When I became a pastor, I imagined all sorts of difficult challenges I’d face in my ministry. However, the challenges I thought I’d encountered turned out not to be as big as I expected. However, one issue I did not imagine would create such strain in me is the counseling of children, particularly in deciding the right time for baptism. Because of my own soteriological and ecclesiological convictions, this thorny issue has required me to think very carefully in how to counsel faithfully.
To help other pastors who may also struggle with how to practically counsel a young child in the faith, let me share my own personal wrestling through this issue and then give a practical guide on how to shepherd the children of your church well.
Convictions and Pressures in the Counseling of Children
First, as a Baptist, I believe firmly in regenerate church membership. That means, that membership (and thus baptism) must be reserved for those who have made a credible profession of faith. Sadly, many Baptist churches have neglected this historic distinctive. Membership rolls are largely ignored and get cluttered with people who haven’t attended in decades. Many of those unknown members were children baptized at a young age, that the church had just lost track of over the years. As a pastor, entrusted by God to shepherd a local congregation, I want to be faithful in protecting the purity and integrity of the church’s membership as best as humanly possible, and not allow an unconverted soul into the membership of the regenerate covenant community.
Second, parents and their children often believe that baptism is essential to salvation, so therefore they sense an urgency to rush baptism. Many parents rightly long for their children to become Christian. However, they often believe that getting them dunked under the baptismal waters makes that happen. So when little Jimmy begins showing the slightest interest in God, parents are quick to bring a child to a pastor and insist on baptism. Because so many Christians are confused about the nature of conversion, many Christians unknowingly hold to some sort of baptismal regeneration. The pressure upon pastors by their members to baptize young children can weigh heavy, and many pastors permit baptism before the child may be ready, caving under the pressure. Thus, children are often baptized before they are actually converted, and require re-baptism when they truly are converted later in life. Such re-baptisms cheapen the ordinance, and it begins to lose its significance in the life of the church. Or worse yet, the child never is converted and goes throughout their life with a false assurance of their faith.
Third, discerning conversion in young children can be incredibly difficult. I believe young children can come to faith in Christ. However, a key part of assessing someone’s profession of faith is looking for brokenness of sin (humiliation) and repentance. Children, who are still learning to express themselves, often have a difficult time communicating this brokenness. In addition, it’s hard to assess a child’s repentance. It’s often not till they get older that it is easier to identify a hatred of sin and a love for righteousness. Baptism is a public affirmation of a person’s profession of faith. For children, it’s not that they cannot possess faith, but that it’s difficult to affirm, because the evidence of their conversion is hard to see at their young age.
Fourth, there is a good desire within pastors to not want to quench the desire of an inquiring child. We want to heed Jesus’ words and “Let the Children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” If a child may not be ready for baptism, it’s difficult to withhold the ordinance while still encouraging them to put their faith in Christ. As pastors we must affirm that if they have put their faith in Jesus, then than have received salvation from their sins. We do not want to put any unnecessary road blocks to children making professions of faith.
Fifth, pastors long to see the spiritual fruit of the ministry, so much so that we can begin to pick fruit that isn’t yet ripe. There is nothing more joyous than a baptism. The event is a cause of celebration! However, in our selfish desire to see instantaneous results we can cause great damage to Christ’s church. Pastor’s face the pressure of rushing baptism in order to gain another notch on their pastoral belt.
Sixth, many adults who had been baptized as young children, wonder whether they were really converted at the time. I’ve talked with countless adults who wished their baptism would have been delayed. They hardly remember it and their understanding of Christ was still infantile.
Seventh, we ought to not provide assurance to someone of salvation without the evidences of salvation. It can be spiritually disastrous to baptize a young child, who later does not display the evidences of saving grace and produces no spiritual fruit. Such people look back to their childhood baptism as some sort of salvation guarantee, a permanent get out of hell free card that they hold on to until they die. This is a serious distortion of the biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.
A Practical Guide to Counseling Children
In my own heart, I’ve felt the pull of all seven of these tensions as I’ve counseled children in salvation. How can pastors put these convictions into place faithfully? Here is a practical guide I’ve developed in my own pastoral ministry. I encourage you to adopt it or modify it according to your own convictions and wisdom.
(1) Never present children for baptism to the church body without meeting with the child and their parents ahead of time.
No one can assess the conversion of that little heart in the thirty seconds between verses of Just as I am. If your church has an alter call each Sunday, affirm the child that comes. Pray with them, and then arrange a meeting with them after the service or later on in the week.
(2) Meet with the Child One on One
Upon the family’s arrival, dismiss the parents and first meet with the child one on one. Meeting with the child alone gets them away from their parents so they can speak freely and honestly, without worrying about disappointing their parents.
(3) In your questioning, assess whether they can communicate the Gospel.
This is normally a key sign of whether a child is ready for baptism or not. If a child can’t communicate the basic tenets of the Gospel, the chances are they have yet to truly believe. Ask questions like, Who is Jesus? What is sin? Are you a sinner? What did Jesus do for you? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? What does it mean to follow Jesus? With such questions, do your best not to feed them answers through your questions. In the opening part of your interview, you are assessing their basic understanding of the Gospel.
After your questioning, if the child struggles to answers these basic questions, this is a great time to do the work of evangelist. Share the Gospel simply and clearly to the child.
(4) Ask them why they want to be baptized.
You will get all sorts of answers from children when you ask them. Some will affirm that their parents have been pressuring them to be baptized. Some will state they just want to be baptized like their friends. I even had one kid tell me he wanted to go swimming at church! All these answers are unsatisfactory, and indicate that further teaching is required. Again, in the child’s answer, you are looking for brokenness over sin and a deep sense of a love for Christ.
(5) Teach them about baptism.
Usually at this point in the conversation, it provides an excellent opportunity to instruct the child on baptism. Clear up any confusion about baptism. Correct faulty understandings that baptism is required for salvation. Affirm and insist on salvation by faith alone. Teach them what baptism represents and its significance in the life of the church.
(6) Encourage the child to trust Christ.
As you close out your one on one time with the child, encourage them to trust Jesus and to make him their savior and Lord. Admonish them to follow Jesus, and affirm that if they’ve put their faith in Jesus they are forgiven of their sins.
(7) Dismiss the child and bring the parent in.
If you’ve made your decision about baptism, this is the time to let the parent know and why. If you think they are not ready for baptism, explain why you believe that’s not the case. Often during this conversation you need to teach the parent about baptism, and why you think it will be best to wait. Parents tend to be just as confused about the purpose and meaning of baptism as most children. Be prepared to carefully teach the parent about baptism at this point.
(8) Encourage the parent to disciple their child.
Encourage the parent to study the Scriptures with their child and pray with them. Give them guidance in how to look for the fruits of the spirit in their child’s life that would affirm the child’s profession of faith. Praise the parent for their desire to see their child’s conversion and pray together for that end.
(9) Bring the child back in with the parent and conclude the conversation
Bring the child back in and explain the decision made. If baptism will be delayed, explain the reasoning why to the child, all the while encouraging the child to faith and godliness. Close out with a final word of prayer.
(10) Re-evaluate the child periodically with the parents’ initiative.
Depending on the child, you may want to wait for a season and meet back up and discuss the child’s progress in the faith. When both the parent and pastor can affirm the child’s profession of faith as genuine by all human assessment, then the child can move forward in baptism and be presented to the church as a candidate for baptism. Give the parent instructions to come speak to your gain when they think the child is ready to move forward with baptism.
Ask for Wisdom
Counseling children for baptism requires a great deal of pastoral sensitivity and practical wisdom. Thankfully, James tells us that, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jam 1:5). I pray these thoughts on the baptism of children might help pastors like me, who have struggled with practically working out their convictions. If you disagree with this approach, may you use it as fodder to stimulate your own thinking on this important subject matter. However, let me give you one final word of counsel. When in doubt, it is better to show patience than haste. Despite pressures that may come upon you, protect the flock of God and love the little children well by ensuring that they are believers in Jesus before you baptize them.