Should we evangelize children?

This tweet has received a lot of attention this week.

Should we evangelize children? Our own? Others?

The most recited words in all of history would disagree with Cindy Wang Brandt. You’ll find those words in Deuteronomy 6, in what’s known as the Shema. It begins with “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”[note]Deut 6:4[/note] Young boys would learn these words as soon as they could speak.[note]See Sukkah 42a of the Babylonian Talmud: “If he is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah and the reading of the Shema.”  “What [in this context] is meant by the Shema? The first verse.”[/note] Jews from ancient times to the present have recited this verse and those that follow twice a day, morning and evening.[note]The recited Shema includes three parts—Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41[/note] And these are the traditional final words of Jewish believers as they die. From earliest speech to final words: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD, our God, the LORD is one.”

Some of the greatest and most important implications for our faith come from this simple declaration. There is one God! Nothing that follows would make sense or have the same sense of urgency attached if there were more gods than one, or if the true God were not this particular God.

But if God is one—if this God is truly the God of all the earth—then what we’re about to consider is much more than a set of commands. It’s life according to reality. It’s life lived the only way we would choose to live it if we truly believed these words.

The charge that follows gives the most important statement about home life in Israel:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:6-9

Do you hear the urgency in these instructions? If God alone is God, pass this faith down to the next generations! Teach it at home and on the road, as you’re going to bed and as you’re waking. These words, on hands and foreheads and doorframes and gates, serve as a witness not only to the children in the household but to everyone around. Pass this faith along!

Cindy Wang Brandt wouldn’t like this. And some parenting philosophies today would reject this idea, as well. Parents talk about raising their children to “decide for themselves” when it comes to faith. Parents don’t want to force their faith on their children. And when it comes to those outside our own families, we claim even less right. Who are we to tell others how to live? And so we choose not to meddle, to “live and let live” or “think and let think.” We may have chosen to follow the God of Christianity, but that was a personal decision, one we shouldn’t expect of others.

When we say things like this, we’re acknowledging something that’s a reality, regardless of our wishes: Others will make this choice for themselves. Our children will one day choose for themselves when it comes to their faith (and all else, as well). We can’t force these decisions. Not forever, anyway.

But let’s acknowledge something else, too: we pass down many loves. We pass down to our children our love for certain sports and sports teams. We pass down political stances and important traditions. We try to impress upon our children values like integrity and respect and gratitude, and we train them with certain life skills that we think are essential. Some parents require their children to know how to change a tire or jumpstart a battery before they can get their driver’s license. Others have insisted that their children learn to do laundry and cook before they move out of the house.

And we do the same with others besides our children. Have you ever convinced someone to watch a certain show or movie, or read a certain book, because it was so good? Because you believed that it would improve their lives—or give the two of you something good to share together?

If any of this applies, you could call yourself an evangelist. You’ve attempted to convert someone, to get them to believe a certain way or do a certain thing. Why do we do this? Because we believe in the cause. We believe enough in the sports team or the political stance or the book that we want others to share in it with us. Or we believe that life skills like jumpstarting a car or cooking are important enough that our children must have them to do well in life. So long as these are honest pursuits to improve someone’s life (or even more, our world), they’re good pursuits.

And if God alone is God, wouldn’t our greatest pursuit be to impress this faith on others? Sports teams, political views, traditions, good movies and books will all pass away. But if God alone is God, nothing is more important to pass down than this faith. If we say “God is one,” that statement carries a great urgency to share it.

To be sure, this doesn’t justify any tactic. It doesn’t justify force or threats. It doesn’t justify rude or self-righteous badgering. And it doesn’t justify intolerance for those who don’t conform, whether about faith or any of the other things here. (Have you met someone who can’t have a happy friendship with a fan of the “wrong” sports team? It’s miserable and silly.)

We cannot, we must not, treat anyone with less respect or dignity because they have different beliefs than we do. But this doesn’t mean we should treat them with indifference, as if faith in God would do anything less than radically transform their lives.

Inter-religious faith gatherings are becoming more common. In some of these, people who represent different religions come to share about their faith. Tim Tennent, a world Christianity scholar and now president of Asbury Theological Seminary, writes about his experiences at these gatherings. He describes people of various faiths who come with a whole-hearted belief in their faith, even a hope to convert him. We should expect nothing less from anyone who believes that they know God, the true and only God. Look at what he says about when these go wrong:

What is heart-breaking is when I arrive at an inter-religious dialogue event and meet these full-orbed Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists all beautifully representing their faith and the millions of followers who stand in these traditions, and then the Christian stands up and blathers on endless nonsense about how we are all really the same and how all religions lead to God and we are all really saying the same thing.

from “Two Kinds of Pluralism,” posted on February 19, 2015, at http://timothytennent.com/2015/02/19/two-kinds-of-pluralism/

Can you see the difference between tolerance and respect, on the one hand, and indifference and apathy on the other? We can respect others’ beliefs and opinions, but this is far from conceding that they’re unimportant. We aren’t all really saying the same thing.

Pass these down—at home and on the road, at dawn and at dusk! Impress them on your children! If we truly believe that God alone is God, we can do nothing less.


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