A very popular age for fundagelical children to “get saved” is five to seven. It is unlikely that they would make a profession of faith without the urging of adults, so the question is, why these childrens’ parents want them to be saved? The simple answer is that they don’t want them to go to hell. They actually believe that their five, six, or seven year old will die and go to hell without a profession of faith.
The fundagelical believes in something called the age of accountability. The age of accountability exempts children before a certain age from accountability for sin, and therefore hell, on the basis that before this age, they don’t know right from wrong. The age of accountability is whenever a child becomes conscious of the difference between wrong and right.
For anyone who has raised children, children most definitely have this understanding prior to age five, often much sooner. So then you have the basis for trying to get a child saved at such an early age.
There is really no other motive that makes sense for encouraging a child to early salvation. A child between five and seven isn’t going to have “sweet communion and fellowship” with God. The mental framework for relating to an unseen deity on a real, personal level is just not there. With a five through seven year old, the concept of God is literally competing on the same level as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and imaginary friends. I’ve told fundamentalist family more than once, if your kid believes in Santa Claus, they aren’t ready for Christian conversion—because even in the case where the child believes in God and not Santa Claus, there is no qualitative difference in their minds.
Some of these fundagelical parents may claim that God works in mysterious ways, and is fully capable of manifesting Himself to anyone he chooses. There are two incisive replies to be made to this.
The first relates to the age of accountability. The lack of the knowledge of right and wrong implies an inability to receive salvation. Evangelistically speaking, you can’t get a person saved unless you get them lost first. However, the Scriptures do not condition a relationship with God on the basis of the need for salvation. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were created to have a relationship with God in their state of innocence. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that the broken relationship with God is the beginning of all sin.
Given these things, why don’t children get saved before the age of accountability? It makes no sense for God to withhold Himself from a human until the human can be judged guilty of sin, any more than it makes sense that parent begins a relationship with their child at the first disciplinary action. This objection strikes at the core of the “wretched worm” theology of most of fundagelicalism. Conversely, this means that if fundagelical parents are to be successful at the early conversion of their children, they must ingrain in them from a young age that they are wicked and lost and not worth much on their own without God. These parents MUST of necessity esteem their children as “wretched worms” in the sight of God and teach their children this.
The second relates to the decisional nature of fundagelical conversion. A true conversion is measured by mental assent to several propositions, and this assent is understood to have its genesis in Holy Spirit conviction, without which no one can truly understand their need for salvation. It can be argued that children of the ages five through seven simply do not have the appropriate mental categories to process these propositions. If salvation occurs at this age, it is more likely to be the pure result of an encounter with God rather than mental assent to certain gospel truths. Children are impressionistic and irrational, so it makes no sense for God to communicate in rational, abstract concepts such as the four spiritual laws. Rather, the child is better served through a profoundly felt experience where their whole hearted acceptance of God’s presence is sufficient for salvation until such a time as they come to a fuller knowledge of the Christian gospel.
Fundagelicals will naturally revolt at this because it is too charismatic. Reformed fundagelicals might be able to connect with the covenantal aspect of this line of thinking, but that makes it anathema to the non-reformed.
When it comes to fundagelical parents getting their kids saved at an early age, there is quite a bit of PK syndrome. A PK is a preacher’s kid or pastor’s kid, a child who is supposed to be a model of good parenting and spirituality (cue the laughing pastors here!) But PK syndrome, or needing your kids to be properly spiritually situated, is a widespread issue within the church. Being able to say that one’s child was saved early has some importance amongst fundagelicals: the parent must have done something right. Conversely, an unsaved child is a sure sign of lax parenting or God’s judgment. The PK syndrome goes far further than this, but that’s a discussion for another post!
By the pre-teen years, children have developed enough mental capacity for most of this to not be an issue. And to be fair, the full teaching of “wretched worm” theology is usually reserved for after conversion; evangelistic depictions of guilt focus on breaking commandments or being imperfect. Nonetheless, applying a fundagelical salvation focused on sin and hell to children at a young age is fraught with problems.
I was briefly involved for a time in child evangelism (neighborhood clubs, and also traditional Sunday School bus routes). Fundagelical child evangelism by definition requires one to tell children they are sinners deserving of hell should they die this very moment. That’s the bottom line, really. And I miserably participated in it for too many years. It was made worse by the fact that a lot of it was driven by the desire for numbers. It has been many years (about a decade) and I fully repent of that here and now in the most strident Biblical sense of the word.