Writer Cindy Brandt recently shared three very good reasons why she hasn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer with her kids. For those of us who grew up evangelical, praying the sinner’s prayer was a Very Big Deal. In my church, when someone was assessing your spiritual state, one of the first things they wanted to know was, “How old were you when you asked Jesus into your heart?” It was almost a competition: the younger you were at the time, the better.
The sinner’s prayer was supposed to give assurance of salvation, an easy way of knowing if you were in or out. But the pitfalls Cindy identified are real—which is why I’m not praying the sinner’s prayer with my kids, either.
So what can you do instead? Here are three ideas for parents who want to nurture their kids’ faith without relying on the sinner’s prayer:
1. Enchant your kids with the goodness of God’s world.
The premise of the sinner’s prayer is that your identity is chiefly and overwhelmingly characterized by sin. You’re not a person. You’re not an image-bearer. You’re not someone who struggles with sin or who’s affected by sin. You’re a SINNER.
It’s the very first line of the prayer, the very first thing you say to God—at least according to the script proposed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which is arguably the closest thing evangelicalism has to an official form of the sinner’s prayer:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, amen.
When we lead our kids in the sinner’s prayer, the first thing they say to God is the opposite of what God first said to us.
That’s the Cliff Notes version of Genesis 1.
That’s the first thing God said to his creation.
God’s very first words to us were not a curse but a blessing.
Yes, a lot happens after Genesis 1, but it does not erase the first part of the story. It does not change where the story began—or where we should begin with our kids.
The first thing our kids should know is that the world is good because it’s made and loved by God.
That’s the other thing the sinner’s prayer gets wrong: not only does it start with a faulty notion of our identity; it completely sidesteps the rest of the world. It makes sin and salvation about me and myself.
Growing up, I was taught that “saving souls” mattered more than nurturing life. The prize of salvation was escape—liberation from this body, evacuation from this world…which is just going to burn anyway.
This is not the story Scripture tells. And it’s not the story we should tell our kids, either.
“All things hold together” in Christ. “All things” will be reconciled to God—yes, even “things on earth.”
We should help our kids fall in love with a world that God thinks is worth saving. We should nurture their sense of wonder, imagination, and inquisitiveness.
The other day, my daughter asked if we could go for a walk in the woods near our house so we could experience the colors of fall together. This is one of the holiest, most sacred things she’s ever asked to do.
Yes, there is evil. Yes, there is brokenness. But that is not the whole story. Instead of teaching our kids that they’re utterly evil, or that the world is utterly worthless, let’s help them see themselves—and the world—as God does.
2. Assure your kids of the constancy of God’s love—by demonstrating the constancy of yours.
Fear-based tactics, like the sinner’s prayer, might deliver a short-term result. (Really, how hard is it to scare a five-year-old into saying a prayer they think will keep them out of hell?) But the long-term results are rarely as satisfying.
That’s why many kids end up praying the sinner’s prayer over and over. As Cindy writes:
I was taught praying the prayer would become the mark of assurance, our get-out-of-hell card. I remember praying it with as much sincerity as I could muster, hoping God hears and receives it. Then I remember praying it again, and again, and again. If praying the prayer was supposed to be reassuring, it certainly did not work on me.
When you introduce fear as a motivator, that fear never goes away. The solution offered—in this case, a loosely scripted prayer—might provide temporary relief. But that fear will come creeping (or storming) back eventually. A God who is willing to throw five-year-olds into hell for lack of saying a few magic words might just as easily throw you into hell for doing something bad after you said them, or for not saying them fervently enough, or not being able to remember exactly when you said the prayer.
The sinner’s prayer becomes a talisman—and not a very good one—a cheap substitute for the real basis of our assurance: the character and nature of God.
The best way to show our kids who God is and what he’s like is to love them the way God does. Most of us do this intuitively—even though we are far from being perfect parents. We tell our kids, “There’s nothing you can do to make me love you less.” We tell them we love them because they are, not because of what they do.
And when we show it, day in and day out, they get a glimpse of what God is like.
If God is the author of love, and if this is the best way to love our kids, then why would we expect God’s love to be any different? The best way to assure our kids of the constancy of God’s love is to love them with the same constancy. As Cindy writes, “Assurance of God’s love doesn’t come packaged in a tidy little prayer, it is delivered through consistent provision of tender care by the children’s caretakers.”
3. Treat your kids as full members of the community of faith.
A third problem with the sinner’s prayer, as identified by Cindy, is that it elevates belief—often a cheap, unformed belief—over belonging. It disrupts the natural timeline of a child’s spiritual journey, forcing a decision on kids before they’ve even had a chance to “count the cost” of being a disciple. (After all, isn’t that what Jesus told us to do before following him?)
The answer, of course, is not to impose an even heavier burden on our children. It’s not to raise the threshold of belief even higher. The answer, I believe, is to give kids a place to belong as they work out their faith.
The problem is that in many of our churches, we inadvertently marginalize our kids instead. It’s just easier to send them off to “children’s church” than to find ways to make the main worship time meaningful for all ages, together. A certain amount of age-appropriate programming is a good thing. But if we wait till our kids are fully grown to welcome them into the “real” church or to upgrade their membership to full status, then we’ve waited too long.
As Methodist pastor Tom Fuerst writes:
From the time my generation was born, we were thrown in the nursery with other babies. Then we went to children’s ministries with other children to be entertained while our parents when to “big church.”
Then we had middle school ministry. Then we had youth group. Then we went away to college and we found a church with a stellar college ministry.
It wasn’t until we graduated college that we were actually expected to be a part of the intergenerational community called “church.” We’d been segregated by age for the first 22 years. And you not only allowed this, you encouraged it.
And now you’re wondering why we don’t want to go to church. Now you’re wondering how to reach us to make us a part of the church?
I’m sorry, but you never really valued us being part of a church before.
We need to show our kids they matter, that their presence matters, that our communities are not quite whole without them. This means creating new ways of “doing church” together. It means welcoming their participation as equals, alongside the adults. At the altar, at the table, at the baptismal font. In the sanctuary and in the fellowship hall. When we pray and when we wrestle with the Scriptures. And, above all, when we serve.
This is, after all, the way it was always done. Children of the first covenant (well, the boys anyway) were marked by circumcision—a sign of their full belonging—before their brains could formulate a single thought about God. The sign of belonging changed with the arrival of a new covenant. It was no longer limited by your gender or your identification with a certain group. But the sign is still a gift that is given before it can be grasped.
Our children need to belong before they believe. There will, of course, be more to their journey than this. The path they take might be more circuitous than we’d like—or take them places we didn’t expect they’d go. But the best thing we can do is not try to rig the outcome in advance by coaxing them into praying the sinner’s prayer. It’s giving them a place to belong, to be loved, and to experience the goodness of God.