Children and evangelization

Over at the new blog The Friendly Christian, they recently asked the question: Does the word “Christian” make your stomach turn?

I’ve been working on a post with my own answer to that question but am having a hard time finishing it up because…well…if I am totally honest…the answer is…yeah, it kind of does. I hate to even admit that since I now have such warm feelings about Christians and Christianity, but old habits die hard.

I talked about this more when I first started this blog, but I had a lot of bad experiences involving Christianity growing up. I lived for quite a few years in the Bible Belt, and received a lot of ridicule and disdain for the fact that my family and I weren’t religious.

I’ve been thinking about those memories quite a bit over the past few months and trying to look back objectively to get a more accurate picture of what the Christians I grew up around were really like. For many years I wrote them all off as hypocrites, and I certainly did witness plenty of very un-Christian behavior by self-described Christians, but I now wonder if perhaps at a certain point I began to stereotype my Christian neighbors, disregarding the good and only mentally cataloging the bad.

I was thinking about all this last night when I realized something interesting: though I definitely did have a skewed memory of the Christian communities I grew up in, one thing that is accurate is that none of my Christian friends or classmates ever offered to explain their faith to me. When that thought first crossed my mind I thought that that must be one of those things that I was misremembering. But I thought and thought about it and realized that, no, not a single friend, acquaintance, or even adult ever offered to help me learn more about Christianity.

For example: one recurring issue for me was that my family didn’t own a Bible. When I would tag along with friends to religious activities the only thing I had to bring was a pocket-sized copy of the New Testament that some Christian group handed out at our elementary school (yes, it was a public school — they weren’t exactly sticklers on the whole separation of church and state thing). I had drawn pictures in it and torn out a few pages to use for arts and crafts projects, but it was all I had.

Since all of my friends were at least nominally Christian, I ended up at various Sunday school classes, vacation Bible schools, and even spent a few summers at a Christian camp. Every time with the little pocket New Testament, and every time I’d get comments ranging from mildly judgmental to downright scornful about the fact that I didn’t have a real Bible. I probably would have gotten one with allowance money just to stop getting so much flack about it, but I didn’t understand what was missing from my copy or why it was different from others, and I didn’t dare ask since the topic seemed so charged with hostility to begin with.

So anyway, what struck me when I was thinking about all this last night is that nobody ever offered to give me a Bible. And when it would invariably come out that I didn’t know what words like “Gospel” or “covenant” meant, children would whisper and frustrated teachers would sigh and move on. A couple times it came out (despite my best efforts to conceal it) that I actually did not have any idea who this “Jesus” person was. Incredibly, nobody ever told me. I’ve thought back on this over and over again to make sure that that’s an accurate statement, and it is.

I realize now that what was going on is that these kids just took for granted that all families talked about Jesus at least a little bit in their homes, that everyone at least had a basic understanding of Christian concepts. So when they met me and saw that I didn’t have a Bible and wasn’t religious, the assumption was that I had made a conscious choice to reject Christianity. Though that was the case later in my life, at that age I just didn’t know anything about it. Given their environment, I can see how it would be unfathomable to these children’s young minds that one of their peers could have no idea what “God” was supposed to be, not know the first thing about Jesus, and not have a clue as to what on earth that crazy Bible book was all about.

Going through all this has got me thinking: what does this mean for me now that I am a Christian and a parent?

First of all, I want my children to be aware that, for better or worse, they are going to represent Christianity to people who aren’t religious. Yes, in a perfect world a religion should be evaluated objectively on its claims and its doctrines, but the fact is that a lot of people are turned off (or on) to Christ based on the actions of Christians. Which is not to say my kids need to be perfect. I just want them to keep that in the back of their minds.

Second, and the thing I kind of struggle with, is what to tell them to say to friends who aren’t religious. I don’t want them to be pushy about their beliefs…but I would hate for them to never even offer to tell their non-religious friends more about it. Would I have become a Christian as a child if someone had done that for me? Who knows. But I certainly would have thought it was a kind gesture.

If anyone has any thoughts on this, I’d be interested to know. What do you tell your kids to do when they encounter other children who are not from religious families?

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19 Responses to “Children and evangelization”
  1. aimee says:

    Coming from the side of atheists, have your children keep their religion to themselves UNLESS,
    they are asked about it by their friends.

    Just like you (or I) don’t want my kids going around telling their religious friends we don’t believe in ANY god, so too should my kids get the same respect from their friends.

  2. aimee says:

    Oh, I forgot, you mentioned that your friends never bothered to tell you about Jesus or their religion, did you ever try asking?
    Just a thought.

  3. MrBill9999 says:

    I am not shy about my faith. I don’t shove it down any throats, but if you talk to me for more than 10 min you’ll know I’m a Christian.

    “Have you ever seen someone pull a photo out of their wallet and argue about the supremacy of this particular loved one? Of course not. They show you the picture and give you the opportunity to see what they see.” Rob Bell

    I agree with Mr. Bell completely…let people see Jesus through us.

    I also know that we’re called to make disciples of nations. The trick is finding that “middle ground” between sharing the Truth and not pushing people away. Sometimes it’s tricky.

    Just my thoughts…

    Bill
    http://www.friendlychristian.com

  4. Colleen says:

    I try to teach my children that all people all children of God and should be treated that way, regardless of their beliefs. I want them to love people, not judge them (judging is God’s job). I want them to live their faith without hesitation and I hope I teach them well enough that they feel comfortable to share and explain their faith when asked about it.

    But, it is difficult for children to realize that there are people who believe different than they do. Their experiences in life are so limited due to their youth so they are not yet mature enough to see life from other people’s perspective. As parents, we have to take advantage of every oppotunity that our children have of interacting with people who are not like them to teach them compassion and to broaden their perspective. I think it is very easy (and natural) for children to reject or disregard people or things that don’t make sense to them.

  5. Literacy-chic says:

    I think that “evangelization education” doesn’t really come into play until high school. Before then, it’s “invite your friends to church” and the rest will take care of itself. Your experience was so far removed from theirs (teachers included, I suspect, unless they just couldn’t be bothered, which, though it sounds uncharitable, might be true) that they didn’t know HOW to explain what they were barely coming to understand themselves. Of course, ask some less-well-“evangelized” adults the details of their faith and they wouldn’t be able to explain either. Not all protestants are evangelical, and those who aren’t really don’t talk about it much, in my experience. I had various people throughout my life take me to various churches on a more or less regular basis. My family considered themselves Christian, but it didn’t come up often. I knew details of the Bible because my grandfather gave me some coloring books as a child and I had to read them before doing the activities! And there was a little Catholic bible stories book in my grandparents’ house–circa 1850 or so (I recently bought myself a copy on eBay). These things did more for my faith than any amount of personal contact with good church-going Christians. Actually, attempts at evangelism drove me away from organized churches. When I found myself drifting toward faith in the form of Catholicism, one of my dominant thoughts/emotions was relief–“Okay, I won’t be like THEM” (“THEM” meaning the evangelicals that I encountered at the college where I was teaching, the ones at the camp in upstate New York where I worked as a teen, the over-the-top, deny-the-world types who thought that New Orleans “must be a hard place to be a Christian”). As I have put it before, I was warm-and-fuzzied to death. So I have told myself that my philosophy on Evangelization is Christianity-by-example, but I’m not good enough at that to really take myself seriously. I guess the real trick is to judge each situation differently and look for people who are open to the discussion of faith. Having thought back to the things that influenced me, too, they were all books. (However, I was deeply offended when a teacher at a Baptist Christian school gave me a blatantly evangelizing book as a “prize” while others got cooler stuff. What did I expect? I also felt a deep sense of betrayal when I realized that the Narnia books were overtly Christian–I didn’t want to be “tricked”!!) I should have thought this over more, I suppose, before posting, but I know I would (and still will) be roaming around thinking about it if I didn’t write something now. Maybe what I’m getting at is that evangelization (on the giving as well as receiving end) is not only deeply personal, but also highly situational. Clearly you should have been given a Bible at some point. I was given a few, the first by someone who invited me to a church and learned that I didn’t have one of my own. My experiences were such that I don’t know if I could really “invite someone” to Mass–not unless they asked generally and I suggested a specific time/date. And there are just some times when to bring up the Bible or say that you’ll be praying for someone is downright tacky, usually when it’s forced or insincere. So how do you know the right situation? I guess you just pray for guidance? ;)

  6. Literacy-chic says:

    WOW! Sorry about the novel…

  7. newhousenewjob says:

    From my own experience, I would say that most children genuinely wouldn’t have understood where you were coming from. I’m a cradle Catholic, and two incidents stand out in my mind in this regard.

    The first was when I was about 7. There was an older girl of about 10 or 11 who went to our church, and she was hopping around with excitement after Mass because she knew the Hail Mary by heart. I couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t known it, and made a comment to my mother about how strange it was that someone so old should be so proud of knowing something that everyone knows. My mother said, “She hasn’t had the advantages you have. She doesn’t go to a Catholic school, and nobody has taught her to say the Hail Mary.” That came as such a shock to me that I’ve never forgotten it.

    The other occasion was when I was 10. I had recently started at a new school, a convent, and my best friend wasn’t Catholic. I had always gone to Catholic schools. When my friend invited me round to her house, the first thing her brother said to me was, “Are you one of these?” (while making the Sign of the Cross). He’d forgotten the word “Catholic”. That was the first time I knew that the Sign of the Cross was not universal.

    As a child, you take it for granted that your world is the same as everyone else’s world, and that other children have the same life you do. If parents pick up on comments that they make to this effect, and clear up misunderstandings as they arise, the children will gradually learn that not everybody knows what they know, and learn how to deal with that.

  8. Jennifer F. says:

    You mentioned that your friends never bothered to tell you about Jesus or their religion, did you ever try asking?

    No. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying with this post that I was just dying to learn more about Jesus but couldn’t figure out how to do so. I wasn’t seeking at all. My comment here is more that since it’s Christian doctrine that Christians are supposed to spread the “good news” to others, it would have been a good idea for someone to volunteer it to me when an obvious occasion arose.

    Just like you (or I) don’t want my kids going around telling their religious friends we don’t believe in ANY god, so too should my kids get the same respect from their friends.

    It’s funny, I think I feel differently about that than other people. It wouldn’t bother me at all if my kids’ friends talked to them about what they believe. Maybe it’s because a couple of my good friends are atheists and Wiccans that I just know that that sort of thing is going to come up. :) But it just wouldn’t bother me at all if a friend introduced my kids to their way of believing (assuming, of course, that they weren’t manipulative or pushy about it).

  9. Kate says:

    Aimee,

    I wouldn’t care if your kids mentioned their beliefs to my kids. It would be a good opportunity for my kids to explain their beliefs, and a good lesson in dialogue and diversity for all of them! Then, if they came home with questions, I would have an opportunity to help my children better understand why we believe what we do, and you would have an opportunity to help your children better understand why you believe as you do. Why would you want to shelter your children from that experience?

    My faith is what it is now because it was challenged so much in highschool by my friends, most of whom were not practicing Christians of any kind. And I never had to force my beliefs on anybody, since they were constantly ‘telling’ me what I ‘believed’. I did a lot of correcting and explaining though. :-)

    When I was a little older and met people who were offended by my open faith – not that I was preaching, but that I refer to my faith easily and often in conversation – I learned to explain to them that I would have to be pretty cold hearted to believe that I know the objective truth about life, the universe, and everything, and yet be unwilling to even mention it to people I claim to care about. It would be like having the cure to cancer and sharing it only with people who think to ask, “hey, do you happen to know of a cure to cancer?”

  10. Jennifer F. says:

    [The following is from Aimee, who emailed it because her password isn’t working right now:]

    Jennifer,

    “But it just wouldn’t bother me at all if a friend introduced my kids to their way of believing (assuming, of course, that they weren’t manipulative or pushy about it)”.

    I agree 100%, I mean I don’t mind if my kids hear about their friends different religions, but only if it is brought up in conversation. I don’t want them preached to or told their way of thinking is wrong and that their parents are going to go to hell, as they have been told before.

    There are so many resources out there now that if people are curious, they can find out without having people shove their beliefs down others throats.
    I think it’s kind of like when you are a new mom. You want advice, but only if you ask for it, or you smile and nod not really listening. Otherwise you are going to get a slew of information that is so different from person to person it is enough to make your head spin.

    In elementary school my best friend was Mormon and I felt bad for her that she couldn’t join in on our Christmas parties or celebrate her birthday. I remember later on about 4th grade or so asking some other friends why they pray, and how you do it. They couldn’t really tell me.

    While we tell our kids that we (my husband and I) don’t believe in a god, most of my husband’s family does, and that is okay. They have gone to church with their grandparents. We want them to be exposed to everything and come to their own conclusion, learn to question everything and use critical thinking.

    I am curious (not judging) to know how you would feel if your kids grew up and chose to become Atheists or if you plan to expose them to other ways of thinking since you have dove into being a Catholic 200%?

    Kate,

    Like I said above, I never said I want them sheltered, but I don’t want them preached to either. I don’t want kids or adults telling them their parents are going to hell because we don’t believe or that we hate god. We can’t hate something we don’t believe exists. I don’t want them telling their friends either that what they believe is wrong. Again, my main point being is that unless it is brought up in conversation and questions are asked, then it doesn’t need to be talked about, just like if it was an adult conversation. Kids are cruel enough as it is, and that goes for any religion.

    [Again, all of the above is a response from Aimee]

  11. Jennifer F. says:

    I am curious (not judging) to know how you would feel if your kids grew up and chose to become Atheists or if you plan to expose them to other ways of thinking since you have dove into being a Catholic 200%?

    If my kids grew up to be atheists, my biggest reaction would be surprise. I would want to have conversations with them and would be very curious to hear what thought process led them to come to that conclusion. After that, my reaction would depend on what it was that led them to that belief system.

    And as for exposing them to other ways of thinking…most definitely! It’s probably just part of my personality (former anthropology major), but I’m fascinated with people, especially people who have totally different cultures or belief systems.

    We have a lot of friends who are Hindu and Jain, so I can’t wait for my kids to learn more about that (I’m hoping to invite myself to some of their religious celebrations at some point). And, of course, since I have lots of family members and friends who are atheists, my kids will know all about that as well. I definitely wouldn’t shelter them from the concept that other people don’t believe in God…in fact, they’re probably going to get tired of hearing about how I didn’t used to believe in God either. :)

    I think the real thing that was on my mind when I wrote this post was how to find that balance between evangelizing and not being pushy. Believe me – I could fill up this blog of stories of Christians telling me that I’m a bad person, I’m controlled by Satan, I’m going to hell, I’m not as good as other people, etc. from back when I was an atheist — so I’m certainly sensitive to how the subject is approached.

    But, as Christians, we are called to evangelize. And it makes sense, right? I mean, let’s say for that sake of argument that we are right, that there really is a loving God who wants all men to know him: wouldn’t it be horrible to keep that to ourselves? Like Kate said, it would be like knowing the cure to cancer and not openly sharing it.

    OK, long answer. I’ll shut up now. :)

  12. Literacy-chic says:

    I don’t want them preached to or told their way of thinking is wrong and that their parents are going to go to hell, as they have been told before.

    It’s interesting to think that Catholics and atheists share this experience!

    It has always struck me, though, that the Catholics I knew were much less judgmental than the Protestants I knew–much less apt to make the above observations, especially when the observation was not solicited. So I might pose a counter-question: Is there a difference in the Catholic method or philosophy of evangelization? Or is it more of a laissez-faire thing among (some?) Catholics? (Admittedly, I have met more evangelical Catholics in the area where I am now living than I ever thought existed.)

  13. Literacy-chic says:

    Another thought–it sounds as though, from what Kate said, that atheists do their own evangelizing (though not specifically obligated to do so). The web is full of examples of THAT, to boot. But in my experience, mature atheists that you meet on the street (especially the academic variety) don’t particularly preach or evangelize; rather, they indicate with great scorn the inferiority of the Christian position, usually by dismissing it. Doesn’t leave much room for conversation, even if one is inclined! So one group shoves it down others’ throats, while the other asserts their own superiority in a different way. And they all lived happily every after!

  14. Suzanne says:

    God bless you for writing this. Sometimes I truly wonder if we can’t see the forest for the trees. I NEVER thought of this. “A couple times it came out (despite my best efforts to conceal it) that I actually did not have any idea who this “Jesus” person was. Incredibly, nobody ever told me. I’ve thought back on this over and over again to make sure that that’s an accurate statement, and it is.
    I realize now that what was going on is that these kids just took for granted that all families talked about Jesus at least a little bit in their homes, that everyone at least had a basic understanding of Christian concepts. So when they met me and saw that I didn’t have a Bible and wasn’t religious, the assumption was that I had made a conscious choice to reject Christianity.” Even as a 40 year old I still only see things from my point of view (even though only 5 years ago an English teacher said that I had an uncanny way of looking at different people’s perspective) and never once did I ever think that it was because people had NEVER known our Lord that they blasphemed. I had thought that they did it with full concsciousness, as indeed, I would have done in their position.
    Please God, let me remember this tomorrow, to tell my children, so they may see that the ‘trees’ are indeed loved by You and have a place reserved in Heaven for them and that my children must act kindly towards people even when they hear that Your name is taken in vain because they may be the only encounter that non-Catholics ever have with practicing Catholics. “Of he who has been given much, much will be expected.”
    God Bless You,
    Suzanne
    P.S. I took so long editing this, that I’m unsure whether it has already been sent

  15. Ma Beck says:

    What an interesting conversation!
    Off-topic, Aimee -
    Are you certain your childhood friend wasn’t Jehovah’s Witness?
    All the Mormons I know (only a few people, admittedly) happily celebrate Christmas, their birthdays, and many other holidays.
    But maybe I don’t know any hard-core Mormons.
    ;)

  16. P says:

    On a similar note: when I was 9 years old I asked some kid at school why he wasn’t wearing green on St. Patrick’s day. He said, “I’m not Irish.”

    I didn’t even understand the answer. What did it mean, “not Irish”? If he had said he was a Martian I would have had more of an idea what he was talking about.

    Of course, 2 years earlier at another school, my best friend had been Japanese. In retrospect, he probably wasn’t Irish, either. And there were other people who weren’t Irish in my family…for instance, my father. But the subject just had never come up before.

    Children take a lot of things for granted.

  17. Kate says:

    The question is, what would be considered ‘shoving’ your beliefs at someone? A simple statement? (Hi, I’m Kate. I’m a Catholic. Nice to meet you!) A passing reference? (“On my way to Mass the other day I saw…” “So I was teaching my children about the Trinity and one of them made a funny comment…”) A question? (“I notice you wear [symbol around your neck]. Does that signify something religious? I’m Catholic myself.”)

    I don’t want to stifle my children or give them the idea that religion is something shameful that must be hidden. I’d rather that they feel as comfortable talking about their beliefs as about the weather. They might be clumsy at it occasionally, who isn’t? But these conversations need to have a place in human interactions. Why is it that it’s so easy and acceptable to ‘demystify’ sex, and so unacceptable to openly discuss our deepest held beliefs?

    Certainly I hope to teach my children that not everybody believes as they do, but that we have hope everybody will be saved. We don’t know the state or circumstances of anyone else’s soul, and so it would be a mistake to let our children think that they know who is or isn’t going to hell.

    I’ll confirm that atheists definitely do their own form of evangelization. Teenagers especially want their peers to endorse their beliefs because they are new and because teenagers crave approval, even the ones trying really hard to be unconventional. It didn’t bother me when my friends engaged me in debate, even when I felt ganged up on. What bothered me was when I didn’t even have a chance to give my 2cents because they assumed that they knew already what I thought, because they thought my beliefs were the result of ‘brainwashing’ and ‘unthinking obedience’ and refused to acknowledge the soul-seeking I had done.

    Maybe we all need to work harder to teach our children that even in disagreement, there can be respect.

  18. Sarahndipity says:

    Just like you (or I) don’t want my kids going around telling their religious friends we don’t believe in ANY god, so too should my kids get the same respect from their friends.

    Actually, I’m Catholic but I certainly don’t mind when people with different beliefs tell me what they believe. In fact, I love to discuss “deep stuff” with people, especially with those who disagree with me. Unfortunately, it seems like most people are uncomfortable talking about this kind of stuff. So I have to talk about it online. :) I don’t see any reason why people with different beliefs can’t discuss their disagreements civilly.

    I agree with whoever said that it doesn’t make any sense to hide something that’s as important to you as religion. My religion is such a huge part of who I am. I can’t hide that. At the same time, I think we have to learn to confidently talk about what we believe while being respectful of other people’s beliefs.

    I remember when I was in high school I had a friend who used to be Catholic who became a born-again Christian, and he was constantly pressuring me and another Catholic friend to come to his church, telling us we were going to hell, etc. It was a HUGE turnoff. If I were an atheist and the only Christians I met were Christians like that, I would never become Christian. I do think that generally speaking, evangelical Protestants tend to be much pushier than Catholics or mainline Protestants (though I’m sure pushy Catholics and mainline Protestants exist).

    As a sort-of tangent, when I think of the people I’ve been close to in my life, with one major exception they have all been Catholic. The exception is another friend I’ve known since high school who has beliefs that are very, very different from mine – I suppose you could describe them as new age/pagan. But we were very close. He was very unusual in that he was very open about his beliefs and loved to talk about religion, the meaning of life, etc., but he was (usually) very respectful of Christians and those who had different beliefs.

    It seems to me that 99% of people I meet, no matter what they believe, are either a) very uncomfortable talking about religion with people they disagree with or b) are willing to talk about it but when they do, get very hostile. I am certainly not opposed to being close to non-Catholics, but it seems like it almost never happens. They usually get uncomfortable when they find out what I believe and keep their distance. Maybe they think I’ll judge them or something, I don’t know. I wish there were more people like my aforementioned friend because I really do love to (respectfully) talk about religion and philosophical issues with people who come from a very different perspective.

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