“Let the little children come to Me, and don’t stop them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” – Jesus in Luke 18.16-17 (HCSB)
The Pastors’ Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms released the findings of its research just before the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore, MD. Among other things, they noted “The only consistently growing age group in baptisms is age five and under.” While I believe the report offers valuable insights that can and should be used to spur greater evangelistic effort on the part of Southern Baptists, I am somewhat troubled by the response that particular line has received.
I have read several posts online and through social media joking (albeit with a tinge of sarcasm) about this statistic. “We should apologize to the paedobaptists,” wrote one. Another wrote, “We don’t practice infant baptism, but apparently we’re great at toddler baptism.” While I would love to see an increase in baptisms throughout the various age strata represented in the report, I am concerned about demeaning the baptism of these younger children without knowing the circumstances represented.
Let me explain. I am a Southern Baptist pastor who has been in vocational ministry for nineteen years. I am a graduate of three different seminaries. I have shared the gospel throughout the Eastern United States as well as Canada and South America. I am forty-one years old, and have been a Christian for thirty-eight years. Yes, that means I came to Christ at the age of three years old. One of the earliest memories I have is of sitting on the steps of Lower Falls Baptist Church with a children’s church volunteer and praying a sinner’s prayer to receive Christ as Savior. And I am so glad no one at my Baptist Church in 1976 said I was too young to be saved.
Is my story characteristic of the average Southern Baptist? No, and I am not suggesting that my experience will be the normative one. But I also realize the following:
Matthew Henry was 11 when he trusted Christ.
Jonathan Edwards was 8 when he trusted Christ.
Polycarp was (according to church tradition) 9 when he trusted Christ.
Charles Spurgeon was 12 when he trusted Christ.
W. A. Criswell was 10.
Stephen Olford only recalled it was “as a very young child.”
And Billy Graham’s wife, the late Ruth Bell Graham, was so young she said she could not remember a time she did not love Jesus.
Spurgeon’s quote from chapter two of his book Come Ye Children is apropos: “I believe that of children is the kingdom of God, both on earth and in heaven.”
I also like this quote attributed to one of Spurgeon's sermons: “A child of five, if properly instructed, can as truly believe and be regenerated as an adult.”
So it is interesting to me that Jesus says that whoever “…does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18.17, HCSB). Oftentimes, we completely reverse Jesus’ teaching, wanting children to have more adult understandings. I have heard stories of children who have made professions of faith and then have later been unsure. People said, “They didn’t really mean that.” My observation, however, is that it is more often the adults dealing with them who didn’t know what they were doing. That’s why we as Southern Baptists should place such a value on individually counseling each child who wants to come to Christ. If we disciple them properly and they meant that profession of faith, then we can nurture and grow a budding faith before the world has a chance to tear it down. I know that from experience, and I can tell you for sure that my experience was valid.