Leading Kids Beyond 'Praying the Prayer'

by Mike Phay June 6, 2017

As you speak with your child about Jesus, God’s Word, and their relationship with God, there are several biblical values that should frame your approach to this ongoing conversation. Oftentimes, parents are intimidated by having spiritual conversations with their children simply because they doubt their own competence. They fear they will get it wrong. Christian parents often tend to take the minimalist route, which is easy and requires no college degree: Let’s just get our child to 'pray the prayer' to 'accept Jesus into their heart.' Once that is done: success! My child’s eternal destiny is secure, and we can return to life as normal.

But God has called and equipped Christian parents for something more.

Missing in this simplistic approach with your child is the deep significance of the parent-child relationship: God has given you to your child as a leader, mentor, teacher and disciple-maker. These kinds of everyday spiritual conversations should be a part of your life rhythm with your child. As God commanded the Israelite parents in regard to His commandments: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

Below, I've articulated some basic biblical values to guide a Gospel-shaped approach to our children's hearts, and to help us think through the discerning work that is so necessary for guiding our children to Jesus, especially around the key moments of conversion and baptism.

Guiding Values

Resist the urge to equate curiosity and eagerness with spiritual life. Children are insatiably curious learners and childhood is an imaginative and creative time. It is also a stage of life when motivation comes through reward and punishment. For these reasons, words and reality do not always align for children, causing difficulty in our discernment of their hearts. Children will tend to say what they think you want to hear, including the ubiquitous 'sinner’s prayer.' For example, my 5-year old daughter will dutifully (and joyously!) declare “Jesus died on the cross for our sins!” as a response to any question asked when the Bible is open at our dinner table. She can enthusiastically parrot the correct response to the wrong question. As parents, we encourage and correct with gentle guidance, because she is eager, curious and learning. Eagerness and curiosity are the happy marks of healthy children everywhere; they are not necessarily trustworthy markers of spiritual life.

Keep God’s Word central in your conversations with your child. God has sovereignly designed that faith comes through hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:14-17). You can have many spiritually-oriented and deep conversations with your children without ever bringing God’s Word to bear. But the response you are looking for in your child’s heart is not a response to your wisdom, but to God’s Word. Keep the Bible open and in front of them. The fruit that you and your child will reap from these types of Word-centered conversations will be eternal.

Be prayerfully attentive to God’s work in your child’s heart. Parents should take comfort in the fact that the primary work of salvation in a child’s heart is the work of God. The nature of new birth is God’s sovereign election of individuals (John 15:16; Ephesians 1:4; Acts 2:39; 13:48; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; Revelation 17:8), brought to fruition through the Spirit’s movement and work in a dead heart (John 3:8; Ezekiel 37; Ephesians 2:1-10). For parents, there is a call to prayerful and dependent attentiveness in looking for signs of the Spirit’s movements in a child’s heart. God has been at work in your child well before you were even on the scene (Psalm 139:13-16; Ephesians 1:3-6). Be constantly on the hunt for His astonishing grace in the heart and life of your child - and celebrate it when you see it!

Call for but do not force a response. Do not be afraid to call your child to profess faith or to follow Jesus in baptism if you believe that your child is ready. Conversely, do not be afraid to have your child wait if they are not ready. Allowing a child to respond to God in His time is more important than your own (possibly idolatrous) need for assurance that your child is on the right track. You must be careful that your eagerness not overcome a child’s readiness. Seek to carefully and sensitively take a posture of responsiveness to the movement of the Spirit rather than one of forceful initiation. Seek to patiently allow the Spirit to work faith in your child, rather than inadvertently leading your child to a place where God is not leading. Discernment and relationship are key.

There are several ‘Discernment Helps’ lined out below. If one or several of these are lacking - or even more strongly, a child is resistant to the Gospel or to outward proclamation - then wisdom would caution against any pressure to reap where a crop is unprepared for harvest.

Take into account both the mind and the heart. It is important that your child understand the truth of the Gospel and be able to articulate it in their own words.  Nevertheless, this articulation is not enough, as the responses that you are looking for in your child must be both intellectual (mind) and emotional (heart). See below for more clarity on the affectional response of faith.

Discernment Helps

The Bible clarifies for us how the Spirit moves in people and how a true response of faith will be flavored. Below are some tips that are helpful in a parent’s work of discerning their child’s heart in relation to the look and feel of biblical conversion & faith in Christ. Stay attentive to the Spirit moving in your child’s heart in response to the Word of God in the following ways:

Gospel Sorrow: Have you seen or discerned in your child a sorrow for and brokenness over their sin? There is a point in the life of every true believer when they recognize sin not just as an idea, but as a personal affront against a holy God. Gospel fear drives an individual to repentance and a desire for forgiveness. With children, this will most often be perceived as a brokenness for their sin(s), articulated in their own words, and often accompanied with tears. This is good and healthy as children are confronted with their own sinfulness. The opposite of Gospel Sorrow is any response such as defensiveness, blame, deflection, or anger when personal sin is confronted or opposed. (See Psalm 51:17; Matthew 5:3; 2 Corinthians 7:10)

Affection for Christ: The Gospel calls us to a love and devotion for Christ that are over and above all other loves and devotions (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 22:37-38). This is opposed to several possible responses that we might see in our children, including a mere intellectual assent to truth, or a reward/punishment response (like a fear of Hell or a desire to please). A reverent Fear of God is right and good (Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 19:9; 1 Peter 2:17). Thankfully, the Gospel takes us through a simplistic fear to a deep love and sincere affection for Christ, the object of our faith (1 John 4:18). Parents should be looking for affectional clues in their children, giving evidence to their love for Christ. This may sound like delight, love, satisfaction or longing.

Discernible Fruit: Good fruit is the outward, discernible result of true, biblical faith (Matthew 3:8; 7:16-20; John 15:3-5,8,16; Romans 7:4; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 1:9-11; James 2:14-26). When considering fruit, we begin to take note of a child’s behavior, which can be tricky. Although all children are born sinners, some are naturally more obedient than others. This may be the result of the regenerating work of the Spirit in the child, common grace given through a pleasant or gentle disposition, or a heightened desire to please. Another issue with discerning fruit in children is lack of time or life experience, especially with very young children. Even if regeneration, repentance and faith have taken place, they have simply not had enough life duration to 'prove it' through the fruit of faith. A further complication arises in the fact that as children grow, they often 'naturally' overcome or grow out of certain behaviors. In other words, they mature. Thankfully, parents usually know their children best and through time and prayerful attention can often discern the difference between merely good behavior and the true fruit of repentance. 

God’s grace on you as you, ultimately, trust in Him alone to guide your children to faith. It is a delight to us, as parents, to rejoice in new birth - especially when it’s in our own child. May Christ be everything in your life, your home, and your children!