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?