized that nothing had changed in her heart, and she was only responding because that’s what everyone in the room was told to do. Her family is very involved in the church, and they’re there almost every Sunday. So, the pastor came looking for her. He took her out of Sunday School, without her parent’s knowledge, and asked her why she hadn’t presented herself for baptism. As far as I know, the child has not yet been baptized.
There are many forms of spiritual abuse. Men who use their positions of ecclesial authority in order to subjugate or gain favors from women are despicable. Those who would use their power in order to keep wrongdoing from being brought to light will face the harsh judgment of their all-seeing Creator. But in terms of eternal consequences, I’d be hard pressed to identify much that is worse than gaining, by coercion of peer pressure or other manipulative tactics, a false profession of faith in Christ from a child. For my son, and the girl in the story above, the damage is minor, and temporary. I believe in the promises of God, and have confidence that these children are being trained up in the way they should go, and they’ll have full opportunity to hear, understand, and respond to the gospel. But for so many of the children who populate our VBS rolls each summer, this is the only contact they have with our churches, or any church. To offer assurance of salvation to someone who may never hear the truth again simply because they correctly repeated several sentences with their eyes closed may have consequences far greater than any other kind of spiritual abuse I can imagine, because those consequences may be eternal.
I love VBS. I love the way the Bible lessons and Jeff Slaughter’s music imprint truth from God’s Word upon young hearts. But we must be cautious. In our zeal to see children come to faith in Christ, we must make sure that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, and not the result of our own manipulation, that has done the converting. Only one of these actually has the power to bring new life.
*I’m all for sinners praying, but I will never tell someone who wants to become a Christian what the content of that prayer ought to be. I’ll explain what the Bible says about how one is saved, and leave the wording up to the individual and the Holy Spirit.