VBS and Invitations

VBS and Invitations

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.

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*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.

 


About the Author
Author

Wes Kenney

Comments (12)
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    Scott A Gordon Jun 23 2011 - 3:15 pm

    This is unbelievable! These veery situations are why we do not give an invitation at VBS. I present the Gospel each night in various ways and then tell our VBSers to talk with their group leaders or ask to come talk with me and we present the Gospel in a one-on-one situation. If I then believe that the child is ready to surrender to Christ as Savior and Lord, I make it a point to speak with the parents before we proceed any further.

    Manipulation of anyone to “make a decision” for the sake of garnering big numbers for our ministries is unconscionable…more importantly, not biblical.

    SolaGratia!

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    Paul Jun 23 2011 - 3:24 pm

    Wes,

    I think we’ve turned “the sinner’s prayer” into a Baptist sacrament in many cases. I don’t have time to tell the stories of the unfortunate people I’ve encountered who’s fruit does not bear evidence of Christ in them, yet who live with confidence that heaven is theirs because they prayed one of these prayers as a child in church. In fact, I attended a funeral recently of a man in his 40s who had done that very thing as a child. The minister performing the ceremony basically told everyone that it didn’t matter what his life was like after that point (he never got involved in church and died as a result of his alcoholism). He prayed the prayer. He was saved.

    Afterwards a lady asked me, “Did you like how he just preached him into heaven?”

    I’ve personally been criticized in the past for not doing something similar to what the preacher you reference did. I could only tell them that eternity is a very serious matter and we must be very careful in how we deal with children and their salvation. That wasn’t a popular response, but I believe we’re better off considering how we’ll answer to God for what we do than how we’ll answer to church people for what we do. I wish more pastors were as concerned about these things as you are.

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    Bob Cleveland Jun 23 2011 - 4:00 pm

    I’ve even seen pastors (I was in the service, in other words) ask everyone in the meeting hall to recite the prayer after him so those “seekers” would be more “comfortable” praying it.

    Sad. I forwarded a link to your post, to my pastor. I think ALL SBC pastors need to read it.

    Well done.

    ps: I didn’t repeat the “prayer” with everybody else.

    Reply

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    Tim G Jun 23 2011 - 8:09 pm

    Wes,
    You nailed this one. Great words of caution and even greater words of living testimony with your approach to your son.

    Great!

    Reply

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    volfan007 Jun 24 2011 - 11:39 pm

    Wow….this kind of trickery and manipulation is sad to hear about…and you wonder how many children, who go thru something like this, are led to a false assurance of salvation…after all, they said the prayer…

    I try to be very, very careful when dealing with children…I went thru a false, salvation experience as a child, due to the liberal, Methodist Pastor where my family belonged just led me to join a church…I had no idea what I was doing…

    Thank God, I was saved later…truly saved…at the age of nineteen….

    Good article, Wes….

    David

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    Paul Jun 27 2011 - 11:22 am

    There’s a good little book I give to the parents of children who are expressing an interest in salvation or who keep telling their parents they want to be baptized. It’s Your Child’s Profession of Faith by Dennis Gundersen. I highly recommend it.

    Reply

    Wes Kenney Reply:

    Thanks for that recommendation. I’ve ordered five copies of the book, and have distributed them to all our members who have young children. Great stuff.

    Reply

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    Mark SIkes Jul 5 2011 - 7:01 pm

    I see this alot too, I even attended WinterJam with Newsboys, newsong, etc etc, and Tony Nolan who was the speaker, presented the Gospel through his own personal testimony and invited people to pray after him. Whenever he got finished praying, he asked for those to stand and they did, but that is as far as it went. There was no follow-up, no counseling no invitation to come forward and talk to someone, and night after night I watched him post on Facebook and twitter about 1000′s of people who accepted Christ. Where is the Discipleship of these new believers, some if not most will go away from these events thinking they are saved. The church as a whole needs to fix the front door problem with have making sure new believers understand what they are doing.

    Reply

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    Adam Jul 19 2011 - 9:46 am

    Thanks for this post, Wes. Very insightful to call this kind of trickery ‘spiritual abuse’. Also, I appreciate how you present both a love for VBS and also a warning against dangerous tactics. So many young pastors I know have long since thrown the baby out with the bathwater, sadly missing a great opportunity to share the Gospel with children.

    Adam

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    Katherine Jul 19 2011 - 1:56 pm

    Thank you for opening the eyes of so many on how spiritually dangerous VBS can be. I prayed the “sinners prayer” when I was five, walked the aisle and was baptized. All that did was send me into a “christian” life (of 28 years) where I was the hero, not Christ, for what I had done to be saved. I didn’t at all understand my depravity and my desperate need for Christ. I am so grateful that the Holy Spirit convicted me of my extreme sin and need for a Savior when I was 32.

    Some people don’t understand why I won’t allow my kids in a VBS or church service where the “sinner’s prayer” is introduced but this article says it all.

    Salvation belongs to the Lord.

    Reply

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