Children & Church Membership
A few weeks ago the session on which I serve was interviewing some young teenage girls for communicant membership in the church. When a child in the congregation I serve approaches me about making their profession of faith before the session I ask them two questions. First, I ask to hear their testimony, which usually goes something like this, “Growing up in a Christian home I’ve always believed in Jesus.” Now, that’s good but it tells you more about a child’s upbringing than it does about what they actually believe. So, my follow up question is, “What would you say to a friend who didn’t grow up in a Christian home? How would you explain the gospel to them?” Those are the foundational questions that children are asked when making their profession in our church.
However, the question that always lingers in the air is a simple one, “Has this child really embraced the Christ held out to them in their baptism or do they believe because they have been taught by faithful parents?” That’s what elders are often attempting to discern when they hear a profession of faith made by a young person. What is more, it is sometimes difficult for the child to understand the difference that elders are seeking to probe! What a young man has been taught by his beloved earthly father is, to him, as sweet as being brought to faith by the Spirit. To that young person, how does one experientially tell the difference?
Perhaps a story might help. Imagine a young serviceman and his wife has been stationed far from home. While they are away they have a child. Every night as long as the boy can remember he has heard stories about his grandmother. Around the dinner table his parents repeatedly told stories about her. At different times during the day either of his parents might repeat a well worn and well loved aphorism that she used to speak. They would tell him of her warm hugs and generosity. Naturally the little boy grew up to respect this woman he did not personally know.
And then the day of the soldier’s discharge from service arrived. It was time to return home. Upon the family’s return they moved to the grandmother’s hometown and purchased a house on the same street where her house was situated. The little boy soon discovered that all of the things he had heard where true. But more, he experienced them himself. When he would walk into her home he would be met with a hug. When he departed he would be given another. And in between he would be shown love and given the wisdom about which he had heretofore only heard. Now, when grandma's aphorisms would come to his mind, when they were most needed, he didn’t hear them spoken in the voice of his parents but in the very voice of grandma!
In some small way this describes a child’s transition from hearing about Jesus to experiencing his saving love personally. But how do elders discern this transition in a child? Well, they might ask some gentle but probing questions. For example, they could ask, “What have you found to be a helpful Bible passage?” In other words, tell us about the Spirit’s voice speaking Scripture into your life. Or they might ask, “What do you find most challenging about living the Christian life and what helps?” Or, “What are some encouraging things about being a Christian?”
Maybe what the elders are doing is similar to what the parents in our story are doing. After a year of being home and living close to grandma they ask their son, “What do you think, son? Is she how we described her?” And to this the little boy might say, “No, she is far better.” And so, the hope is that the children making a profession of faith will say of the Lord, “He is so much more loving and compassionate and dependable than I had at first imagined. He is so much more! It would take more than a lifetime to get to the bottom of him!”
Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He holds a Ph.D. (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) in systematic theology and is an adjunct professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Senior Editor for Place for Truth.